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Three former employees of Sushi Ogawa are suing the restaurant and its proprietors for $1.3 million. According to the complaint, Can Yurdagul, Gabrielle Downing, and Jeffrey Labelle worked at the fine dining Japanese restaurant in Kalorama as servers. They allege that owners Minoru Ogawa and Yumiko Nakano Stegner paid them solely on tips from customers, instead of a base wage plus tips. The complaint also says they weren’t paid for their final pay period, and didn’t earn overtime pay when they worked more than 40 hours per week.
Complicating the lawsuit is Yurdagul’s long, complicated relationship with Ogawa. The pair worked together at Ogawa’s first restaurant, Sushi Capitolon Capitol Hill, where Yurdagul says he gradually assumed more responsibilities until he purchased the building in November. Yurdagul says he’s now the sole proprietor of Sushi Capitol and is looking to rebrand and expand.
Yurdagul also says he was once engaged to Ogawa’s daughter, Nina. “Right now we’re figuring things out,” Yurdagul says of his relationship. “We’re having philosophical and real questions about how hard relationships can be given the situation.”
In a July 2017 Washingtonianarticle announcing the Sushi Ogawa team would expand to the Mandarin Oriental hotel, Yurdagul is described as Ogawa’s “son-in-law/business partner.” Ogawa says he was never Yurdagul’s father-in-law and did not respond when asked if they were ever business partners.
While the complaint groups Yurdagul in with Labelle and Downing as servers, Ogawa has a different take on Yurdagul’s role at the restaurant. “Can was the sole manager in charge of all compensation for employees,” Ogawa writes in an email. “We put our trust in him to take care of the restaurant and treat the employees with the respect they deserve. We treated him as family, and we are deeply hurt and confused by his actions.” Ogawa says that Yurdagul was paid “well above the average restaurant salary in D.C.”
“Many of our guests wouldn’t have thought I’d be compensated by tips based on the role that I had,” Yurdagul responds. “In the beginning as a team we really tried to explain to [Ogawa] that we need to establish roles.”
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Justin Zelikovitz of DC Wage Law, explains the wonky form of wage theft described in the complaint: “Let’s say everyone in the restaurant earned a total of $1,000 in tips for the week,” he says. “The restaurant took a portion of those tips and put them on pay stubs as the minimum cash wage. That’s $3.89 an hour times however many hours they worked. That money never came out of Sushi Ogawa’s revenue. It was tips repackaged as wages. If I take $5 of your tips and pay you a $5 wage, that yields an effective wage of zero.”
(Remember, restaurants can take a tip credit and pay tipped workers a lower minimum wage than the standard minimum wage. The tipped minimum wage is set to increase from $3.89 to $4.45 on July 1 and the standard minimum wage will jump from $13.25 to $14 the same day.)
According to the complaint, LaBelle and Yurdagul worked at Sushi Ogawa from February 2016 through February 2019 and Downing worked there from January 2017 through February 2019. The $1.3 million the plaintiffs seek is a combination of unpaid regular, minimum, and overtime wages. In D.C., plaintiffs can ask for quadruple the damages in wage theft cases.
The complaint also touches on another aspect of the plaintiffs’ work at the restaurant. It alleges that, in addition to their employment as servers, the plaintiffs prepared and delivered bento boxes to businesses and embassies and delivered sushi rolls in bulk for resale.
“Part of the tipping point was [the restaurant] daily distributes bentos to Japanese companies and the embassy,” Yurdagul says. “This is the stuff they do off the books. … Imagine working for a restaurant and you think you have certain jobs and they’re like, ‘Can you help assemble bentos and deliver them?’ For almost two years we delivered wholesale sushi to the Mandarin Oriental. That’s not Sushi Ogawa-based. … I’ve been working in restaurants since age 15, this is the weirdest thing. When we said, ‘We don’t want to do this anymore,’ They said, ‘Well, it’s part of the job.’”
When asked if all three plaintiffs were compensated for their work delivering bentos, Ogawa responded only with: “Can was the manager and in charge of all tips and compensation for employees.” Ogawa also denies that the restaurant told Yurdagul et al, “Well, it’s part of your job.”
For Yurdagul, the other “tipping point” came when he realized Ogawa didn’t have ambitions to obtain a Michelin star for Sushi Ogawa. “The hope that was driving us was maybe we can squeeze him to get one Michelin star out of [Sushi] Ogawa,” he says. “If you’re associated with a place that earned it, and we knew how to get it there, we have the next 20 years of our lives in this industry. But we realized they’re not trying to earn it.”
“Not true,” Ogawa responds. “What chef would be opposed to a Michelin star?”
Despite the lawsuit, Yurdagul says he still cares for Ogawa’s “health, well being, and happiness.” He says that Ogawa’s business partner, Nakano Stegner, is the one “creating such a hostile work environment in which we didn’t feel appreciated.”
“For the last five years I considered [Ogawa] as one of my best friends,” Yurdagul says. “We were always laughing. There was not a single argument between us. I love him dearly as a person.”