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The Sweet Taste of Success

A group of former Trade Center workers turned their grief into a dream: a new employee-owned restaurant.
 
 
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What do a Virgin Islands perfume shop, a Utah dog boutique, and dozens of Dunkin' Donuts have in common? All got help from 9/11 terrorism recovery funds.

And who didn't get help? Workers at what was the Twin Towers' Windows on the World restaurant. Losing 73 colleagues and their jobs on Sept. 11, 34 mostly immigrant workers turned their grief into a new dream: Colors, a tony art-deco restaurant owned by the workers themselves. It opened in January in Greenwich Village -- but not without a lot more grief from their should've-been helpers.

"Everyone kept saying, 'No, no, no' when we went for financing," remembers former Windows on the World employee Feddak Mamdouh, as I waited for my "asparagus with truffle sauce" appetizer in a booth at Colors recently.

"Colors received no assistance from the very organizations created to support recovery from 9/11, like the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. and the NYC Partnership's Investment Fund," said Bruce Herman, executive director of the National Employment Law Project.

Mamdouh, originally from Morocco, is a founder and assistant director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY) set up to help restaurant workers displaced by 9/11. His chagrin at the resistance they faced boils over: "It's like they didn't think the immigrant workers -- including waiters and dishwashers -- could do it."

The "it" required $2.2 million to renovate and equip 4,000 square feet that, ironically, had most recently been a restaurant locked in a bitter labor dispute, in which ROC-NY had supported the workers. When the place shut down, ROC-NY realized this well-placed site -- beside the Public Theater on Lafayette Street -- was just right for launching what it hopes will be only the first of its worker-owned eateries.

"Restaurants have always been known as places where immigrants go for work, but many of them are abused; there is a lot of discrimination. We want to show that we can improve conditions," Mamdouh told the Associated Press when Colors opened.

Commercial banks weren't interested, Saru Jayaraman, executive director of ROC-NY, told NewYorkBusiness.com, "because no one could provide personal backing for the loans."

In my book, Democracy's Edge , I argue that our thin democracy will continue to fray unless we extend democracy's values of inclusion, mutual accountability and fairness to ever wider circles. In the book, I use the Colors story to help make my case for the democracy-strengthening potential of worker ownership. So what better place than Colors, I thought recently, to celebrate my birthday with friends?

Little did I know that one of my guests, sustainability educator Hilary Baum, was the daughter of Windows on the World founder, Joe Baum. So the royal tour was ours, led by general manager Stefan Mailvaganam. We learned about the wall fixtures from the 1939 World Fair and visited the kitchen, which was designed ergonomically to protect the sous-chefs, runners and dishwashers from the burns and injuries common in the industry.

In the kitchen, a flyer taped to the wall announced: "Today's Mexican Seafood Soup, inspired by Oscar's family recipe." Many of the menus, we learned, were inspired by family favorites of worker/owners who hail from more than 22 countries. On the frequently changing menu, I identified dishes from Bangladesh, Colombia, Peru and Thailand. The staff buys from local farmers and from those using sustainable farming practices.

When my dinner guest, Anne Ferrell (herself a farmer) asked our waiter where the grass-fed beef came from, his response was immediate: "Wolfe Neck Farms, upstate New York." Later, Mailvaganam explained that the workers are learning about ecological and health consequences of how the food they serve is produced.

My entreé, "organic seitan with apricot, basil and yellow split-pea chutney with parsnip frisee salad," was exotic -- and stunningly delicious.

As a worker cooperative, Colors owner/workers make decisions by consensus and provide vacation and overtime. Ultimately, they plan to offer pensions to workers, something rare in the restaurant business. Everyone working the line, serving and dishwashing, makes $13.50 an hour -- double New York's standard minimum wage -- and the wait staff split tips.

ROC-NY hopes to do more with its money than help create one business. Toward that end, it attached a special condition to its $500,000 investment: that Colors' worker/owners put in 100 hours of "sweat equity" teaching other restaurant employees how to build their own worker-owned restaurant.

For another $500,000, Colors' founders had to cross the ocean. Good Italian Food, a consortium of Italian cooperatives anchored by the CIR Food Group, came through. Apparently, Italians find it easier to view worker cooperatives as bankable. In Italy's Emilia-Romagna region alone, more than 80,000 people are employed by cooperatives contributing 20 percent to 35 percent of the GDP.

So that workers at Colors could start out as owners, equity partners contributed 20 percent of their stake to the employees. Over time, the workers are expected to buy out the Good Italian Food shares at their original value and eventually own 51 percent to 60 percent of the equity. ROC-NY will keep 40 percent of the equity to use in creating a multiplier: The goal is that returns will seed other restaurant cooperatives.

The 20-year-old Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) provided a $210,500 term loan and put together the remaining $1.2 million needed from 15 lenders, including community development financial institutions, foundations and a credit union. Modest funds came from Roman Catholic nuns in California, Michigan and Ohio.

As I enjoyed my first Colors dining experience, the restaurant's name grew on me. I absorbed the richness around me, from the elegant cartography motif to the luscious chocolate pudding cake, knowing the people serving us were earning dignified wages and that the people who grew our food were caring for the earth. Now, that's dining in full color.