After only one month of service, the surviving Windows on the World employee restaurant Colors has closed yet again. Head chef Sicily Sewell-Johnson announced the closure Friday — saying that the restaurant’s owner, labor nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, had suddenly pulled the plug.
ROC’s executive director Sekou Siby told the Post that the restaurant had always been a “test drive,” a sentiment that Sewell-Johnson says “wrecked” the staffers who invested months into the reopening under the impression that it would be permanent. In a statement to Eater, ROC, one of the country’s best-known restaurant labor organizations, said that the LES space would be used to expand its restaurant training program CHOW and that no other restaurant would open in New York.
And in another twist for the embattled restaurant, the chef tells Eater that ROC United is currently not letting her release the more than $2,000 that she raised over the weekend through Venmo to provide “a cushion” to staffers who have just lost their jobs. It’s another bump in what she says has been a “crazy” time with ROC, which she alleges has mismanaged the restaurant from the beginning.
“I’ll never look at this organization the same,” she says.
It’s been a rough run for Colors, a philanthropic venture that reopened in December in hopes of a comeback. Formed by surviving Windows on the World employees after 9/11, Colors opened in 2006 with an idealistic vision of changing the restaurant industry. It was backed by ROC United, which was also created by survivors, and sought to live by ideals of fair wages and employee equity.
But Colors closed in 2017 and had a host of mismanagement issues. After its closure, former staffers filed a number of lawsuits regarding unpaid wages.
Still, ROC aimed for a revival of the restaurant, which offers on-the-job training. Sewell-Johnson joined last year to prepare the reopening, prompted in part by her mentor, famed San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson, who acted as a consultant on the project. She believed in the mission, she says, and liked that the restaurant helped people develop careers in the industry.
It opened with a splash, centered around Sewell-Johnson’s aim to celebrate black food and culture in America.
Management, though, was “a mess” from the beginning, she now says. Structures such as payroll, health insurance, and worker’s compensation were not in place, she says. Sewell-Johnson alleges that she sometimes paid vendors for food and other products out-of-pocket and filed for reimbursement, despite multiple requests for ROC to put a business debit card into place. When her finger got injured during business, she paid for care herself because the nonprofit never gave her health insurance that it had promised, she alleges.
Plus, ROC did not properly tell locals that Colors was open for business, Sewell-Johnson says. The restaurant was still showing up as closed on platforms such as Google and Yelp until the last week of business, she says.
“It was already a mess,” she says. “There were no systems. There was no structure.”
But business was also difficult because ROC did not seem committed to figuring out a financial plan that worked, she says. The nonprofit touted how it pays servers a $15 minimum wage plus tips, an extension of its ongoing fight to end the tipped minimum wage.
In practice, though, trying to pay $15 plus tips while creating an equitable pay structure throughout the restaurant created some bumps, Sewell-Johnson says. Because pooling tips is illegal, Colors also paid its kitchen staff above minimum wage. Entry-level positions like a dishwasher made $18.30 an hour, and with taxes, the restaurant ended up paying much more for labor than most restaurants in the city.
Sewell-Johnson wanted to start considering what other models would work, such as eliminating tipping, but she faced opposition from ROC. Ultimately, she says, paying a dishwasher a high wage doesn’t matter if the restaurant closes and the dishwasher can’t leave with additional skills.
“It’s easy for a lot of people to say — everyone deserves better, and this is what you should do,” she says. “It’s hard to find the middle to make that work.”
Colors LES is one of several locations that ROC planned across the country. There’s a location in Detroit that says it’s been closed for renovations since August, and announcements for outposts in New Orleans and Oakland have yet to materialize.
This post has been updated to add a statement from ROC.