Half-baked worker empowerment: What’s behind the closure of ROC United’s new restaurant
Author: Michael Saltsman
Publication Date: January 2020
Newspaper: New York Daily News
Call it the restaurant opening that wasn’t.
Five weeks after its Dec. 10, 2019, premiere — a reopening in the wake of a closure in 2017 — the New York City restaurant COLORS closed its doors. Management gave the head chef and restaurant employees just three days warning, and delivered the bad news via text message.
Restaurant deaths are hardly unique, but COLORS’ closure is not like the others. A project of the union-affiliated Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), COLORS was supposed to represent “a model for livable wages and working conditions” in the restaurant industry, according to ROC founder Saru Jayaraman. A press release heralded it as modeling a “better, fairer restaurant industry.” Instead, COLORS became a model of management failure.
COLORS first opened in 2006. ROC had made a name for itself in the city “shaming restaurants [over alleged labor violations] through litigation and demonstrations”; COLORS was a logical extension of ROC’s activity telling full-service restaurants how to operate.
But running a restaurant proved more difficult than protesting outside of one, and the problems piled up.
COLORS had $1 million in debt one year after opening, and ROC had to help keep the doors open through a “grant subsidy.” COLORS was then hit with an employee lawsuit over an alleged failure to be paid for “hundreds of hours of work they did” to help start the co-operative restaurant. The lawsuit was dismissed, but it provided the public with its first glimpse of ROC’s less-savory side; one founding member of the restaurant said ROC “has perpetrated a hoax on the labor movement…”
Time didn’t heal COLORS’ wounds — it made them worse. By 2010, the restaurant was described as “more a symbol of its idealism than a functioning example of it.” Workers saw their pay decline and were forced to take on second jobs. The city’s Health Department was unsparing in its inspection of the restaurant, citing 38 violation points including “evidence of mice or live mice” and a general lack of cleanliness.
COLORS went through several menu concepts and a location change, while continuing to struggle with business basics, including the timely payment of employees. In a profile of the restaurant’s “misadventures,” the New York Times interviewed COLORS servers who left after failing to receive paychecks as expected. Writing in her book “Forked” in 2016, Jayaraman said optimistically that “COLORS — the restaurant owned by the worker movement — has turned around…” But it hadn’t, and it closed in 2017.
In September last year, ROC announced that COLORS would reopen with “a focus on black American cuisine,” recruiting noted Bay Area chef Sicily Sewell-Johnson to oversee the restaurant’s renaissance. In a press statement, Jayaraman said the reopening was part of ROC’s fight “for living wages in every restaurant across America.” Sewell-Johnson acknowledged that COLORS “did the community a disservice,” but was hopeful about the restaurant’s future under her leadership.
She never got a chance to find out. When ROC pulled the plug on COLORS the month after it re-opened, it still hadn’t handled basics such as “payroll, health insurance, and worker’s compensation…” Sewell-Johnson described an injury she sustained that “she paid to care for herself because [ROC] never gave her the health insurance it had promised…” Most damning, ROC couldn’t make the numbers work for its desired payment model for tipped employees.
The human cost of ROC’s carelessness is immense, and Sewell-Johnson was unsparing in her criticism: “You’re literally giving 15 people a three-day notice…and financially [they] were single parents, people of color, were co-dependent on this job — and that just kind of fell on deaf ears [at ROC].” Some of the ex-COLORS staff live in shelters, and Sewell-Johnson launched a Venmo fund to help cover expenses; as of Tuesday, ROC would not let her release the money to these ex-employees. “I’ll never look at this organization the same,” she said.
ROC’s donors at the Ford Foundation and elsewhere may feel the same way. In a remarkable statement Tuesday, ROC said “no other restaurant would open in New York” — effectively writing off the nine months of work that went into re-opening the current location, and ending the failed COLORS restaurant that began nearly 15 years ago.
The magnitude of ROC’s announcement is difficult to understate: 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?