Black Eyes and Hypocrisy

While New Yorkers have known about the Restaurant Opportunities Center and its tactics for nearly a decade, many Americans’ first introduction to the group came in mid-2012 as a result of a Congressional investigation by Congressman Darrell Issa.

ROC and its regional affiliates have received at least $981,140 in grant money from the federal government during its existence. Rep. Issa wrote a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis questioning why the federal government provided money to the group given its history of “intimidation of opponents” and “management problems” at its own restaurant. (The Congressman might also have added the organization’s radical politics to his list of concerns.)

A Failed Restaurant

ROC opened its restaurant COLORS in 2006, in the Astor Place neighborhood of Manhattan. COLORS was to be “a new type of restaurant, where workers are owners, stress is kept at a minimum, and all possible measures are taken to prevent work-related injuries.”

ROC promised “rigorous financial management” of the project, a claim which seems laughable in retrospect. In his book The Accidental American, one of ROC’s founders explained that the restaurant was $1 million in debt within a year of opening its doors, and “consistently late” on rent payments. ROC itself was providing interest-free loans  and grants to the restaurant to help it remain in operation. The New York State Department of Taxation and Finance has filed over $50,000 in tax warrants against the restaurant’s operating company.

As of 2010, half of the restaurant’s expenses were still covered by a fee that ROC pays to operate a training program at the restaurant.

Failure to Take Care of Employees

Though ROC prides itself on pointing out the alleged abuse of employees in the restaurant business, former employees claim that “ROC itself is guilty of those very abuses” at the COLORS restaurant.

To purchase their “share” of the restaurant, COLORS employees were required to provide 100 hours “sweat equity”—a requirement that was later increased, according to a lawsuit filed by then-board member Orlando Godoy. These hours were often worked without pay. Nearly half of the core group of “worker-owners” had left by the time the restaurant opened its doors, claiming “they could not afford to keep waiting for a dream.”

Remaining “worker-owners” were asked to sign a contract requiring more unpaid work as a condition of membership. Godoy, a board member who refused to sign the contract, was expelled as a result of his decision.

Godoy later filed a lawsuit against ROC claiming improper termination and a failure to compensate employees for hours worked. He was joined in the lawsuit by other members, including Behzad Pasdar. Pasdar had riled ROC’s leadership by questioning whether COLORS would—as originally promised–be a company owned by its employees. Instead of full ownership, restaurant stock was to be divided up equally between ROC management and the restaurant’s investors, with a promise that 20 percent would be given to worker-owners at an unspecified future date.

Said Pasdar of his experience: “I’ve spent my whole life working in city restaurants, but nothing was as bad as the three years I spent with ROC.”

ROC’s Dirty Dishes

While ROC specializes in pointing out employers for violating “health and safety regulations,” its own restaurant has failed to live up to the standards it has set for others. One 2011 inspection of COLORS found 38 violation points due to reasons including “evidence of mice or live mice” in food prep or dining areas, food that wasn’t protected from sources of contamination, and “food contact surfaces” that weren’t properly cleaned.

The restaurant presently has a B grade, due to 18 violation points received on the most recent inspection in March of 2012. Again, evidence of “mice or live mice” was found, and cold food was being stored above its recommended temperature. Several of the restaurants that ROC has targeted in the past—such as the Red Eye Grill, Daniel, Del Posto, and Smith & Wollensky—presently have better letter grades than COLORS.

Radical Politics

ROC’s “worker-owner” model for COLORS originates from a broader distrust of free-market capitalism. In one interview, ROC’s co-director Saru Jayaraman described her organization as a “challenge” to capitalism, which would allow them to “infiltrate the New York State Restaurant Association and ultimately co-opt it for workers’ rights.” She’s been critical of “globalization” and the “Israeli occupation,” and even has even questioned whether it’s appropriate to call the September 11th attacks a crime.