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Inside COLORS, a Restaurant Changing Communities One Worker at a Time

Meet the organization fighting for living wages and upward mobility

Michelle and Chris Gerard
Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

It’s Saturday night at COLORS Restaurant in Detroit. Although it’s a hot spring day — a typically busy night for the restaurant — down in the dimly lit basement dining room things are still cool and quiet. A few men sit at the bar chatting with the bartenders and a younger woman wearing a bachelorette party sash is scrolling through her phone at a nearby table waiting for the rest of her group to arrive.

Like any other restaurant, COLORS has a chef, regular hours, a full bar, and attentive waitstaff ready to point out the best items on the menu (for the record: it’s the salmon and fried grits). But, as signs at the door remind customers, this place is different: all of the front-of-house staff are students and COLORS is their classroom.

Since opening in 2012, COLORS Restaurant in Detroit has introduced more than 500 workers to the hospitality industry through its food service training programs. It’s one of two restaurants of its kind operated by the Restaurant Opportunities Center — a progressive labor organization that provides education to restaurant workers. ROC’s goal is not just to “move people up ladders into livable wage fine dining service and bartending” but also work towards “raising wage across the board,” says co-founder and national director Saru Jayaraman.

Now, the organization is preparing for COLORS’ biggest expansion yet. Over the next two years, the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) plans to export its front-of-house training model to new locations in New Orleans and Oakland. A possible third modified version of COLORS is also in the early planning stages for Washington, D.C.

For all the opportunities and support COLORS has provided through the years, the restaurant was originally founded as a multicultural monument to fallen employees at one of New York’s most well-known high rise restaurants. On September 11, 2001, the world watched the World Trade Center fall. More than 2,500 people were killed in the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, including 72 employees from 107th-floor restaurant icon Windows on the World. In the wake of the deaths of their friends and co-workers, former employees of Windows on the World — many of whom were immigrants — banded together to develop a new restaurant in partnership with ROC.

The first COLORS Restaurant opened in January 2006 on Lafayette Street in New York City, and operated under a cooperative employee-owned model with wages set at $13.50 per hour. By comparison, New York State’s minimum wage was, at that point, $6.75 per hour or $4.35 per hour for tipped workers. It was an innovative model that underwent numerous changes along the way. In its first two years, the restaurant reportedly struggled to make ends meet. By year three it had evolved: COLORS eventually lowered prices on its menu, did away with the cooperative format, and now operates as a non-profit with revenue from the restaurant going directly back into the day-to-day maintenance of the facility and its courses.

Since then, COLORS appears to have found its rhythm. In 2007, the restaurant launched its workers’ training program called CHOW Institute (COLORS Hospitality & Opportunities for Workers), which trains students to work in fine dining and as bartenders (two of the highest-earning restaurant jobs) with a particular focus on broadening opportunities for workers of color and women. More recently the original location in New York relocated to a new, larger facility at 178 Stanton Street with space dedicated to ROC’s new initiatives, including the sanctuary restaurants movement, which advocates for discrimination-free establishments.

Students at COLORS can enroll in a variety of courses ranging from basic food handlers’ training to five-day classes in mixology to more substantial six-month programs in service and bartending. The shorter classes are typically more popular, according to ROC-Michigan director Alicia Farris. Longer term programs attract more mature, non-traditional students including people seeking new careers after major life changes such as divorce and incarceration. This challenges the myth, she says, that restaurant workers are often high school and college students subsidized by their parents. “It’s usually someone who is looking to support their family,” Farris says, “so that’s when a family’s sustaining wage becomes very important.”

Students at COLORS Detroit make at least $10.10 plus tips — well above the state’s minimum wage of $8.90 per hour and the $3.38 tipped minimum wage — and work side by side with instructors and more experienced trainees. Before hitting the dining room floor, though, recruits undergo extensive classroom instruction during which they complete food handler’s and alcohol safety certification and receive a crash course in issues concerning the restaurant world. “They’re learning about the industry — the good, the bad,” Farris says. “They’re learning to know their rights in the industry. They’re knowing expectations, they understand the career ladder opportunities in the industry.”

Roughly 70 percent of students find work at COLORS or elsewhere within 90 days of completing their training. CHOW Institute recruits also go on to pursue “externships” at partnering restaurants or enroll in hospitality programs at local colleges where COLORS has developed special relationships. “These agreements allow [students] to matriculate should they decide that this is the industry where they really want to grow and flourish,” Farris says, noting that COLORS graduates can transfer into area hospitality programs with up to nine college credit hours.

Michelle and Chris Gerard

David Beasley is an employee at COLORS Detroit who’s been working at the restaurant for the past eight months. He learned about the training program during an information session at a community center in his neighborhood. At the time, Beasley says he felt “lost” and uncertain about his future. “I was incarcerated and I came out and once I came out I was pretty much in limbo,” he recalls, but the potential of a future restaurant job opportunity appealed to him and Beasley decided to enroll.

Joining the program, Beasley had very little experience in the restaurant industry beyond a handful of fast food jobs at McDonald’s, KFC, and Hardee’s. In the CHOW Institute classroom, he gained a window into how restaurants run, from understanding chemical safety to food storage to the restaurant inspection process. Now a veteran inside the restaurant, Beasley says he’s surprised by how much he enjoys his work. “I had no idea about the hospitality and restaurant industry, and I had no interest, but now that I’ve gone through this process I want to learn more,” he says.

By growing COLORS’ presence in new communities, Jayaraman hopes to improve the organization’s ability to reach people like Beasley. “That need has just overwhelmed us, in terms of demand,” she says of ROC’s programing. “The workers wanted training, they’re trying to move up ladders, they want to get more engaged. [The expansion] has been our way to address the demand.”

The Restaurant Opportunities Center tapped into that vast network of members when deciding where to put its next location. Outside of New York and Detroit, the San Francisco Bay Area and New Orleans boast some of the largest organized groups of ROC-associated restaurant workers and training programs “so the demand from workers has been really high to do this in those two places.”

Partnerships also factored into in the locations. In New Orleans, Jayaraman says that partners both locally and nationally had been asking ROC to bring COLORS to the Big Easy for quite sometime, but “we just hadn’t found the exactly right location.” The organization finally zeroed in on a location this spring and is now in the process of leasing “an existing restaurant space” at an as-of-yet unnamed location for COLORS. If all goes according to plan, that location could open by years’ end.

Meanwhile, the Bay Area project has taken on a much larger scope. COLORS restaurant has teamed with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights to develop Restore Oakland, a restorative economics and restorative justice hub. The project is partially funded with a $500,000 investment from the Google Foundation and $1 million from a private donor. Plans for the development were recently approved for a 20,000-square-foot building at 1419 34th Avenue in Fruitvale, according to the East Bay Times. In addition to a COLORS Restaurant on the ground floor of the facility, Restore Oakland will offer a food business incubator called COLORS CoOp Academy, worker training, restorative justice programs, child care programs, and tenant housing services. It’s expected to open sometime next year.

Joining forces with the Ella Baker Center made sense for ROC, says Jayaraman. “We’re essentially dealing with the same community of people. Our industry is the largest employer of formerly incarcerated folks. Our industry is the largest employer of people of color who have, due to racism in our country, much higher interactions with the justice system.”

Marija Vidal/Eater SF

While COLORS is aiming to help more former inmates find new opportunities in the restaurant industry, ROC recognizes that to affect real change it will need to work directly with owners and management. The organization, for example, is currently piloting a program at Daniel Patterson’s Bay Area-eatery Alta CA where management has reevaluated how the restaurant operates and created new processes to ensure fair hiring practices. The information gleaned from the program will eventually be made available to other restaurant owners.

While working with restaurateurs like Patterson wasn’t initially part of the blueprint for ROC, as it’s become more established those relationships have become a source of greater influence for the advocacy group. Jayaraman says that biggest change in ROC’s vision over the years has come from the realization the the organization doesn’t have to go it alone. ROC refers to models for better wages and working conditions as “the high road.” However, Jayaraman admits that when COLORS first opened they “didn’t have any partners to be able to prove that the high road was possible and profitable.”

“We thought COLORS had to be the full source of that [example of the “high road”] but over time, we realized, we don’t need to prove it. There are hundreds of other employers that prove that, and do it very well, and were able to document it,” she says. With more than 600 restaurants across the country in its network, COLORS is able to step back and focus on its original mission: to provide training for both workers and employers.

Back in Detroit, Beasley is beginning to think about his next move after COLORS. He’s taking a few more classes and developing his resume so that it’s ready to send out to restaurants. Where he began his journey not knowing whether restaurant work was right for him, he’s preparing to leave the program with a new sense of place and confidence in his work. “This job requires a lot of memory and paying attention to details,” he says. “[But] at the end of the day these people are happy with your service and they leave with a smile, and that’s the best thing.”

Brenna Houck is the editor of Eater Detroit and Eater’s weekends editor.
Editors: Erin DeJesus and Daniela Galarza