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New York's acclaimed Sushi Nakazawa is accused of wage theft ahead of its D.C. debut in Trump hotel

December 7, 2017 - 05:02 pm

Sushi Nakazawa, the New York restaurant that famously employs chef Daisuke Nakazawa, was hit with a class-action wage lawsuit Wednesday for allegedly not paying the minimum wage and misappropriating tips.

It's the capstone in a year of bad publicity for owner Alessandro Borgognone, who found himself doing damage control last December after announcing that he would open a second Nakazawa in Washington, D.C.'s Trump hotel and insulting D.C.'s food scene as a "meat and potatoes" town. In February, Esquire wondered if Borgognone was "The most hated restaurateur in America."

And now he's named individually in the suit along with Nakazawa - who appeared in the documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." They are accused of improperly distributing tips earned by plaintiffs Treva Willis and Melissa Avis, and other employees. The suit, first reported by Grub Street, also calls out the restaurant for allegedly failing to pay the legally required minimum wage and overtime, and reportedly failing to provide required wage notices.

Borgognone, the suit alleges, announced he "had been to [sic] generous with staff financially, and he stated that he was setting new rules for how the restaurant would be closed and how employees would cash out each night." He restructured the company's tip pool - an agreement where servers share their tips with other customer-facing employees, like bussers - to include employees in management and the back of house, including a glassware polisher. These employees are all ineligible for tips. A publicist for the restaurant declined to comment on the suit.

Because the lawsuit alleges that the violations arose from a tip pool, it dovetails with a current controversy in the restaurant industry. The U.S. Department of Labor has just proposed new regulations that would expand the number of employees who would be eligible for a tip pool, and would allow tips to be fully controlled by management. Critics of the regulations say they amount to wage theft from service employees and would permit managers to include themselves in the tip pool, giving servers a smaller cut. (A small number of restaurants eschew tipping entirely, and add a service charge to checks to pay employees equally - which is also controversial.)

"The proposed rule does nothing more than authorize wage theft on the part of the employer," Molly Elkin, a partner at the Washington law firm Woodley & McGillivary, told The Post. "The employer can simply pocket the tips, and Trump's [Labor Department] will not care."

Meanwhile, Borgognone is working toward a winter 2018 opening of his restaurant in the Trump hotel, where a 20-course omakase menu will be the specialty. The move to open a restaurant in the president's hotel has not been a popular one, leading Anthony Bourdain to speak out against the restaurant and its owner: "I will never eat in his restaurant," he told Eater last year. "I have utter contempt for him, utter and complete contempt."

Borgognone says that politics have nothing to do with the restaurant's location. "To me it's not the Trump building, it's the Old Post Office," he told The Washington Post last year. "I'm not saying that I voted for the guy, but believing in democracy, I hope he serves a good four years."

And while Bourdain may never forgive him, Borgognone is hoping Washingtonians will have gotten over their gripe with him by the restaurant's opening, after his remarks on the city's restaurant scene to Grub Street last year: "With D.C., I had reached a point where I saw so much bad that I was actually looking for the good. I couldn't find it." He apologized.

"I truly feel bad," he said. "I'll make sure never to bring up meat and potatoes, that's for sure."