After a rocky tenure and a three-year closure, Colors will reopen this Friday on the Lower East Side in a marked transformation from the original ROC United restaurant that was run by surviving Windows on the World employees after 9/11. Helmed by chef Sicily Sewell-Johnson, the new restaurant is a celebration of black food and culture in America — with consulting help from famed chef Daniel Patterson, in his first NYC partnership following some bumpy collabs in the Bay Area.
Gone are all of Colors’s original fine-dining trappings. The gluten-free menu has been replaced by yeast rolls, a meatloaf burger, fried chicken, and caramel cake. Swoveralls (sweatpant-overalls) are the new uniform, and cooks will wear baseball caps on the line. The walls are now adorned with bright murals, quotes from Black Panther, and a portrait Edna Lewis.
It’s a comeback attempt for the 70-seat restaurant at 178 Stanton Street, between Clinton and Attorney streets. After the September 11 attacks, surviving Windows of the World employees regrouped and organized to build Restaurants Opportunity Center United, one of the country’s most important restaurant labor organizations. They also opened Colors, a restaurant intended to embody their ideals of fair pay, diversity, and employee equity. But while ROC and its advocacy took off, Colors never mastered the balance of running a profitable business with a nonprofit heart. Former employees have filed lawsuits, and many claimed that their fair wages weren’t paid on time.
At first, that baggage discouraged Sewell-Johnson from leading the revamp, but after moving to New York City from the Bay Area, she knew she wanted to work in a mission-driven business. And Patterson, an ROC adviser, said she could run it on her own terms. Despite his recent track record of soured partnerships with chefs of color, she says they have a healthy relationship after having worked together at the Cooking Project, a Bay Area nonprofit focused on kitchen skills. “[Daniel is] not a person of color. And he’s going to get it wrong sometimes,” she says. “As a community, we don’t talk about how allies get it wrong. But we are leaning on him and learning from his mistakes.”
Sewell-Johnson, who began cooking professionally after more than 15 years as an actor, ultimately wanted to create a deeply personal restaurant for the community. Her family has been in the business for generations: She owned a Berkeley restaurant with her mother, her aunt owned a restaurant in Chicago, and seven generations ago, one of her maternal forebears was the enslaved head cook on a Tennessee plantation.
“I wanted to make really good, black-ass food,” she says. “I wanted to do something to tell black people that I appreciate them, and build a space where people of color don’t have to change or compromise who they are to feel accepted.”
As such, every dish is named for a song or movie made by black artists. One called Eve’s Bayou is a deep bowl of aromatic rice dressed with stewed tomatoes, celery, garlic, bell pepper, and a runny fried egg, while Jimmy Got Soul was inspired by the fried cabbage and onions Sewell-Johnson hated as a child. At the restaurant, she sears cabbage and then stews it with spiced tomato oil, fried garlic, and chile flakes; she finishes the pile of greens with sriracha and Madeira. “Special Delivery” is her take on the soul food staple of fried fish and spaghetti. All dishes range from $5 to $24.
The restaurant also will open for brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. There will be fried chicken, marinated coq au vin-style in red wine, tossed in French’s mustard, and coated with flour, crushed sunflower seeds, and ground flax seeds. In lieu of waffles, the chicken will come with a short stack of hoecakes.
Luis Moya, an original Windows on the World employee, put together the restaurant’s 23-bottle wine list, representing small producers and wines made from people of color. “Having Luis here is our love language to ROC and Windows of the World,” says Sewell-Johnson. “He’s telling the story of what was and what is.” The bar also serves wine-based cocktails, including a Kool-Aid mimosa and a Madeira spiked with chocolate and orange bitters.
The wine program will grow as Moya can secure more bottles made by black winemakers, and Sewell-Johnson’s menu will evolve seasonally and as her team gets up to speed.
At its heart, Colors is a training restaurant, and essential to its mission is CHOW (Colors Hospitality Opportunities for Workers), ROC’s multi-state hospitality training program designed to launch careers in the restaurant industry. Ninety percent of Sewell-Johnson’s staff is comprised of CHOW graduates, and in accordance with ROC’s One Fair Wage policy, servers make $15 per hour plus tips, and back-of-house pay starts at $18.30 an hour.
CHOW students also train at the restaurant on Mondays and Tuesdays, so the dining room can only open Wednesday through Sunday. Sewell-Johnson acknowledges that she’s still wading through the challenges of making labor and operations work. “This is really about giving people the tools they need to change their lives and have a business that works,” she says.
Sewell-Johnson also is working to regain New Yorkers’ trust. “Colors did the community a disservice. We weren’t open for three years. We were inconsistent and let them down,” she says. “Then, among peers, ROC challenged the [industry’s] sub-minimum wage and tipping policies, but we weren’t co-laboring to make the changes. We have to repair those relationships to be taken seriously.”
She expects a few bumps in the beginning; servers will be leaving feedback cards at every table in an effort to make improvements. But she’s hoping that it will be a place where she can showcase black America with style.
“I want to celebrate the beauty of blackness and the magic that happens when we come together for a good ole fellowship around food. That’s what this space is for me, giving you black excellence and history — through the food, hospitality, and music,” she says. “It’s a love letter and thank you to my people.”
Update: This piece has been updated to correct the spelling of Sewell-Johnson’s last name.
Caroline Hatchett is a New York City-based food and drinks writer, who also happens to host the world’s only casserole lifestyle podcast.