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Former World Trade workers rebuild troubled eatery

Two years ago, a group of Windows on the World employees opened a stylish new restaurant not far from ground zero —  a symbol of their survival after the terror attacks that decimated the 107th-floor dining room atop the World Trade Center.  But the venture was faltering until the group picked up the pieces this year.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two years ago, a group of Windows on the World employees opened a stylish new restaurant not far from ground zero — a symbol of their survival after the terror attacks that decimated the 107th-floor dining room atop the World Trade Center.

But New York's dog-eat-dog restaurant industry is itself about survival, and by last fall, their business venture Colors was faltering.

In a turnaround this spring, the restaurant launched by terror attack survivors and named for the ethnic dishes the workers brought to the menu from their homelands appears to be coming back to life.

"I walked in and I was asked to pick up the pieces," said Christopher Faulkner, who took over as Colors' chef in November. "I walked into a disaster."

The previous chef had left months earlier along with almost half the original staff of 58. The remaining employees hadn't been paid in weeks. Dishes on the menu were deleted, one by one, and there wasn't enough money to order food supplies.

With an almost $1 million loan looming over tables that were often empty even on Saturday nights, Colors was fading fast.

The restaurant got lots of public attention when it opened in January 2006 on Lafayette Street in a trendy neighborhood dubbed NoHo, for north of Houston Street. No doubt it was due in part to the memory of the 73 restaurant workers killed on Sept. 11 while breakfast was being served for the last time.

In the first months, the 125 seats were often filled. Then the trouble started.

Founded with a grant from the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC), a labor advocacy group, the restaurant was meant to be a place where workers' rights would be protected.

Everyone from waiters and busboys to bartenders and chefs owned a share of the cooperative. The restaurant was to offer fine dining on white linen, with no one making less than $13.50 an hour — double what was then the minimum wage.

But in a cooperative, with all workers equal, everyone wanted to be in on the decisions. Service and organization slumped while employees huddled in meetings. And the food was expensive, with entrees going for $30 to $40.

"Some didn't have the experience of running a restaurant," said Victor Rojas, the general manager and former Windows bartender.

Empathy for 9/11 victims simply wasn't enough to keep drawing discriminating New Yorkers with 26,000 restaurants to choose from. About 70 percent of new restaurants in New York close or change ownership in their first five years.

Even though the foundation isn't even finished, the agency building the Freedom Tower at ground zero is already looking for someone to operate a new restaurant atop the structure, to open in 2013.

At Colors, business was so slow last year that the owner-workers couldn't always make the monthly rent of more than $20,000.

The workers went into emergency mode, voting to lower their own minimum wage to $9.45 an hour — current minimum wage in New York is $7.15 — and to slash menu prices; some took second jobs.

It took the whole winter for the turnaround to show results.

"There were so many pinholes in the bag that the water kept squirting out, and I've had to keep plugging," Faulkner said.

He hired a garbage collection service that costs a third as much, and bought rubber kitchen mats instead of wasting money renting them.

Now bills are paid on schedule and there's a tighter chain of command.

Colors again offers what Faulkner calls a "global ethnic" menu, with a stylized map of the world filling one wall of the Art Deco dining room illuminated by original light fixtures from the 1939 World's Fair.

The 39-year-old Harlem-based chef has worked in fine restaurants worldwide after training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

At Colors, he's added some modern soul cuisine and the vivid colors and spices he picked up in West Africa and Europe. The dishes have exotic touches like Hawaiian black lava salt atop a salmon dish and an appetizer platter with jerked eggplant caviar, roasted beets and chunky guacamole served with toasted pita, tortillas, plantains and Indian papadum wafers.

The restaurant serves dinner only, turning over the space during the day to ROC for free classes in bartending, basic cooking and other marketable skills for low-income workers.

The staff also does private events and catering, and Faulkner is putting together a Colors cookbook that he says has attracted interest from a publisher.

One telling detail of Colors' struggle remains: the white linen tablecloths are still missing. They cost too much to launder and iron.

But with Faulkner at the stoves, there's a growing stream of customers.

"I looked around one night and it was busy, and they were tasting each other's dishes and enjoying themselves," he said.

More than seven years after the terror attack, he reflected on the restaurant's bitter legacy in an interview last week.

"This is one of the good things left after 9/11. People are tired of hearing about death and victims," he said. "Colors is about food, nurturing and life."

The restuarant's web site is: www.colors-nyc.com