Food  |  News & Politics

DC Restaurant Swahili Village Accused of Wage Theft

In a lawsuit, the DC Attorney General's Office says the Kenyan restaurant stole from hundreds of employees.

Swahili Village owner Kevin Onyona at the entrance to his fine-dining Kenyan restaurant in 2020. Photograph courtesy of Swahili Village.

A popular Kenyan fine-dining restaurant in DC allegedly stole wages from hundreds of its employees, according to a lawsuit from the DC Attorney General’s Office. Swahili Village on M Street allegedly stiffed its servers, hosts, food runners, bussers, and bartenders, paying as little as $5 an hour— including tips—and neglecting to provide legally required overtime and sick leave. 

The lawsuit contends that the restaurant’s executives, Kevin Onyona and Emad Shoeb, rampantly and systematically violated the city’s tipped minimum wage law and other worker protections. The restaurant adds a 20 percent gratuity to all checks, but the owners allegedly pocketed large quantities of tips, and compensated some employees exclusively through tips, with total wages far below minimum wage or even DC’s tipped minimum wage. Some workers allegedly were underpaid by up to $5,000.

Onyona and Shoeb allegedly stole from their working-class employees, many of whom are African immigrants, even while catering to an elite international clientele, the lawsuit says. 

“Our investigation indicates that Swahili Village DC and its executives, Kevin Onyona and Emad Shoeb, persistently and systematically failed to pay hundreds of hard-working restaurant workers the wages, tips, and benefits they were legally entitled to receive, violating the basic wage, overtime, sick leave, and record-keeping rules that all District employers are required to follow,” DC Attorney General Brian Schwalb said in a statement. 

Reached by phone, Onyona said he had not had a chance to meet with his attorney and prepare for his legal defense, and would have no comment until then. 

After receiving a tip, the attorney general’s office spoke to more than a dozen Swahili Village employees during a lengthy pre-suit investigation. The lawsuit claims that Onyona and Shoeb kept no regular payroll records, which kept their employees in the dark about how their pay was calculated and what was being deducted. Some employees allegedly clocked over 60 hours of work per week without earning overtime, which by law must be 1.5 times the regular rate. And Onyona and Shoeb allegedly never gave their employees any paid sick leave, while also reprimanding them for missing work due to illness. 

Swahili Village DC, nicknamed “The Consulate” by its owners, advertises itself as a hangout for African dignitaries and diplomats. Its Kenyan staples like goat stew, nyama choma, and whole tilapia in coconut sauce have drawn critical praise and attention from the Kenyan ambassador. Onyona, a former seminary student, opened the original Swahili Village in a tiny space in College Park in 2009 before moving into a Beltsville space several years later. He opened the M Street location in March 2020 and another location in Newark, New Jersey the following year, and the Swahili Village website advertises future locations in Manhattan and Tysons Corner. 

In September 2020, Onyona told Washingtonian that the DC location was struggling, doing 10 percent of its projected sales. The restaurant let 65 employees go at the start of the pandemic. “If this continues for another three or four months,” Onyona said at the time, “I don’t think we’ll make it.”

But even as the restaurant’s business rebounded in 2021 and it hired 30 new employees, the lawsuit claims, Onyona and Shoeb continued stealing wages. 

Since the DC attorney general’s office gained the ability to enforce wage theft penalties in 2017, it has investigated more than 75 employers, including several restaurant and hospitality businesses. Last year, the office settled with the restaurant group that operates Rasika, over complaints that the upscale Indian restaurant was charging workers to use a tip distribution app. In 2020, pizza chain Matchbox agreed to pay out nearly $150,000 in unpaid wages, after the AG investigated allegations of wage theft from over 100 workers from 2016 through 2018. The office encourages workers to report labor violations by calling (202) 442-9828 or emailing or

Ike Allen
Assistant Editor