Babu Ji — the eclectic East Village Australian-Indian restaurant that became a darling of the food world with its spicy fare and inexpensive tasting menus— will reportedly close for an indefinite period as its owners face their second wage theft and overtime lawsuit since the restaurant opened two years ago.
In an initial phone call to the restaurant last night, a receptionist said Babu Ji is closing early next week “for renovations,” though staffers at the restaurant have told Eater that they’ve been asked not to report to work tonight because the venue has already shuttered. Advance bookings for Babu Ji are no longer available on Resy.
The first lawsuit against owners Jessi and Jennifer Singh was filed in July 2016 by two employees. By late September, the Singhs agreed to pay a total of $95,000, split almost evenly between the employees and restaurant labor attorney Maimon Kirschenbaum. The owners did not admit any wrongdoing in the settlement, according to public court records.
The second wage lawsuit was filed in September 2016, but an amended version from February 2017 contains newer, more incendiary allegations, accusing an owner of making profane and threatening remarks against a server and his family — including insinuations of violence in retaliation for bringing the wage suit. That owner is also accused of berating another server with an incest-laced profanity and threatening him with a countersuit. The case is set to be tried by a jury.
Co-owner Jessi Singh did not respond to an email or calls from Eater about the closure, wage lawsuit, and the alleged threats of retaliation.
The specifics of the second lawsuit includes claims that the owners pocketed both credit card tips and cash tips from May through December 2015. In addition, it alleges that employees were not paid overtime during that period, and instead were paid a flat fee of $600 every seven days even when working up to 60 hours per week. Under federal law most non-managerial employees are entitled to time-and-a-half pay for 40-plus hour work weeks.
Kirschenbaum dropped a bombshell in February with an amended complaint. One of the two plaintiffs, a server at Babu Ji, alleges in the document that Jessi Singh approached him on October 13 at the restaurant and “immediately” began making “threatening” statements. Per the complaint, Jessi told the server in Hindi: “You know that in India a man paid $100,000 rupees to have someone’s family killed.”
The document continues with allegations that Singh said, “If you’re fucking my family I’m going to fuck you up. I’m going to fuck your family. I have a lot of money, I can legally fight with you. You already screwed me up by suing, so why are you coming to work? You come into work and then take my money.” According to the allegations, the owner then asked to meet with the server outside and said that he would “fuck him up and fuck his family.”
The complaint reads that later that night, Singh approached a second plaintiff, also a server, calling him a “sisterfucker.” He also asked to meet this server outside and threatened to file a lawsuit against him as well.
Threats of retaliation for filing a wage lawsuit are in violation of both the federal Fair Labor Standards Act as well as New York labor law.
The Singhs denied the bulk of the allegations in the second lawsuit (minus the February amendment) through their lawyer’s November filing. Before opening Babu Ji in New York, the Singhs previously operated a version of the restaurant in Melbourne. During its opening year in the East Village, the restaurant was praised as one of the city’s most popular and dynamic Indian restaurants, with diners waiting in line for tables for two hours or more.
The Singhs opened a second location of Babu Ji in San Francisco’s Mission District in November. It remains open.
Update [4:00pm]: Babu Ji’s general manager has called a number of staffers informing them not to report for work because the restaurant is closed, according to an employee at the restaurant. The restaurant is no longer taking bookings for tonight and Babu Ji cancelled an anonymous reservation made by this reporter for Friday. The Resy app, however, still shows that Babu Ji is accepting bookings for Saturday through Wednesday, but nothing after that. Eater will update if anything changes.
Update: [6:00pm]: Eater has learned that the defendants are due in court due on Tuesday in a development related to the original $95,000 settlement. The Singhs declined to pay the final tranche of $31,366,66 on that sum, which was due on 31 January; their lawyer stated in a February motion that the settlement was reached mistakenly and that it should therefore be vacated. “I clearly stated to [my attorney at the time] that we no longer wanted to settle our case with the plaintiffs,” Jennifer stated in an affidavit. Kirschenbaum, the plaintiffs’ attorney, asked the court to deny that motion in a letter to the judge. The parties are due back on court on Tuesday.
Update: [6:17pm]: Babu Ji bookings are no longer available on Resy.