Chef and restaurateur Fabio Trabocchi in 2013
Chef and restaurateur Fabio Trabocchi in 2013 Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

A group of servers and bartenders at Del Mar at The Wharf didn’t show up for their weekend shifts after penning a letter to restaurateur Fabio Trabocchi outlining changes they’d like to see at the restaurant. Eight staff members quit after the letter was sent. Another quit just before it went out. City Paper obtained a copy of the letter sent just after midnight on Friday, May 21, from multiple sources. The aim, according to its signatories, was “to protest repeated examples of bad practices and bad faith on the part of corporate management at Del Mar.” 

The employees involved vowed not to work Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, disrupting business operations on what promised to be one of the busiest weekends of the year as the city lifted capacity limits and other restrictions. 

“We got fed up with the restaurant management, owner, and the fact that they don’t care to try to change anything for us and help us survive in this pandemic really,” says Driss Douah, a former server who was among those who sent the letter and subsequently quit.  “They literally cared about themselves and their own pockets.” 

Douah and two other former employees say eight people were involved and their collective action caused the restaurant to be closed for a la carte dining all three days. They believe private events carried on as planned. Del Mar is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. It’s unclear if the restaurant will return to business as usual Wednesday night. A host answering the reservations line said the restaurant is fully committed for the remainder of the week. 

“I miss the old Del Mar,” Douah says. He used to love working at the Spanish fine dining restaurant overlooking the water. He liked the atmosphere and having a tight bond with colleagues. “I miss the old management of Del Mar. We were all a family before. We’d hang out after work. That’s what helped us make this decision as well.” 

Douah’s biggest complaint is outlined in the letter. The signatories, who are all front-of-house workers who earn the lion’s share of their money through tips, urged Del Mar leadership to eliminate the pooled tip structure that the restaurant adopted during the pandemic. They say it was billed by Trabocchi as a temporary measure. “Now it is time to restore the FOH pay structure to its previous model,” the letter reads. 

When a restaurant has a tip pool, the gratuity diners leave for their server or bartender doesn’t go directly to them. Instead it goes into a big pot that’s divided up among FOH employees who worked the same shift. Sometimes there’s a point or percentage system where some employees earn more than others based on the responsibilities and positions. 

Douah provides an example. “The last brunch I worked there, I made $600 in tips,” he says. “I had nice VIP tables that were spending money.” But when it came time to collect, he says he only took home $160. 

According to Douah, Trabocchi has expressed that tip pooling “makes the team work better and leads to better customer satisfaction.” Trabocchi did not respond to City Paper’s questions about why he likes the tip pooling system or if he’d reconsider using it. “We have never had any issue working together, even prior to tip pooling,” Douah says. “Our team was solid. We had great communication. We were always there for each other.” 

A former manager who worked at Del Mar during the pandemic says they left because of the working conditions. They asked to remain anonymous—we’ll call them Jamie. They say there wasn’t a lot of transparency about the switch to pooled tips when employees were rehired in June 2020 to prepare for reopening in July. “I knew that if [employees are] unhappy they’re going to leave. If they leave, we don’t have people. We need to figure this out. When a problem arises, we should deal with it immediately.” 

Jamie and others say there was a meeting held about tip pooling. “At the end of the day, they were told it would change in the future once we started increasing the capacity that we were able to fit at the restaurant,” Jamie says. “Even though capacity was increasing, no changes were being made.” 

While Jamie hasn’t worked at Del Mar for months, they say they heard about the letter sent by some of their former colleagues. “I was proud of them for stepping up to issues that are major for them and they’re being completely disregarded,” they say.

The letter also alleges Del Mar mismanaged how many people they let into the restaurant to dine, “veering between two extremes—grossly unsafe or irrationally restrictive.” A former employee who resigned before the letter was sent, but was involved in the writing process, says Trabocchi’s director of restaurants, Stefania Sorrenti, was “overstuffing” the restaurant before it was safe to. “We had to stop her,” says the former employee we’ll call Brady

Douah backs up Brady when it comes to Del Mar seating too many customers too soon. “Stefania came in and started making new tables, making sections bigger, seating more people,” he says. “Some were OK with it and some weren’t. Some were there for the money, some wanted to be safe. There were people on both sides of the issue. We were not following the rules.” 

When it came to operating during the pandemic, Jamie says the restaurant sometimes “tried to push it” when it came to the capacity limit, but the team always made sure social distancing protocols were in place. Still, it was hard on employees and managers. “I knew that the hours were going to be long,” Jamie says. “I knew that we were going to run a skeleton crew due to everything that everyone has lost. But during this timeframe, I felt that our mental and physical health was being disregarded on all levels. … Every time we spoke about something it felt like we should be fortunate to have a job, period.” 

Brady alleges that when workers voiced their concerns about overcrowding, most of them tied to safety, Trabocchi responded by limiting the number of diners to 70 per night. They also say Del Mar stopped accepting walk-ins and stuck to a reservations-only policy. 

“Two or three weeks go by and we’re like, ‘Can we open the doors up a little bit?’ It felt like punishment.” Brady says 150 diners would have been a happy medium between 70 and 300. “Those proposals were flatly rejected,” they say. Brady was especially frustrated because he says Trabocchi-owned sister restaurant Fiola Mare was simultaneously seating “300 to 350 guests without similar restrictions.”

Trabocchi and Sorrenti did not respond to City Paper’s questions about whether Del Mar violated D.C.’s 25 percent indoor dining capacity limit while it was still in place, nor would they address why they began limiting covers to around 70 people, resulting in less take-home pay for staff. 

The letter calls Sorrenti an inept and toxic manager and calls for her resignation. According to her LinkedIn profile, she started working for Trabocchi’s restaurant group in Miami as a general manager before moving to D.C. to take on a larger role as service director then director of restaurants. 

There were clashes between employees and Sorrenti before this past weekend. “She is, I think, very unaware of the rhythm of how service runs,” Jamie says. “She doesn’t really understand the core of the restaurant. She’s very focused on the exterior of how things look. A lot of the time she was just unaware of the rotation of seating to make sure we were not overwhelming servers.”

Server Naderia Wynn, who is Black, quit on May 16. She tells City Paper she resigned because of “blatant racism and sexism being ignored.” She no longer “felt safe or comfortable going to work in an environment like that.” 

Specifically, Wynn says Sorrenti targeted her based on her race. She says she filed a complaint with human resources. According to Wynn, Trabocchi said he heard her concerns and promised to launch an investigation. That investigation, Wynn says, lasted three weeks and did not conclude with Sorrenti’s termination. 

“I witnessed the allegation,” Brady says. “I actually witnessed her being chastised. Naderia being one of the strongest employees we have in her position, it was unusual after having an incredibly successful shift.” 

Wynn saw the letter that her former colleagues sent. It calls for better training and clear protocols. “In response to credible allegations of insensitivity and racial bias, we request that you hire an outside diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant,” it reads. “A genuine effort must be made to implement their recommendations.” 

Trabocchi and Sorrenti also did not respond to City Paper’s questions about the investigation into Wynn’s complaint, whether Sorrenti is a good fit for the job, or what steps, if any, Del Mar is taking to improve work culture. 

In fact, Sorrenti didn’t respond to City Paper at all and Trabocchi only offered the following statement through his publicist: “During this past year, the global pandemic has placed unprecedented challenges on our restaurant operations with the safety and well-being of employees and customers always being our top priority. We instituted policies in accordance with local health guidelines and developed mechanisms to financially support the team throughout the crisis. Also, a standing 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.”

David Murphy, the CEO of Trabocchi’s restaurant group, responded to the anonymous email address the letter signatories created on May 22, and City Paper obtained a copy. “It is noted that there is a consensus among you that there needs to be a dialogue about your concerns,” Murphy writes. He notes that Trabocchi is “out of town participating in contracted events for Food & Wine,” but offers to set up a meeting Tuesday morning at attorney Chipp Sandground’s office. Sandground’s Twitter bio reads: “Father Husband Wine lover Lawyer to the Chefs.” 

But that Tuesday meeting never transpired. The letter signatories responded to Murphy in another email two hours later on May 22, which City Paper also obtained. “Although initially we had hoped for reconciliation, actions taken in the interim to threaten and intimidate us as well as Del Mar employees who worked yesterday has given us cause to withdraw our offer to return.” 

“We were all ready to quit anyway, but we wanted [Trabocchi] to understand the issues we had,” Douah says. “Six servers and two bartenders quit all at the same time.” Douah isn’t worried about seeking new employment. D.C. restaurants are desperate for workers right now. “Finding a job is easy,” he says. “We stayed [as long as we did] because we cared about our guests.”

Trabocchi did not respond to City Paper’s questions about the proposed meeting at Sandground’s office or whether employees were threatened leading up to it. 

“The initial hope was that Fabio would see there is business sense to treating people with respect,” Brady sums up. “If you treat staff and everyone with dignity it will ultimately yield higher profits. It will benefit you in the immediate and long term.”

Letter from staff obtained by City Paper: