Colors restaurant serves up new food business model

No one ever said that changing a long-established paradigm would be easy, but Phil Jones and the staff at Colors are up to the challenge.

Jones, head chef at the new Paradise Valley restaurant, is part of a team of people at nonprofit organization ROC United (ROC stands for Restaurant Opportunities Center), whose goal is to improve the labor conditions of employees in the restaurant industry and to give employees the knowledge and training to feel empowered in their jobs.

It’s a common misconception that restaurant workers make tons of easy cash. For a tiny percentage of servers and bartenders at high-end or very busy restaurants, this may be the case. But for the vast majority of workers -- hosts, bussers, dishwashers, cooks, and other staff who keep the machine running smoothly -- restaurant jobs typically offer low pay, no benefits, no paid sick days, little job security, and little or no opportunity for advancement. On top of that, jobs within a restaurant are often highly segregated with regard to race and gender. ROC’s mission is to shed light on these issues and to bring about industry-wide improvements in working conditions. 

As anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant (myself included) knows, this is no small feat, and Jones acknowledges the difficulty of the task at hand. He points out that most restaurants are either small, privately owned businesses where management positions are occupied by family members, or corporate chains hiring management from outside rather than promoting from within. In either case, it’s difficult to advance, and there is little incentive for owners to improve working conditions or raise salaries to the detriment of their own profits.

Rather than focus on these obstacles, however, ROC embraces the philosophy that if you can’t change what exists, sometimes the best way forward is to build something new. With this in mind, Colors was created -- a restaurant that defies norms by providing employees living wages, promoting access to fresh, healthy food, and supporting good food enterprise.

"Our strategy is to lead by example," Jones says. The hope is that, given an option to choose a restaurant where the food is local and the workers are paid and treated fairly, diners will support those ideals with their pocketbooks. Other businesses will then take notice and will be motivated to change their own practices. It may sound overly optimistic, but then again, there are several examples in the news today (Apple and McDonald’s come to mind) of companies deciding to shift gears and "do the right thing" based on consumer pressure.

Still, it’s an uphill battle, and many diners aren’t even aware of the problems or that they can make a difference. "Telling our story is the biggest thing we can do right now to further our cause," says Jones. We’re happy to oblige. 

Although Colors is new to Detroit, the story began in New York after the 9/11 attacks. A group of restaurant workers, former employees of Windows on the World at the top of the World Trade Center, found themselves newly jobless. They banded together to create a worker-owned restaurant called Colors, whose menu reflected the culinary diversity of their many ethnic backgrounds and cultures.

In 2007, the parent organization ROC, which until that point had existed only in New York, grew into ROC United; a nationwide nonprofit committed to advocating for restaurant workers across the country. There are currently three Colors restaurants, in NYC, Detroit and New Orleans.

While ROC concentrates on organized labor and representation for workers, the Colors restaurants have a slightly different focus -- that of providing employees with the tools to be what Jones calls "decision-makers." Although the Detroit location is not worker-owned as it is in New York, there are several initiatives and policies in place to provide a sense of ownership and investment. The biggest of these is the restaurant’s function as a business incubator -- if an employee has an idea for a business, the restaurant will support and assist them in making it a reality. Currently there are two spin-off businesses being developed: Café Colors, which will be a retail outlet for Colors-branded products as well as other local food items, and Colors Event Services, a catering division.

In addition to the business incubator, ROC has developed free classes on a first come, first served basis to train restaurant workers so that they have a broader experience base and thus, better work opportunities. The current staff at Colors will become the trainers for this program. 

Although they’ve only been open a few months, the restaurant’s practices have already made a difference in the lives of its employees. I spoke to maintenance worker Torsia Brooks, who used to have her own cleaning company until the economy bottomed out, at which point she was forced to work in a franchise earning less than half of what she used to for large cleaning jobs. Not only does Colors pay her a fair wage, but she has been trained in all of the restaurant’s job positions. "This has been a great experience because I’ve learned so much more than cleaning," she says. 

There are many great reasons to support Colors, but the main one can be found in the restaurant’s motto: "Just. Good. Food." Phil Jones is a chef, after all, and wouldn’t expect people to patronize an establishment based solely on its good mojo. The menu at Colors Detroit, like its New York counterpart, has multicultural flair: za’atar chicken wings, BBQ eggrolls, and sweet potato wontons are just a few of the appetizers. The sandwich selections will please conscious carnivores and vegetarians alike, with grass-fed beef burgers, grilled cheese with Avalon bread and Zingerman’s cheeses, and even a tofu club. Since the restaurant is currently open only for lunch, the entrees are limited, but they do offer free-range chicken, pork and shrimp dishes for those who want more than a sandwich. 

When we went for lunch on a recent Friday, parking was easy and there was no wait to be seated, but it won’t be long before the word is out. So grab some friends or a hot lunch date, get yourself to the historic Arts League building on the corner of Grand River and Centre, and chow down on some great local food. Whether you go to Colors because you want a good meal or because you want to feel good about your meal doesn’t really matter in the end. You’ll walk away with both missions accomplished.

Noelle Lothamer pens the food blog Simmer Down! Her most recent contributions to Model D included a roundup of recent food developments and the evolving Hamtramck food scene. 

All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
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