Nothing about Colors has been easy. Even its conception sprung from disaster.
It was founded by workers from Windows on the World, the high-end restaurant at the World Trade Center. On Sept. 11, 2001, 73 workers, were killed.
Their surviving colleagues, resolved not to let their fellow workers perish in vain, opened Colors as a co-operative, where the employees would be owners and have a say in all the decisions.
But the restaurant was fueled by hope – maybe even more than money – that has consistently been threatened by the capriciousness of the restaurant business.
Now, as the 10-year anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches, Colors is struggling to keep its doors open and stay true to its original vision.
“It’s a day to day struggle [to remain open] but there is a certain security,” said Juan Carlos Ruiz, who works for the restaurant union whose work dovetails with Colors and was founded by the same people. “If you really want to be responsible and [stay open] then that is a struggle. The forces that tell you you can make more money by exploiting people are really strong.”
There was trouble from the very beginning. Investors were hesitant to back a restaurant that would be run by the same people who bus tables and wash dishes.
Eventually, they cobbled together more than $2 million to open the restaurant in 2006, about 27 blocks north – or 1.7 miles away – from where Windows of the World once operated.
But after a year of robust business, patrons evaporated and Colors, which tried to replicate Windows on the World's high-end service, struggled to attract customers in a neighborhood filled with college students.
When the high-end service that the Windows on the World employees were accustomed to changed to a casual dining atmosphere with less pay and fewer tips, workers left in droves, recalled general manager Shardha Young. They started with about 50 employees and now have 13.
Just as things began looking bleak, Colors got a new lease on life.
The union stepped in, turning Colors into a training ground for future members, who receive a stipend for their training.
In return, the union pays Colors for use of its space and the trainees complete their studies by serving lunch – a meal not initially part of Colors’ business scheme.
“They will carry the vision in terms of fighting for living wages and paid sick days,” explained Ruiz. “They will continue that kind of a thirst of fighting for better rights and upholding their dignity as workers and human beings.”
Though few of the original employees remain, those that do are unwavering in their belief that they owe it to the memory of the Windows on the World workers to continue a mission of social justice.
Oscar Galindo, a line cook at Colors, used to be a salad preparer at Ranch 1, a fast-food restaurant located blocks from the World Trade Center. He spent months in therapy to cope with the destruction and horror he witnessed. He financially struggled, unable to find work.
For him, the restaurant Colors brought clarity to what he saw as a senseless and violent world. He has worked there from the day it opened and he has no plans to work elsewhere.
“Our goal is not just to [serve customers] but also to serve the community,” Galinda said. “We want to empower restaurant workers.”
Colors is even expanding beyond New York. Detroit is slated to open its first Colors restaurant this September 12, followed by Washington, D.C., New Orleans and Chicago.
Though workers at the restaurant have to continuously redefine their measure of success, the one thing that stays constant is this restaurant’s past.
“If it wasn’t for 9/11, there wasn’t going to be a Colors restaurant,” said Young, the general manager, as she sat inches away from a plaque onto which the names of those that died in Windows on the World was etched.
Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.