Swanky DC Wharf Restaurant Del Mar Was Forced to Shut Down After a Staff Walkout

Nine employees have since resigned citing incidents of racial bias, mistreatment, and a new tipping structure.

Del Mar. Photograph by Scott Suchman

Del Mar, one of Washington’s buzziest restaurants, closed to the public over the weekend after a group of servers and bartenders walked out to protest a myriad of allegations including toxic management, incidents of racial bias and insensitivity, and complaints over the tipping structure. The glitzy Spanish restaurant at the Wharf from Michelin-starred chef Fabio Trabocchi (Fiola Mare, Fiola, Sfoglina) hung a sign on its door telling would-be patrons that the dining room was closed “due to staffing shortages.” Since then, nine front-of-house employees have resigned. The restaurant, which is normally closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, reopens today.

On Friday of last week, a group of employees sent a letter to Trabocchi that outlined their grievances and intent—all under the anonymous signature “servers and bartenders.” 

“To protest repeated examples of bad practices and bad faith on the part of corporate management at Del Mar, we the undersigned are informing you we will not be working our Friday, Saturday, or Sunday shifts this weekend.

We did not arrive at this decision lightly. We have made numerous and consistent attempts to make our voices heard through existing channels following the chain of command—all to no avail. We are requesting an in-person meeting before Del Mar decides how to effectively reopen its doors to discuss these issues and develop a plan to address them together.” 

Jessica Botta, director of training and culinary development for Fabio Trabocchi Restaurants (FTR), says management immediately decided to close the dining room after the email was received. The waterfront restaurant remained shuttered, Friday through Sunday, during an especially busy weekend in Washington, given the warm weather and Friday’s removal of Covid restrictions on restaurants. Several private events carried on as planned—staffed “by the majority of the front of house employees and entire kitchen team”—according to Botta.

“We are committed to providing the best experience to our customers and our employees,” says Botta in a statement to Washingtonian. “Upon receiving the email, we made the difficult decision to temporarily suspend a la carte operations in order to maintain and protect that commitment.” Botta says the employees on strike were offered an in-person meeting “so we could hear their concerns and work together on a solution.” The employees declined. 

Washingtonian spoke with five former Del Mar employees. Several say they declined the in-person meeting because Trabocchi wouldn’t be present—the chef, who operates eight restaurants between DC, Florida, and Venice, Italy, was at Fiola’s Miami location and the South Beach Food and Wine Festival over the weekend. The meeting was to be held with FTR chief operating officer David Murphy at the office of Trabocchi’s lawyer and business partner, Chipp Sandground.

“There was nothing but intimidation behind it,” says Naderia Wynn, a Del Mar server who resigned shortly before the walk-out. 

The employees’ letter highlights several points of contention, including how alleged incidents of racial bias and insensitivity were handled at Del Mar. Employees ask that Trabocchi “hire an outside diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant such as Cook|Ross to conduct an independent evaluation and provide professional development.” In the letter, employees specifically name Trabocchi’s Director of Restaurants, Stefania Sorrenti, as a “toxic manager” and call for her termination. The letter alleges that Sorrenti, a native Italian who’s worked with FTR for nearly three years between Fiola Miami and restaurants in DC, “has had a toxic impact on the daily operation and guest experience of Del Mar through her profound ineptitude in every aspect of operational management and her insensitivity.”

Wynn, who started at Del Mar in September after leaving the St. Regis DC, alleges she was targeted by Sorrenti because she is Black. During her tenure, Wynn alleges Sorrenti singled her out and “started nitpicking everything about me,” such as making comments about how her hair tie and nail color didn’t conform with uniform standards when other servers donning similar colors weren’t reprimanded. Wynn and others allege that Sorrenti didn’t adhere to DC’s 25 percent Covid capacity limits in the dining room, and in the letter, employees complained that management was “veering between two extremes,” either packing dining areas so that they felt “grossly unsafe,” or limiting seating to the extent that it felt “irrationally restrictive.” When Wynn complained to Sorrenti, she alleges Sorrenti flooded her section to the point that Wynn “was overwhelmed and couldn’t do my job.” 

“She went around to everyone on the floor and told everyone I had a bad attitude,” alleges Wynn. “Everyone knew about it within 45 minutes. And I kept getting warnings, ‘You shouldn’t have done that.’”

Wynn says she complained to Del Mar’s HR manager when she was repeatedly taken off the schedule, a move that she saw as retaliatory for speaking up. Wynn says HR advised the two not to have contact during an internal investigation—a separation that Wynn alleges Sorrenti tried to violate by returning to the restaurant and asking to speak with her. Sorrenti then sent Wynn a letter in April, which Wynn shared with Washingtonian. In the note, Sorrenti apologizes for her actions: 

“I am sorry for the harm I caused, and I appreciate you making me aware of the negative impact I had on you and employees at Del Mar. You spoke up about safety concerns, being singled out for uniform issues, and disrespectful rumors regarding my perception of your attitude. My lack of discretion was inappropriate. I am sorry you felt targeted and that I was looking for you to make a mistake in your guest service. While that was not my intention, I totally understand while you felt this way and promise not to repeat this behavior.” Sorrenti also promises to “immediately enroll in courses on diversity and inclusion, microaggressions, and how I can reduce my own bias at work.”

Other employees say Sorrenti’s inappropriate comments and bullying behavior have been a longstanding problem at the company.

“[Sorrenti] was promoted when she should have been marginalized at best,” says one former staff member who wishes to remain anonymous. “[Wynn] was signaled out and chastised for having a bad attitude. [Wynn] has been in the industry a long time. She isn’t bitter—she’s optimistic and incredibly polished. So I found it remarkable that she was being signaled out.”

Trabocchi and Botta declined to answer specific questions about Sorrenti’s status and whether she completed diversity and inclusion programs. Requests for comment to Sorrenti have gone unanswered. Botta sent the following statement: 

“A principle for our company is the fair and equitable treatment of each member of the team, and we will not tolerate anything less. We have the greatest respect for every person who works with the company and are prepared to sit down at any time to seek greater understanding of any differences that are raised to find successful resolutions.”

In the anonymous letter, employees also expressed dissatisfaction with changes to Del Mar’s tipping structure during the pandemic. Previously, front of house staff at the restaurant kept their individual tips—sums they say might reach $500 on a busy night at the spendy restaurant, which offers caviar service, seafood towers, and $68 individual pans of paella. But when Covid hit, and Del Mar briefly closed in March for nearly three months while employees were furloughed, FTR  switched to what’s known as a “pooled house” system. Front of house employees now make $5 an hour plus an equal share of tips based on the hours worked. Employees say they felt the impact of reduced pandemic capacity and new tipping system sharply—especially given the rigorous fine dining environment that some say could be toxic. 

“The only reason people work there—the income is the compensation for the bullshit,” says Driss Douah, a server who resigned last week. Douah, who started shortly after Del Mar opened in 2018, says: “It was an intense environment to be in. I built an immunity to it. I used to walk into work stressed out, not knowing if I’d get fired. That’s the kind of place Del Mar was.”

Douah says Del Mar was “a great place to work” before the pandemic, but in Covid, he says things changed. During a small private party in September 2020, Douah alleges he was sexually assaulted by a guest—and he says management did nothing to help track down his assaulter, even after Douah called the police the next day. Trabocchi and FTR representatives did not respond to a deadlined request for comment about the incident.

In an email to Trabocchi the night of the alleged assault, Douah recounted the experience to his boss (parts of the email have been edited for spelling and clarity).

“Tonight there was a party at formentor [the name of a private room] and one of the guests that was at the party assaulted me as they were walking out. I noticed two tall males from the party not wearing masks and I kindly asked them to please put on masks before going downstairs,” says Douah. He alleges that one of the men grabbed his right arm and started thrusting his pelvis at him from behind in a humping motion. “At this point I was shocked and I didn’t know what was going on,” says Douah. “I tried to stop him as he kept holding my arm. His friends started laughing and said, ‘He doesn’t know if you’re a bull or a cow.’ This is something that made me feel extremely uncomfortable and I can believe this can happen at our work place.” 

Trabocchi responded: “TRULY sorry you had to go through this. We will start an investigation immediately.” But Douah, who called the police himself to report the incident after management allegedly refused that night, says the investigation was thwarted because management wouldn’t contact the host of the party or share their contact information with police. An MPD report shows that the investigation remains open. 

“It was a total lack of support,” says Douah. He’s worked in hospitality since he was a teenager, but says he’s now considering leaving the industry. “Honestly, I’m stressed out. I’m traumatized. I think anywhere is going to be better.”

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.