Photo of March 2 Blagden Alley African Food Tasting courtesy of Yara Elmjouie

Get local news delivered straight to your phone

This story has been updated to reflect a response from Ishmael Osekre, who denies being involved with the event, as well as new comments from the owner of the restaurant, who now says he takes full responsibility for the failed event.

When Jenn arrived at last weekend’s Blagden Alley African Food Tasting, she was looking forward to trying jollof rice, pepper soup, jerk wings, and fufu. She purchased a $35 ticket through Eventbrite, which was supposed to include samples of eight dishes and a to-go container for leftovers. It didn’t. She and other attendees found hardly any food or staff inside the host restaurant located at 1230 9th St. NW.

She describes a scene where people were helping themselves behind the bar and grabbing at small batches of rice and lamb coming out of the kitchen. She was confused, wondering if she was even in the right place. Then she checked a Facebook page that had been created for the event. Fellow attendees were already calling it a scam and comparing it to the shambolic Fyre Festival.

The owner of 1230 DC, Obet Attakpah, and a manager at 1230 DC, Emmanuel Stone, both told City Paper on Friday that a man named Ishmael Osekre planned the event. Osekre previously organized events in New York City including an African Food Festival and a pizza festival that both left attendees asking for refunds. Eater reported that Eventbrite issued a statement following the pizza event saying that “all ticket buyers would receive a refund and banned Osekre from ever using the site again.” Osekre seemed to rebound with a successful jollof rice event in New York.

Osekre did not respond to City Paper’s requests for comment on Friday. After publication, Osekre wrote emails emphatically denying that he was involved in the D.C. event. “I know the guys at 1230dc, I am not an organiser of the event,” he wrote. “I have proof.” City Paper has repeatedly asked for that proof. He has not provided it.

Confronted with Osekre’s denial of his involvement in the event, City Paper again contacted Attakpah who now says that he and 1230 DC are taking full responsibility for the issues with the event. At the same time he does not deny that Osekre was involved. “It was our space,” he says. “At this point, it’s our fault. We want to make it up to our customers. We all wanted to make some money.” Questions remain about who was involved in the event and to what degree.

In his interview with City Paper Friday, Attakpah said, “All I know is [Osekre’s] very smart and he went to Harvard. Whoever is smart I like to do stuff with.” Osekre’s LinkedIn page says he graduated from Columbia University in 2009 and was a fellow at Harvard University’s Innovation Lab in 2014. It also says he founded a festival and concert business called APUTUMPU as well as Afropolitan Insights, and the African Food Festival.

Stone, on Friday, added what the days were like leading up to the event. “There was a lot of poor communication first of all,” he says. “There were way more than 100 people and we can’t even seat that. I wish we knew all this information ahead of time. We would have been able to actually curate this and make it to a point where it was a successful event.”

Complicating things, Stone says the owners were dealing with a family emergency that day, making it hard to staff the event. “So, it was pretty disastrous for me to put out,” he says. “The only thing we had to do with the event is that it was in the space. But everything else to do with the event, I was just as clueless as the customers that were there.”

Attakpah says he was at his restaurant throughout the duration of the event and says that Osekre did not attend.  He also called the event “a disaster,” saying he knows full well they can do better.

When Jenn entered the event, which was scheduled for March 2 from 3 to 6 p.m., she found a room on the first floor full of hungry, confused strangers. “We tried asking questions and we’re not getting anything,” she recounts. “We’re getting the sense that something is off.”  

Eventually she tried checking the second floor, where she encountered a man walking around with a pitcher of water. “He’s like, ‘I’m just a customer.” We get this repeatedly. There are at least three or four people who look like they work there, but they’re just customers who got up to start helping.”

Without any real supervision, the event started to devolve, according to Jenn. “People were going behind the counter and serving themselves alcohol,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh my god this is a shit show.’”  

Eventually a woman came around and handed out menus. Jenn was confused because she had pre-paid tickets for an event that she figured would have various stations of food. “She was just like, ‘Tell me what you want on the menu and we’ll figure it out.’ Then she came back 30 minutes later and said, ‘I’m going to have rice and lamb coming up soon, are those things you’re interested in?’”

At the smell of food, attendees crowded the entryway to the kitchen hoping to be the first to swipe at what was available. “Everyone who is right by the kitchen is grabbing food out of her hands,” Jenn says referring to the same woman who handed out menus. “My instinct was she doesn’t work there either.” Freaked out by the situation, Jenn left.

Cherisse, another attendee, bought the same type of ticket as Jenn—$35 for eight samples and a to-go container. (There was also a $20 option that came with five samples.) She arrived on time and recalls seeing someone putting up a “hastily drawn arrow sign” pointing people to the event. When she didn’t see any stations set up with food or drinks, she thought the event was just off to a slow start. Closer to 3:45 p.m., she started to get antsy. “How are they not set up? I’m sure something will get underway or someone will make an announcement.”

Most people were wandering around on their cellphones trying to figure out what was going on. “We don’t have anything and it’s close to 4 p.m.,” Cherisse says. “That’s when I started wondering what was going on. I go down to talk to a guy who had an apron on.” She asked if they would be able to serve people on the second floor where Cherisse had perched up. He said yes. “We were still waiting around for 20 more minutes. This is just ridiculous. Some people were grumbling. People were leaving. Then people were posting on Facebook that they thought they had been scammed.”  

Cherisse, Jenn, and other attendees who posted on the Facebook event page want a refund. Both Stone and Attakpah say they plan to offer one. “We have to refund everybody’s money to them and take the loss,” Attakpah says. “It’s part of the business.” Both men say they’re capable of putting on much better events and hope to continue to do so in the future.

Their restaurant has gone through many iterations. First it opened as 1230 Restaurant & Champagne Lounge, then the owners changed course, opting to focus on West African cuisine, calling their new venture 1230 African Fusion. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs’ records show that the owners recently changed the name of the business again to Akwaaba Lounge. Akwaaba has an Instagram page with close to 2,500 followers. It advertises events like an Afrobeats Brunch. The restaurant seems to book private events regularly. Last month it was the site of a Marie Antoinette-themed sex party, for example.

It appears a similar event is scheduled for March 16 (on Eventbrite). No word yet from Stone or Attakpah on whether it’s still a go.