- - Monday, August 26, 2013


Union organizers are hungry to add cooks, waiters and busboys to a shrinking roster of union members. The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 100 came up with what it thought was a nifty idea to set up the Restaurant Opportunities Center in New York City to demonstrate that union-scale wages could be paid to restaurant workers and succeed. The co-founder, one Saru Jayaraman, told NPR that her goal was to “organize the 99 percent of the [New York City restaurant] industry that doesn’t have a union.”

Colors opened to great fanfare nearly a decade ago as “New York’s only cooperative restaurant, owned and operated by its workers.” It was a dream that soon faded into harsh reality. Colors is available now only for private events and “space rentals.” The restaurant’s advertising slogan, “Just good food,” was impossible to live up to.

New restaurants frequently can’t make it in Manhattan, home of some of the world’s pickiest eaters and one of the most competitive restaurant scenes in the world. Gotham diners choose from a dazzling array of choices, and customers soon found that it wasn’t difficult to find better alternatives to Colors. “The entree servings definitely will not be enough for the general diner,” wrote one customer on the review site Yelp, the “small portions and … mediocre flavors are something I feel a subpar home cook can make.”

Burdened by unrealistic labor costs, Colors never covered expenses and had to be bailed out with grants from New York City, state agencies, the U.S. Department of Labor and even the federal Centers for Disease Control. One of the grants was used to teach restaurant employees about workplace “safety and health hazards.” (Wash your hands. Don’t feed the rats.)

These were lessons not always learned. In April, the municipal health department cited Colors for “evidence of rats or live rats present.” This followed a losing grade last year when inspectors found mice on the premises. The murine species have found a happy home at Colors even if diners have not.

Service business that want to succeed must please its first and last customers. Successful restaurateurs have figured out how to please. They often operate on slim margins, and the waiters, chefs and dishwashers can’t take home more pay than their food and service brings in. Grants from the government inevitably spoil the broth. Forcing employees to split their modest paychecks with a union further curdles cream, turns butter rancid and makes the bread stale.

Operating a restaurant whose top priority is to push a political agenda, legitimate or not, was doomed to failure from the day Colors opened. The unions haven’t yet learned the lessons successful restaurateurs learn first, and last year the union opened a new restaurant in Detroit. Bankrupt or not, people have to eat, but prospects aren’t great.

Before legislators consider “card checks” and other schemes and dreams as favors to unions, they should make reservations at Colors to get a taste of the soup they’ll be paying for.

The Washington Times

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