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‘You’ve Created a Standard. But How Does That Actually Work?’

The NYC restaurant Colors was supposed to be a proof of concept for America’s most prominent restaurant labor organization. So what happened?

Chef Sicily Sewell-Johnson
Caroline Hatchett

For the restaurant industry’s most prominent labor nonprofit, Restaurant Opportunities Center, the long-awaited re-opening of the NYC location of Colors was supposed to be an elegant proof of concept. The revamped restaurant, with a new menu of soul food, cheerful murals, and a portrait of chef Edna Lewis presiding over the dining room, would enact ROC’s mission — to train and employ women and people of color — while making its case for better wages in the restaurant industry.

ROC was founded in the wake of September 11 as a worker relief center for surviving employees of Twin Towers restaurant Windows on the World. It raised millions to open the original Colors restaurant in 2006 as a place to gather displaced Windows on the World workers and train more people of color in skilled restaurant jobs. It then expanded nationally as a training, job placement, and advocacy group under the banner ROC-United, opening a second Colors restaurant in Detroit and promising more locations in Oakland, DC, and New Orleans. But Colors’s original NYC location never flourished. Trailed by allegations of late payments and a lawsuit alleging wage theft, it closed quietly in 2017.

So when the revamped Colors debuted in December 2019, chef Sicily Sewell-Johnson acknowledged that Colors needed to re-establish trust with the community: “There are only so many heartstrings you can pull,” she says. The chef promised a celebration of “the beauty of blackness and the magic that happens when we come together for a good ole fellowship around food.” Each dish on the menu, like fried chicken and hoecakes or stewed cabbage, was named for a song or movie made by black artists, and served alongside wines made by people of color. 90 percent of staff had graduated from ROC’s hospitality training program, CHOW (Colors Hospitality Opportunities for Workers).

“This was an opportunity for us to live out this model — for people of color to thrive, to level the playing field, and gain a skill set to get out into the world,” she says.

But management was troubled from the beginning, Sewell-Johnson claims. Basic systems like payroll and healthcare coverage were never put in place. Sewell-Johnson told GrubStreet that the opening was delayed in part because management forgot to renew its liquor license in July, and a new one wasn’t obtained until October.

Last Thursday, Sekou Siby, an ROC co-founder and the organization’s new executive director, texted Sewell-Johnson during dinner service: ROC was abruptly suspending its funding for Colors, and the restaurant would need to close in a matter of days. Sewell-Johnson and her staff were “wrecked.”

“You should have done better for those people of color who needed this job, that believed in the fact you were giving them an opportunity,” she says. “And then you gave them three days to close the door.”

An ROC spokesperson tells Eater that it ended funding for Colors because revenue had “not met the business plan projections.” The Colors LLC Board, which is mostly controlled by ROC and oversaw the NYC restaurant, “decided to close the business operation so that ROC-United can focus on its core mission.”

But the closure of Colors is a reflection on that very mission, Sewell-Johnson says. “The whole thing that brought me onto the project was the mission — and this doesn’t align with the mission of helping people of color find opportunity and equity. To completely displace people of color, single parents, women in shelters with children — you’ve turned your back on the people who believe in the program.”

ROC’s spokesperson says the organization is helping workers who lost their job at Colors to secure stable employment.

A second Colors restaurant in Detroit also closed this month. “Colors Detroit is undergoing remodeling (with a planned opening at another location),” a spokesperson says. The other ROC-backed restaurant projects in Oakland, DC, and New Orleans have not yet opened. ROC says they’re on the way, but will be “first and foremost training facilities and community spaces” rather than for-profit enterprises.

Colors’s NYC closure could also call into question the sustainability of one of ROC’s central missions: that of “One Fair Wage,” or eliminating a lower minimum wage tier for tipped restaurant workers. At the new Colors, servers were paid $15 per hour plus tips — NYC’s tipped minimum wage is $10 — while back-of-house kitchen workers, legally unable to participate in the front-of-house-tip pool, received pay starting at $18.30 an hour.

Critics of One Fair Wage have long argued that eliminating the tipped minimum wage will hurt restaurant workers by raising prices overall and deterring customers. “What’s shocking here is not the fact that this business model didn’t work at Colors,” says Andrew Rigie, executive director of the strongly pro-owner NYC Hospitality Alliance, which opposes the elimination of the tipped minimum wage. “It’s the hypocrisy exposed by the group that’s been attacking restaurants in the first place.”

In a New York Daily News op-ed, Michael Saltsman, managing director of the conservative policy think tank Employment Policies Institute, put it bluntly. “If a labor advocacy organization can’t make its preferred policies work at its own restaurant, what credibility does it have to tell other restaurants to follow its lead?”

To publicize the point, Employment Policies Institute took over the Colors restaurant web domain, populating it with negative press and criticism of ROC.

ROC opened the original Colors restaurant in 2006 on Lafayette Street, initially as a worker-owned co-op serving family recipes from its diverse set of chefs. In an early appraisal, then-Times critic Frank Bruni wrote that Colors had “an inspirational back story, a genesis in tragedy, an arc of resurrection” but “many kinks to iron out.” The next year, Colors launched its hospitality training program, which has graduated 62 cohorts of restaurant workers since 2010. According to an ROC spokesperson, CHOW places around 90 workers per year into high-paying restaurant positions.

“We only have good memories from Colors,” says Leticia Skai Young-Mohan, co-owner of Lolo’s Seafood Shack in Harlem, who met her life and business partner, chef Raymond Mohan, at Colors. ”We were inspired by the concept,” she says.

But within a year of opening, Colors was $1 million in debt, and struggling to fill seats. “Despite its extraordinary back story, Colors became one more restaurant fighting to survive in one of New York’s most crowded and competitive industries,” the Times wrote in 2007.

Colors also struggled with the issue that would become its flagship: wages. Workers were paid more than $10 above the tipped hourly rate, but some claimed that checks didn’t arrive on time. In 2007, workers voted to lower their wages to keep prices down. Others sued for alleged wage theft, claiming they were forced out of the restaurant when they questioned its business model and location — though their claims were dismissed in federal court. In 2017, Colors moved from its original location to its recent Lower East Side home, then quietly closed its doors.

While the first iteration of Colors flatlined in New York, ROC’s national influence grew, in part thanks to ROC co-founder Saru Jayaraman, a lawyer and labor advocate. Jayaraman authored prominent books like Behind the Kitchen Door and Forked, became director at the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley, and received a 2015 leadership award from the James Beard Foundation.

Jayaraman has consistently argued that the restaurant industry’s low pay and two-tiered wage system perpetuate a culture of harassment, wage theft, and poverty. In 2018, she appeared on the red carpet at the Golden Globes alongside actress Amy Poehler in an effort to raise awareness of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements in the restaurant industry.

Recently, Jayaraman left her leadership position at ROC — promoting Siby — in order to lead One Fair Wage as its own spinoff organization. “We realized in early 2019 that the One Fair Wage was outgrowing ROC, in the sense that many more workers were impacted beyond restaurant workers,” says Jayaraman.

This month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo did eliminate the tipped minimum wage for many workers — but excluded waiters, bartenders, and bussers, the largest group of tipped workers in the state, at about 250,000 people.

Colors 2.0 was supposed to be different, and its timing looked fortuitous. Issues of fair pay, harassment, and representation in restaurants have gone mainstream. But the new Colors still got off to a rocky start. Initially slated for a September opening, its launch was delayed until the slower month of December.

Besides a handbook from Bay Area restaurateur and ROC advisor Daniel Patterson, a consultant on the new NYC Colors, the restaurant had no systems in place, Sewell-Johnson says. They didn’t have a plan for how to fold napkins or where to get childcare for workers, until she made them. When Sewell-Johnson injured a finger at work, she was forced to pay for care out of pocket, she says, since she alleges healthcare wasn’t put in place. There was pre-opening press, but ROC didn’t properly market the opening to locals: Its Facebook page hadn’t been updated since 2014, and even Google and Yelp searches for Colors still showed the restaurant as “closed” after it was officially open, discouraging potential customers. The website is still being co-opted by the Employment Policies Institute.

“It’s sad because Sicily was doing great work, and the restaurant was really starting to catch on,” Patterson says.

Speaking to the New York Post, Siby called the new Colors a temporary experiment. “The last six weeks was a test drive, to analyze what is possible,” he said. Siby has not returned Eater’s request for comment. An ROC spokesperson said in a statement that “We have no plans to open another restaurant in New York City. Instead, we will expand our flagship training program [CHOW] from the same physical location on the Lower East Side.”

Sewell-Johnson disputes the idea that Colors was a test. “This was never spoken of as a test run,” she says. “This was the real thing. For us to close and [employees] to see that article, where [Siby] called them a test-run — it’s disrespectful.”

New restaurants are precarious, and their closures are common. But closures after just a month are rarer. “The first job of a newly opened restaurant is to get up on its legs like a baby giraffe and start running,” says the restaurant consultant Clark Wolf, who did not consult on this specific project. “You need lots of resources to get your balance and footing. If they closed very quickly, [they] may not have had that available to them.”

For ROC, Colors’s difficulties might demonstrate the gap between theory and practice, and Sewell-Johnson says ROC did not prepare an adequate financial plan. “You’ve created a standard, in saying front-of-the-house deserves a fair wage plus tip,” says Sewell-Johnson. “But how does that actually work?”

To help balance the fledgling business, the chef says she suggested that Colors consider changes to its pay structure, like removing tips. Siby rebuffed the idea, Sewell-Johnson says.

Critics of One Fair Wage have been quick to use ROC’s struggle with Colors to cast its policies into doubt. “It was clear from the tip credit public hearings around the state that countless tipped workers don’t want the tip credit eliminated,” says NYC Hospitality Alliance director Rigie. “The smear campaign led by ROC against the restaurant industry has made it more and more difficult to have an honest conversation about these complex issues.”

But Wolf cautions against interpreting Colors’s closure, however prominent, as some kind of bellwether. “It’s not an experiment,” the consultant says, ”it’s a restaurant.”

“There are so many factors in the success or failure of a restaurant,” he says. “It’s a business of pennies and nickels and dimes. Saying that ‘paying people a decent wage is killing the restaurant business’ is either self-serving or just plain myopic.”

ROC observes that the seven states that do have a single minimum wage have higher restaurant industry job growth rates, plus the same or higher tipping averages. And restaurants in states around the country who have raised minimum wages to $15 have been successful, too. There are financial advantages for them, like higher retention and lower recruiting and retraining costs.

What restaurants do need to succeed, says Wolf, is backing — the more, the better. But with people of color and women at a statistical disadvantage to raise funds, that makes the sudden cut to Colors all the more painful.

“For me it was the perfect opportunity,” says Sewell-Johnson, who isn’t sure what’s next for her career. “People will say restaurants close all the time, and that’s real and that’s fair. But not this one, not with the mission that you had. Not with the way you forced people and businesses to the table. Not this one.”