ROC Wants Restaurants to Follow the COLORS’ Model: Closed for Business

Intrepid diners considering a visit to ROC’s flagship restaurant in New York City have even more reason to doubt whether a trip to COLORS is worth the hassle. The website for ROC’s model restaurant has been down for over a week, and it hasn’t engaged its social media since February.  Online reports indicate that it “may be permanently closed.” Despite these facts, ROC continues to trumpet the virtues of COLORS when attempting to justify government-mandated wage and benefit hikes on other small businesses.  The sad reality is that forcing other restaurants to follow the COLORS model will likely push them into the same unfortunate reality – one ROC seems all too willing to ignore.

Since it opened in 2006, ROC’s worker-owned cooperative has mostly floundered, with former employees accusing ROC of the same abuses it lobs against legitimate restaurateurs such as “wage theft.” In addition to a lawsuit from aggrieved workers, COLORS NYC also racked up numerous violations from the NYC Health Department. 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.

In fact, rodents might be the only regular customers visiting COLORS. The restaurant has drastically reduced its hours of operation and is rarely open for anything but special events. But diners who go online to decipher a good time to visit COLORS won’t have much luck either. The website for ROC’s model restaurant has been down for over a week. While ROC has long boasted that COLORS is the premier standard for how all restaurants should be run, it has failed to maintain even the most fundamental aspects of any successful business – namely, a functioning website and regular hours of operation.

Far from serving as the archetype for other restaurants, COLORS exemplifies what happens when lack of business experience meets bad management. One of ROC’s leaders even acknowledged these failings in his book The Accidental American.  According to the author, COLORSwas $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. Despite the critical failure of COLORS NYC, ROC continues to lecture other employers using its abysmal model as the prototype.

Speaking on panel in Seattle to support increasing that city’s minimum wage, ROC co-founder Saru Jayaraman said:

“I fully respect, you know, uh, the difficulties of a small business.  I run two restaurants myself. We have our own worker-owned restaurants – one in New York, one in Detroit. Um, I understand how difficult it is.”

Saru was, of course, continuing her self-righteous crusade to eliminate workers’ tips – even if actual workers have no interest in seeing their tips go away. But in order to give her argument a faux sense of legitimacy, she made the audacious claim of being a small business owner herself – “run[ning] two restaurants” thousands of miles away from her home in California. Saru has made a lot of outrageous claims in her career, but saying that she’s responsible for COLORS abysmal performance may be one grand assertion we’re willing to let her own. In fact, more people should know that ROC’s co-founder runs a business that can’t keep its doors open, its kitchen clean, or even maintain a functioning website. And that’s the real story behind Saru’s kitchen door.