Former Windows on the World Staffers Open New Venture

The bartenders, waiters and busboys who once worked at the World Trade Center's Windows on the World restaurant are realizing a dream and opening their own restaurant, Colors, in lower Manhattan. Colors opened Thursday night.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The victims of the World Trade Center attack included 73 restaurant workers from Windows on the World. Most were immigrants. They were serving customers in a luxury restaurant more than 100 floors above the streets of New York. Many of those who survived did so because they came in 10 minutes late or traded a shift with a friend.

Last night, after years of effort, those survivors realized a dream of opening a new restaurant. It's called Colors and NPR's Margot Adler paid a visit.

(Soundbite of activity at restaurant)

MARGOT ADLER reporting:

Tonight the restaurant is hopping. Almost every table is full. But two days ago, there was still no sign on the door and wires protruded from walls. The kitchen was complete, the bar well stocked, the menus printed, but still a work in progress.

(Soundbite of activity at restaurant)

ADLER: The restaurant has an Art Deco, late 1930s feel. Stefan Mailvaganam, the restaurant's manager, shows me around.

Mr. STEFAN MAILVAGANAM (Manager, Colors): You can still see that there are some things missing here, but there's going to be a nice mirror on the side and then if you walk right, you'll see that there's a bar that seats about nine people very comfortably.

ADLER: Raymond Mohan, the head chef, takes me into the kitchen.

Mr. RAYMOND MOHAN (Chef, Colors): The fish line, the meat, the dessert, then the pantry. And it's a small line, it's a six-man crew.

ADLER: Colors is a cooperative restaurant. There are 58 members of the co-op from about 25 countries, most of them former Windows' workers. Perhaps fittingly the most striking part of the restaurant's design is a map of the world. The menu, says Mohan, is global.

Mr. MOHAN: The menu's designed around family recipes from the co-op, 28 different countries. So the menu comes from Philippines, Congo...

ADLER: Do you have a recipe of your own family in here?

Mr. MOHAN: Yeah, actually the Guineas curry goat is a traditional Guineas recipe.

ADLER: The prices are standard for a good New York restaurant with entrees in the $20 to $25 range. But many other things about Colors are different. A project of ROC, the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, Colors is to be a model for the industry as a whole. No one will be paid less than $13.50 an hour. Tips will be pooled and they even hired an ergonomics expert so workers would get fewer injuries. Stefan Mailvaganam.

Mr. MAILVAGANAM: So we have, you know, strategically placed service stations with ergonomic heights so that there's no a lot of bending over with, you know, chronic back or repetitive strain injuries, that kind of thing.

ADLER: So the chairs are particularly comfortable?

Mr. MAILVAGANAM: The chairs are particularly comfortable. You want to have a seat here?

ADLER: Yeah.

And they were.

It takes about $2 million to open a restaurant in New York. They got some from a consortium of Italian co-ops, some from private investors. But getting a $1.2 million loan was a struggle. Saru Jayaraman, the director of ROC, says in the end they went to a whole bunch of credit unions and non-traditional lenders.

Mr. SARU JAYARAMAN (Director, ROC): But no traditional banks at all because they just wouldn't do it.

ADLER: They got a space, they lost a space. The whole process took three years. Co-op members are struggling with their identity. Are they workers or owners or both? Should they be unionized? Howie Christenson(ph), one of the sous chefs, says that's still on the table.

Mr. HOWIE CHRISTENSON (Sous chef, Colors): You know, some people are for it, some people are not for it. So that's just another thing that we have to keep discussing.

ADLER: John-Pierre(ph), another sous chef, puts his finger on part of the conundrum.

JOHN-PIERRE (Sous chef, Colors): As an owner, you want the best for your business. As a worker, you go to work to get paid and go home. Here, anything goes bad, it reflects on you. So as a worker-owner, it's like it's more responsibility.

ADLER: They're straddling both worlds, working as hard as owners, but attempting to create great conditions for workers.

Ms. JAYARAMAN: For me, personally, the hardest thing was the conflicts with the members.

ADLER: ROC director Saru Jayaraman.

Ms. JAYARAMAN: Some people left, you know, because it just didn't fit their idea of making a lot of money. You know, we struggled with that. It was very painful, very difficult. But I think in the end, a majority of workers, you know, really see this as something more noble than just making money.

ADLER: Noble is nice, but they know no one will return to Colors unless the food measures up and last night it was promising.

And here's the goat curry. Hmm, really good.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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