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Colors in New York: A Restaurant Cooperative

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Signs of a New Identity, Colors Restaurant, Fekkak

Photo by Brian Palmer.

New York restaurant cooperative Colors serves up much more than an eclectic dinner menu of Bento boxes and Argentine-style steaks. The restaurant’s staff-owners, who come from more than a dozen countries, are part of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), an organization that fights for fair working conditions for restaurant workers across the country.

Moroccan-born Fekkak Mamdouh (at right) helped found ROC after the 9/11 attacks destroyed his former workplace, the World Trade Center’s Windows on the World restaurant, and left more than 300 workers jobless. Windows’ former owners opened a new restaurant in Times Square, but they rehired primarily managers and white employees and rejected applications from Windows’ immigrant workers, including Mamdouh.

It wasn’t the first time Mamdouh witnessed discriminatory or abusive practices in the restaurant industry. He realized that restaurant workers needed more political power.

With support from the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 100, Mamdouh worked with organizer Saru Jayaraman to start ROC and co-lead its first initiatives. ROC staged protests that persuaded Windows’ owners to offer 15 additional positions to former employees. The group also launched campaigns to fight exploitation of restaurant workers—both immigrants and non-immigrants.

Mamdouh founded the worker-owned Colors as a tribute to those who’d lost their lives in the World Trade Center. The project initially met resistance from investors. “They said, ‘You cannot do it,’” Mamdouh says. “‘You’re good at bussing tables and driving taxis, but you cannot run your own business.’”

Today Colors runs a thriving business at night, and by day serves as a training center for restaurant workers. ROC has expanded to eight satellite chapters across the country and is planning to open a second co-op restaurant in Detroit.

Rinku Sen’s book, The Accidental American, profiles Colors and ROC.

Berit Anderson wrote this piece for America: The Remix, the Spring 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. Berit is an editorial intern at YES!


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