After nearly three years of permitting delays, the Castro’s newest Indian restaurant, Bhoga (468 Castro Street), opened in the fall of 2019. It’s a stylish, already-bustling restaurant that self-identifies as “progressive Indian” — the kind of place that touts its sustainable ingredient sourcing and has an extensive cocktail program. However, before the doors opened, trouble was already brewing. Former executive chef Mel Oza, front-of-house manager Adam, and bartender Sara quit the restaurant just before opening, saying that owner Prem Makkena failed to pay them over $25,000 in wages and related expenses. (Citing privacy concerns, both Adam and Sara asked Eater SF to withhold their last names)
Makkena, for his part, denies all of the allegations, and after filing a wage theft claim with the state, Oza, Adam, and Sara are now in limbo, as it could take as long as 24 months for the agency in charge of ruling on these allegations to schedule a hearing.
As Hoodline previously reported, the trouble began this past summer when Oza, an experienced chef and sommelier, says Bhoga general manager Sandeep “Sunny” Cherukuri (who is also Makkena’s cousin) asked him to move across the country from Richmond, Virginia, to become the restaurant’s chef. In August, Oza says he began to work remotely for Bhoga on a contract basis, developing the restaurant’s concept, menu, and wine program.
According to Oza, his official first day as a full-fledged Bhoga employee was September 12. He says that by November 7, he still hadn’t been paid for his initial contract work, nor had he received his promised salary. Cherukuri and Makkena had also allegedly agreed to help pay some of Oza’s moving expenses and offered a $1,500/month housing stipend — but allegedly failed to follow through on either promise. Finally, Oza says, Bhoga hadn’t ever provided him contractual guarantees of full health benefits, which is required by law in San Francisco for businesses with 20 or more employees.
At the end of his patience, Oza says that he quit. In November, he officially filed an unpaid wage claim with the California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) Labor Commissioner’s Office. In the claim, he says he’s owed $18,104.30 in unpaid wages for 71 days of work at a seven-days-a-week schedule, as well as housing and moving expenses.
Adam and Sara tell similar stories. According to Sara, she was hired September 1 through a consulting firm to work as a bartender. Adam says he was hired by Bhoga cocktail consultant Brian Howard to manage the front of the house, negotiated his hourly wages with Makkena and Cherukuri, and began work at the restaurant on September 20.
Sara says that she began to realize something was wrong when, after a couple of weeks of work, she hadn’t received her on-boarding paperwork and a payroll system appeared to be non-existent. Adam and Sara say they brought this to Makkena and Cherukuri’s attention, and at one point even brought in their I9 and W4 paperwork themselves. The two say they finally received a partial payment of $2,000 (to Adam) and $500 (to Sara) in October via personal check, but went unpaid after that.
On October 23, Adam and Sara say they both arrived at work only to find that the locks at the restaurant had been changed without explanation. They say they attempted to contact Makkena, but did not receive a response. The following day they sent him formal resignation letters, and via a claim filed with the DIR, requested compensation for unpaid wages: $3,225 for Adam, and $3,725 for Sara.
“I was never provided with the right on-boarding paperwork to fulfill the payroll and state/city law requirements,” Adam wrote in his resignation letter. “I have been working undocumented and uninsured…for the Bhoga group.”
A DIR settlement conference between Makkena, Oza, Adam, and Sara was scheduled for Thursday, January 9. The night before the hearing Makkena emailed the Labor Commissioner’s Office notifying them he was denying the claims and would not be attending, a DIR spokesperson confirms.
”We were really pissed. Why would you do this the day before?” Adam says. “We were waiting for this throughout the holidays.”
When asked to provide a copy of Makkena’s email, DIR spokesperson Paola Laverde declined, citing the pending investigation. However, Oza, Adam, and Sara say a DIR representative read the email to them. According to Sara, Makkena wrote in part that “I’m disputing these cases because these people were never employees here.”
Speaking with Eater SF, Makkena — a Genentech employee also owns Mission District Indian restaurant Deccan Spice — says that Adam and Sara were consultants who have already been paid in full for their work. Oza, he says, never signed the offer letter.
”There were some consultants who promised some deliverables and took advance pay, but never turned (in) the completed final deliverables,” Makkena tells Eater SF.
”That’s clearly so far from the truth,” Sara says. “We had access to the building, emails, and hired people working there,” Adam tells Eater SF. “To say we weren’t part of the team, we were shocked.” In response to Makkena’s allegation that he never signed an offer letter, Oza tells Eater SF, “I signed and handed it to Sunny [Cherukuri].”
Despite Makkena’s absence, Oza, Adam and Sara decided to attend the January 9 settlement conference to present their case. There they learned that due to Makkena’s dispute of their claims, they’d require a full hearing with the agency, something that the DIR says could take about 18-24 months to schedule. “Wage theft is a big problem in San Francisco,” Laverde said, and the hearing backlog is because “there’s a lot of claims.”
”It’s a waiting game for us, we can’t really do anything until we get the hearing,” said Adam. That includes the collection of unemployment insurance, it appears: According to Adam, the company never collected the proper on-boarding paperwork, so he wasn’t able to collect any benefits from the state Employment Development Department after he was locked out of the restaurant.
Since October, Oza, Sara, and Adam have taken new employment, but they say they’re still smarting over their experiences with Bhoga. “It’s going to take me 21 months to get back on my feet,” Sara says.
Anytime between now and the hearing, Makkena still has the opportunity to make Oza, Sara, and Adam a settlement offer.
”I’m asking them to pay me what I’m owed,” Oza tells Eater SF. “Just pay me what’s due.”
By contrast, Sara says, “Every day that goes by makes me less willing to compromise. They’ve put me through hell and back, I want every penny,” adding, however, that she’s “just going to pretend that it’s not gonna come.”
A decision on the case will be made within 15 days of the hearing, whenever it is. Should Oza, Sara, and Adam prevail, additional interest will be added from the date on which the wages became due. More penalties for pain and suffering and financial distress can also be added. “It’s much cheaper to follow the law,” Laverde says.
Following the ruling, either side will be allowed to appeal the decision to the San Francisco County Superior Court. At that point, the claim will no longer be under the jurisdiction of the Labor Commissioner’s Office, and the matter’s resolution could be pushed out far longer.
Masood Samereie, the president of the Castro Merchants local business coalition, tells Eater SF that he’s been in contact with Makkena regarding the wage theft allegations. “Every story has two sides,” Samereie says, adding that he has encouraged Makkena to settle the claims and move on.
”I’m trying to support the business, I’m trying to help him not go down,” Samereie says. “We have to bear in mind that we’re not the judge or jury. We have to let the legal side take its course.”
District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, whose constituent area includes Bhoga, tells Eater SF that he’s aware of the situation. “I don’t know very much about the wage claims, but we expect all businesses in the Castro, or anywhere, to follow the law and pay their employees,” Mandelman says.
According to Mandelman, neither side has contacted his office, but he’s open to the idea of assisting a mediation, if he’s allowed to do so. “It sounds like a sad story all around,” Mandelman says.
Makkena says that he is open to a conversation with Mandelman’s office, but that a settlement is unlikely. “We’re pretty confident we won’t lose. We have all the documentation that we’ve paid them,” he says. “This is just all about bad press.”
Steven Bracco is a San Francisco based journalist living in the Castro. Born and raised in the Bay Area, Steven has lived in San Francisco for 16 years.