[Author’s Note: About 4 hours after this story was published, Johann Moonsinghe reached out to Barred in DC via email to state that the timeline/story in my article had “a lot of inaccurate information” and asked to speak on the telephone. A conversation ensued (minor edit noted in 1st paragraph). He stated he would send me an email addressing claims that he could, but instead at 6:30p, a press release was issued, which is added at the end of this.
A few hours later, Moonsinghe provided me another statement; this is also added verbatim t to the end. Almost immediately after that, several former Emilie’s staff members wrote to me to tell that the statement was false and provided additional information, which is also added to the end.]
Earlier this week, all hell broke loose on a segment of DC food social media. Local artist Martin Swift shared an Instagram post which described how a mural of George Floyd he had loaned to [revised] Chef Kevin Tien of Emilie’s, a Capitol Hill restaurant, and had been kept by Emilie’s
for 6 weeks beyond when he asked for it back [Note: Moonsinghe says that Swift agreed to leave the mural up 30 days after Tien left, so according to him, 6 weeks is inaccurate] because his friend, Chef/co-owner Kevin Tien, was no longer around with the project. The post includes very serious accusations about two investors/owners of Emilie’s, Sam Shoja (also a local franchisee of Jinya Ramen and owner of Sheesh Grill) and Johann Moonsinghe (CEO of inKind, a restaurant financing entity), and the comments to the post also echo complaints that former Black staff members levied at ownership creating a hostile environment.
So it might be helpful to sort everything in a timeline, in the only way I can write these articles, in bullet form.
- Sept 13, 2018: Barred in DC breaks news about “Emilie” coming to Capitol Hill from Chef Kevin Tien.
- November 16, 2018: Tien mentions that the name Emilie’s comes from a common name in family of a close family friend (In addition, close to his fiance’s name as well). Article states that although Emilie’s is a partnership with Shoja, “Tien has complete autonomy over the project,” with Tien saying Shoja “puts all the systems in place and gives me the freedom.“
- October 10, 2019: Emilie’s opens.
- March 16, 2020: Emilie’s starts first day of take-out (limited delivery starts later) only due to coronavirus.
- Late March 2020: The April 2020 issue of Washingtonian magazine is released. Magazine was prepared and published pre-pandemic, and includes an article by Jessica Sidman, entitled “Meet the Millennial Investors Funding DC’s Dining Future.” Article mentions Emilie’s, Tien, Shoja, Moonsinghe, as well as another investor/consulting partner, Arris Noble. Unlike most Washingtonian articles, which are published online within a month or so, because of real concerns of tone-deafness, the article isn’t published online (with an addendum) until July 23, 2020.
- April 26, 2020:
- Tien tells me “Honestly I won’t reopen the dining room until there is a vaccine. Our business was already breaking even with 100% capacity and we are barely breaking even with take out and a reduced staff. And that’s the truth for a majority of businesses. I’m lucky to be breaking even.”
- Tien follows up with Sidman during same time frame that he worried about putting his staff at risk and having to make service compromises if he were to open at limited capacity.
- May 18-21, 2020: Emilie’s closes temporarily because staff member had contact with some who tested positive. People appreciate the transparency.
- May 23, 2020:
- Tien and members of the morning staff are locked out of Emilie’s with armed security staff guarding the building. All reports indicate that the locks were changed and the security staff hired on orders of Shoja. In a video posted on IG stories you can hear Tien explaining to security staff and MPD that he is one of the owners and his name is actually on the lease.
- One of the security staff explains that they are trespassing. Tien tells MPD that “Sam [Shoja] is one of the investors in the building. The reason he locked us out is because I called him out on stealing from us [and] a non-profit and I had issues with him calling all my workers that are people of color ‘thieves’ and ‘gangsters.“
- Appears that everyone kept working after this, but this may have been the final straw.
- Date is based on Swift’s IG post.
- June 1, 2020: Emilie’s posts on IG expressing support for Black Lives Matter, which includes photos of signs of support on the exterior of the restaurant.
- (possibly) June 1-3, 2020: I can’t find it anywhere publically, but per Eater/Gabe Hiatt, “Former employees criticized an Instagram post from the restaurant that promoted Black Lives Matter by saying the restaurant had created a hostile environment for its diverse staff.” This may have occurred in the comment section of the IG post and/or an open letter.
- June 3, 2020: Tien announces $12,000 in personal donations to 3 anti-racism related causes, and offers to throw event if anyone matches.
Jessica Sidman Anna Spiegel writes article next day about it.
- June 22, 2020: Emilie’s announces on IG that they will be opening for dine-in the following week after all.
- June 24, 2020: Jessica Sidman breaks the news that Tien is leaving Emilie’s. Gabe Hiatt of Eater follows up with more information. Only 2 employees carry over to new team (management team was laid off on June 21st). Hamilton Johnson brought on as chef. Shoja will continue to operate Emilie’s, with no longer his 40% stake in TIen’s Hot Lola’s. Tien says he’ll take a breather and experiment with new dishes at Hot Lola’s. My understanding is that as part of separation is that he signed a NDA and has some sort of non-compete (this may last a year at least) to either not cook or not open another restaurant .
- Tien: “I think at the end of the day [Shoja] was looking for more of a culinary director for like a restaurant group. That’s not really a role I wanted to get in. I’ve always had my own very independent business. …Honestly I felt like I was having a hard time figuring out who I was as a cook and how I wanted to cook. So I’m just taking the time to reflect on the kind of food I want to do going forward….For me it’s hard as an Asian American, because sometimes I don’t feel Asian enough, and sometimes I don’t feel American enough, so I feel a little bit lost in translation.”
- Shoja: “The story is long, but I just stick with the official line… We basically had a mutual agreement to go our separate ways … We want to go toward a different type of restaurant…a different direction, different food, different management style and systems… We want to promote and bring in a lot of specifically African-American chefs, sous chefs, and people who basically want to grow with us in the industry so they can work under chef Hamilton and then possibly, as they grow, we may become partners.“
- July 23, 2020: The Sidman story regarding restaurant investors (including Emilie’s) is posted online and gets plenty of reaction, including negative ones from former Emilie’s staff (see below).
- July 27, 2020: Swift posts on IG. I addition, to essentially claiming that his mural was held hostage by Emilie’s ownership for 6 weeks, he stated:
- July 28, 2020: Several former Emilie’s staff members react to Swift’s post:
- Erica Christian, a sommelier who worked at Emilie’s previously (see great Washingtonian interview) posts that “I am a former employee of Emilie’s and spoke out intensely publicly and privately. The owners were incredibly racist and refused to realize it. Even Kevin let this treatment occur, but in his efforts to mend, that were honestly still quite toxic, they pushed him out. They reached out me through my DMs in this very platform to offer me an option to return to this toxic place of work. According to the owners/investors, the racist management and ownership had changed. They refuse to acknowledge that they took part in that harm. They were wildly rude and demanding. Privilege isn’t even the word to describe how unaware they made themselves or how they took advantage of labor. Thank you for speaking out. Sam Ashoka and Johann Moonsinghe should not be supported. They harmed so many Black women who worked at Emilie’s and the entire staff. This needs to be brought to light.”
- Another former staff member posted the now deleted IG story), that “Johann is not the ally that he claims to be. Johann along Sam Shoja, current owner-operator of Emilie’s made our lives hell. Sam called our Black and Brown staff ‘gangster’ and ‘thugs’ because he was unhappy with outfit choices and what he deemed to be ‘not suited for fine dining.’”
- Willa Lou Pelini, formerly a pastry chef with Emilie’s, and a co-founder of Bakers Against Racism (with Paola Vez, Rob Rubba), posts IG stories echoing what has been said about hostile environment, including Johann “berating” a sommelier for featuring women winemakers (“No one cares about that,” he is alleged to have said.) and that Shoja and other investors showed “disrespect, entitlement, bullying, and total lack of compassion.”
- Finally, on July 28th, Emilie’s responds in the comment section of Swift’s IG post to state “After several attempts to reach [Swift] we can confirm that that he removed his art yesterday. Our team has exciting collaborations coming – with local Black artists, farmers, and vendors, that we are thrilled to share with you all soon.“
- On July 29th, following publication of this story, Emilie’s sent me a press release, set forth below.
Statement on Former Staff Accusations
Washington, DC (July 29, 2020)—This week, public accusations have been directed at Emilie’s ownership and former staff. Since the reports were published, the restaurant’s leadership has been disseminating each claim to provide accurate information and clarity to those involved, our current staff, and the community.
Emilie’s is currently owned and operated by Sam Shoja and Johann Moonesinghe. When Emilie’s opened, then chef and co-owner Kevin Tien was the operating partner of the restaurant. Chef Tien chose to leave Emilie’s in June 2020.
As owners, we acknowledge that we should have played an active role in establishing an environment that provided and promoted open dialogue and safeguarded employees and partners from unfair treatment. We acknowledge the culture of mistrust and disrespect that happened since the restaurant opened and acknowledge as investors, we are ultimately responsible for things that happen within our business. We recognize that if we want better, we must do better.
We are now learning from former employees about specific instances of mistreatment and are working in real time to speak to those individuals. We hope that an open dialogue will help inform how, as owners of Emilie’s, we can better engage with staff and the communities we serve. After continuing these conversations, we expect to be able to address specific claims. Moving forward, we are making it an essential part of any investment to ensure that this type of environment doesn’t exist here, or any other business we support.
Since June, we have dedicated time and space to focus on actionable steps that we, as the current restaurant team, can take to facilitate the kind of professional and inclusive environment that the staff and guests deserve. To that end, we:
- Are soliciting a third-party vendor to provide a hotline system that both employees and guests can use if they face problems in the restaurant;
- Are working with artists of color to amplify their voices;
- Are reinforcing diversity and inclusion in our hiring process, and;
- Will begin offering implicit bias training starting in August.
Emilie’s has been mission-driven by trying to combat social justice issues through food – implementing programs that include:
- A mentorship program for refugees in our area;
- A kitchen training program focused on supporting minorities, to further develop an inclusive pool of talent;
- Multiple farm and vendor partnerships focused on supporting local underserved businesses, and;
- A diversity in wine program series, which launches in August.
- The artist Swift also posted in the comment section below.
- Hey, this is the artist Martin Swift. Thanks for writing this all out. I just want to clarify a few things. First of all, the mural was loaned to Kevin personally. At the time of installation Kevin had not decided to depart the restaurant and as owner/ operator he elected to put it up. I would not have painted it had he known he was going to have to leave the business. Secondly, I never agreed to a three week time period. I had only one phone call with Johann directly (on June17th) and one email thread with them last week. On the 17th I reluctantly agreed to give them 10 days to resolve this situation due to the demands that they issued which are mentioned in my statement. Any intervening contact I had with them was through third party legal counsel which Kevin and I both agreed was for the best. When I heard about the three week window I told Kevin that it was unacceptable. My hands were again tied by the demands I mention in my statement. You allude to the fact that Kevin is legally bound from speaking about this or defending himself. Keep that in mind when you read any of their statements. I know for a fact that these individuals tried to get all of the departing staff to sign NDAs. People who don’t have anything to hide don’t make others sign NDAs.
I stand by my statement.
- A few hours after the press release was sent out (and posted on social media), Moonsinghe sent me this statement that goes into his view of the business relationship and explains his view of the events leading to Tien’s departure (again, none of these facts are confirmed):
First, just to be clear my investment in Emilie’s was a loan and was not technically a partner. Sam Shoja was supposed to be the operational partner and Chef Kevin Tien the culinary partner. However, as soon as the restaurant opened, Kevin unilaterally decided to take over operations. Sam was a bit concerned by this but decided to let Kevin run with it at first. Kevin remained the operational owner of the restaurant from opening until the end of June, at which point Sam took over. Also, I personally never had any interest in being involved in, much less taking over the day-to-day operations of the restaurant. First, I don’t live in DC and travel frequently and second it rarely serves the restaurant to have someone without an intimate understanding of the day-to-day be in charge of operations.
However, I did believe in Emlies, and continued to show my support by lending additional money to Emilie’s in December and January, so the restaurant could pay its bills and employees. Additionally, in the interest of keeping Emilie’s financially healthy out of the gate I, personally, never once collected any loan payments from Emilies. I figured I would wait until they were healthy and then worry about it then.
Things started to really go downhill when on May 5, Kevin removed Sam’s access to the point of sale system and switched the bank accounts of the restaurant to another bank without notifying Sam. This obviously worried Sam as Sam had invested a significant amount of his personal money and he now had no idea where it was going. As a result, Sam invoked a clause in Emilie’s Operating Agreement, which allowed him to remove Kevin as the operational partner in the restaurant while STILL maintaining ALL of his ownership.
Kevin and Sam continued to argue and the situation deteriorated. At this point I got involved as a mediator since Kevin and Sam saw me as more of a neutral party, to figure out a solution to which all of the stakeholders (Sam, Kevin, inKind, myself, and the Landlord) could agree.
After many back and forths, we were able to settle on a few options to resolve the matter. It was agreed upon by Sam and Kevin that either
1) Kevin could keep Emilie’s and give Hot Lola’s (also part of the group) to Sam, or
2) Kevin could keep Hot Lola’s and give Emilie’s to Sam.
This would allow each partner to keep an establishment without having to work together. At this point Kevin made the decision to give Emlie’s to Sam and keep Hot Lolas because Emilie’s was not doing well due to Covid. With that decided, Sam paid Kevin out for the capital that he contributed to the restaurant and Sam gave his ownership of Hot Lola’s to Kevin. Kevin was cooperative during the transition, helping Chef Hamilton Johnson (his replacement) to get to know the kitchen and menu before leaving.
With reference to the mural, Martin, who did not work at Emilie’s, called me the day before the transition and asked that either the mural he painted be taken down, or that he get paid $6,000 to keep it up. Sam told him that he would appreciate it if he would wait 30 days in order to avoid the mistaken impression that he doesn’t support Black Lives Matter because, as a refugee from Afghanistan, he wholeheartedly supports the movement. Martin agreed and contacted me on day 30 as I was the one who helped negotiate the settlement. I immediately included the GM of Emilie’s on the email and she worked with Martin on the logistics of taking down the mural. The GM ended up taking down the mural for Martin because he had trouble working out how his insurance would cover him at Emilie’s.
It was not until after this seemingly reasonable exchange that Martin decided to start misrepresenting the situation and accusing us of working against social justice. As a brown, gay man and a first-generation American, I could not be more aligned with the need/fight for racial and social justice in the United States.
- Following the publication of this statement, I received multiple messages from former Emilie’s staffers who, to say the least, uh, disagreed with Moonsinghe’s statement.
- Here’s one, from a former staffer (they say monetary figures are ballpark, not exact):
- The reason Kevin took bank access away from Sam was that Sam took $15k out of the bank account in March right before the shutdown unannounced. This put us in financial trouble as is. Then in the middle of April, inkind (Johann’s company) decided they would start collecting on their loan again in the middle of a global pandemic. Kevin asked them to hold off so we could build our grocery program until the beginning of May. They agreed. Sam also only wanted to give the landlord half rent, but Kevin told him that we should pay the full rent so we don’t owe money down the road. Kevin went and paid the full rent. Johann caught wind of this and decided it would be appropriate to send Kevin a demand letter insisting he pay the full balance back to inkind by that Monday. Sam saw the demand letter and freaked out. He decided to pay inkind around $39,000 and pay our quarterly sales tax which was $92,000. He decided to do this on the same day that we processed payroll, so Sam actively put a stop payment on payroll to pay inkind. So all of our employees were paid late. At this point, Kevin was advised to take away their bank access because they were acting in a direct detrimental way towards the longevity of the business. While Kevin was rerouting the POS sales into the new account, that account number was accidentally shared with Sam’s nephew, who then gave it to inkind. Inkind then attempted to pull $15,000 more out of the new account that Sam had no permissions on. Luckily Kevin caught it and flagged it as fraudulent… But also know that Kevin was never paid back his initial investment and is in massive debt because of Sam and Johann. They are liars and unethical business owners. Everything in his statement is a bold faced lie…
- also they never had an operating agreement signed for Emilie’s LLC. So that’s another lie. What a complete shitshow this place is/was.
- [ADDED MORE 7/30]:
- Kevin and Sam had a different LLC called KS Holdings registered in Virginia that was meant to be a “consulting group”. They did have an operating agreement signed for that, however it was never valid for Emilie’s LLC. Sam would refer to that operating agreement whenever he wanted to try to strip control from Kevin. Sam also was never an owner of Hot Lola’s. Kevin has an operating agreement signed there naming him as the only member of the LLC.
Sam was supposed to put in $320k in hot lolas and only put in $116k. Kevin had to pay him back $120k at the 9 month mark because Sam was desperate for cash. They forced him to take out an InKind loan to give money to Sam. And now Kevin has this huge debt to InKind. They had a verbal agreement for equity but never signed any documentation. However once Kevin paid Sam back his initial investment back in January, he had no stake in the company anymore. Since he essentially just gave him a loan, which Kevin paid him back. But in Sam’s mind he was still a 40% shareholder.”
- Another former staff member said
- “the statement …. Johann sent you is 100% untrue. There is an NDA in place and Kevin is not allowed to comment on anything that is being said…Johann and Sam are continuing to sit safe at home and count their money while people are risking their lives working hard and long hours for shitty pay…my intent in this is not to undermine any good work they are doing but to make sure that no one was put in the same situation we were. Honestly one of the most tumultuous, stressful and heartbreaking times in my life.”
- This staff member also explained their view of what occurred when Tien and staff was locked out, “We arrived for work that morning (7am after leaving work the night before at around 11pm) to find the door locked, armed guards posted out front and a sign saying the restaurant was closed…Sam waited until we left the restaurant the night before, came in and changed all the locks, took over $500 worth of raw proteins and packaged foods from the premises and sent an email to Kevin saying he would only grant us access to the building if Kevin gave him access to the bank account….Kevin [had] changed the bank account because of the unauthorized and abusive withdrawals that Sam made from the previous Emilie’s account.”
- They further said “Side note: Sam withdrew the Emilie’s PPP application WITHOUT telling Kevin because Sam found out it had to be used for labor and he couldn’t take any of the money himself. Kevin found this out from the bank, not Sam himself. This money could have made a huge difference in the lives of our employees who worked extremely hard during the shut down under intense stress.”
- Another former staff member actually annotated Moonsinghe’s statement:
- They explained that “it is filled to the brim with lies…At this point from what I can tell, Johann is banking on the fact that Kevin is bound by an NDA and cannot speak out against him and all the pertinent documents are also legally bound. So now he’s writing his own fantasy version of events.“
- “Kevin was always the operational manager.”
- “Johann constantly made demands on how he wanted things to be done. He rushed us into to opening the back room. He rushed us into opening 7 days a week (2 more days than we were ready for). He did not care about overburdening staff or about our hiring limitations.)”
- “InKind regularly collected money and Johann sent a letter demanding the rest of his investment in full IN THE MIDDLE OF A PANDEMIC.”
- “Kevin [removed Sam’s access to POS system and switched bank accounts] to stop Sam from continuing to steal tens of thousands of dollars from our bank account.”
- “There was never an operating agreement and therefore there was no clause allowing Sam [to allow him to remove Kevin as an operational partner].”
- “Johann was never a neutral party.”
- “Kevin was bullied into [the two options.] He was given a choice between two of his restaurants, but he had no other options.”
- “Martin … was told Kevin would be charged $10k if the mural was removed. He was then told they would call the police on him if he removed it.“