“Paranoid,” #EssentialWorkers on the #FrontLine Fear for Their Lives

By: Patrick Maguire

Book Chapter: Human-to-Human Service

Posted: 4/10/2020

Since our Twilight Zone existence began, the first few times I saw him, I thanked the young guy working in the fish department of my neighborhood market for being there. As time wore on, and the thank you’s became redundant, I asked him how he felt about working through this nightmare, “I’m paranoid, man. I don’t want to get sick, but I gotta pay the bills.” This is the reality for many workers I’ve spoken with–they’re grateful to have work when many of us don’t, but they’re afraid, putting themselves and their loved ones at risk every shift. They don’t see themselves as heroes, but they do want and deserve hazard pay and expanded benefits. The fear and danger for all frontline workers is real.

NYT Morning Briefing, 4/10/20: As the pandemic reaches meat processing plants, some companies have offered financial incentives to keep workers on the job. But the spread of illness is forcing plants to close. “My mom said the guy at the plant said they had to work to feed America. But my mom was sick,” said the son of a woman who worked at a poultry plant in Georgia. She died on Thursday.

I started this blog/book project to provide a voice for service industry workers. I never intended to portray workers with the overused moniker, ‘hero,’ but rather to advocate for mutual respect and decency between customers and servers. It really shouldn’t take a pandemic, huge snowstorm, or any great equalizer for people to be kind to each other and appreciate the value of the unsung humans who serve us every day. As my good friend, chef/restaurant owner, Greg Reeves often says, “It’s not that hard,” referring to common courtesy and ‘doing the right thing.’

First SNS blog post 10/29/09:

Some insecure, unaware humans will always be unnecessarily cruel, condescending, and selfish. That will never change. And the people who don’t shift their perspective about service industry workers when we reach ‘the other side’ of this calamity will never ‘learn’ because they’re closed to the opportunity, and consumed with protecting their established ‘worldview.’ Self-preservation of ideals is a strong motivator, and for some insecure people that often results in demeaning others to inflate their own sad sense of self-worth.

However, in addition to appreciating and recognizing our ‘traditional’ frontline workers (hospital, police, fire, EMT’s), many folks (at least for now) are valuing everyday workers on the ‘frontlines’ of our current crisis. Trash collectors, farm workers, transit crew and drivers, airline workers, volunteers, pharmacy workers, restaurant staff, mail carriers, truckers, food pantry workers, grocery store staff, elderly housing workers, childcare workers, warehouse and delivery drivers, and so many more people are stepping up and grinding their way through during this once-in-a-century calamity. Many of them are reluctant ‘heroes’ for putting themselves at risk to make a living and serve all of us.

“There’s always a level of fear. Is today going to be the day I get sick? There’s a bigger fear of how am I going to pay my bills and how am I going to take care of my family?” -Lisa Wilson, a Shaw’s supermarket worker and rally organizer told Katie Johnston at the Boston Globe 4/7/20.

Another worker at the same rally at Whole Foods in Boston’s South End stated, “We’re out here because Whole Foods owned by Amazon, one of the richest corporations in the history of our planet, is refusing to pay its workers more than $2 an hour hazard pay, is not providing its employees with adequate protective equipment, masks, gloves, etc.” –Boston Patch (Jimmy Bentley 4/7/20)

The additional $2/hour that Whole Foods is temporarily paying during this pandemic is disgraceful and insulting, given their wealth. You find out someone’s true colors are by their consistent actions over time, not by what they say, but by what they do. And that goes for corporations and company owners of all sizes, especially under duress. This crisis is laying bare the raw core, fabric, and soul of what people and companies are made of. These are times that define leadership, character, relationships, and culture within companies, and when it comes to loyalty, trust, and ‘having their backs,’ employees will never forget how they were treated.

Yvonne Abraham, a champion for the underdog at the Boston Globe, has written some wonderful pieces over the last few weeks, including one about pandemic priorities, ‘Lessons for life we shouldn’t soon forget’ on March 24th that opens with, “What would the world be like if the things that have become most important to us during this pandemic remained so? How would our lives look, if our values and priorities were frozen, right here?”

Her column concludes, “We would be more grateful for all we have, and more outraged at what others do not. We would – will – be happier on the other side of all this. If we remember.”

Amen. And please continue to be decent, kind, and respectful to every service industry worker you interact with the rest of your life. “It’s not that hard.” Thank you.

I love this piece by artist, Terrance Osborne:

Kenny Lopez on 4/5/20 for WGNO: Artist Terrance Osborne creates beautiful “Front Line” art piece: 

Please watch the video within the article where Terrance explains his inspiration for his work.

NEW ORLEANS– Famous artist Terrance Osborne has created a new piece of art, entitled “Front Line.” This piece honors the front line workers who are risking their lives in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.
Osborne said this is a nod to Rosie the Riveter, and it honors all front line workers like doctors, nurses, medical professionals, grocery store workers, bus drivers, and emergency workers.
Osborne will be giving 1,000 posters to the local hospitals.  If you’d like to pre-order prints of “Front Line,” go to terranceosborne.com.

Don’t forget the Pluggers when this is over…

PLUGGERS by Gary Brookins 4/3/20. Copyright 2020 Tribune Content Agency, LLC. Brookins Art, LLC.

Ideas for blog posts, please email Patrick@servernotservant.com

Support for Server Not Servant via Venmo @Patrick-Maguire-32

Thank you for reading, commenting, and sharing.

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Open Letter to Boston Leaders, from Asia Mei, Chef/Small Business Owner-Moonshine 152 South Boston, MA

By: Patrick Maguire

Book Chapter: Human-to-Human Service

Posted: 3/29/2020

Reiterating a few critical excerpts from my post on 3/13/20 calling for a 3-month rent reprieve for restaurants:

“Social media and our email inboxes are flooded with messages about what restaurants and small businesses are doing to survive in the face of the crisis…The fear and anxiety are real because many lives, livelihoods, and jobs have already been impacted, and many are at considerable risk.”

“There are huge risks to temporary closures (like losing staff), and not all operators can afford zero income for 12 weeks and survive. Those who don’t have the financial reserves to weather the storm will be forced to close without a lifeline or dramatic adjustment to how they conduct business.”

“Something drastic needs to happen to save many restaurants, shops, and small businesses teetering on the brink of closing. As I have often stated before, the restaurant business is one of the most difficult grinds to make a living, and the profit margins (if any) are painfully thin. Despite thin margins, restaurants and small businesses are often the first to donate gift certificates, food, and products to help local charities in their communities. Now it’s time for us to step up and help them survive.”

“Rhetoric is bullshit. ‘Buy local.’ ‘Shop local,’ and ‘Support small businesses that support our communities,’ mean nothing if we’re not willing to step up and help restaurants and small businesses on the brink of survival.”

On Sunday morning, I read the following letter on the Industry United Facebook Group from well-respected chef/owner, Asia Mei of Moonshine 152 in South Boston, MA. Asia is hard-working, humble, and pours her soul into her work, her staff, and her life. I’m sure she speaks for millions of owners and restaurant industry workers in America and around the world in her letter below. Shared with Asia’s permission.

**Emailed 3/28/20**

Hello Governor Baker, Mayor Walsh, Councilor Frank Baker, and Councilor Ricardo Arroyo

I am so sorry that I have to reach out to you under circumstances like these. My Boston Family is constituted of many fiercely close friends, coworkers, and employees who have only spoken the highest of you, and my heart aches for the numerous complicated decisions you must have in front of you.

I am Asia Mei, the chef and owner of Moonshine 152 in Southie. We are the modern interpretation of a neighborhood bistro–a community driven small business, very much like a Cheers, where so much of the personality of the restaurant is composed of the people who frequent and work there. Councilor Baker, I believe you have visited yourself and been a patron at Moonshine several times over the years.

The vast majority of people that make up the regulars and staff at Moonshine are either Southie residents or from Dorchester. We have employed family members of the Bakers, Savin Hill families, and many who have originated from the D Street public housing development in Southie… many of which came to us with zero restaurant experience and were able to refocus their lives, learn/train, and become part of something much more than just a job.

I am like every small business owner in this city. I took a huge gamble, and poured my life savings, efforts, and dreams into this small business. Even with the current nightmarish circumstances, I would never take it back. Having been able to be a part of this community in a REAL way has been the biggest honor and pleasure of my life. I am a minority female, and even though the odds were always against us, striving to survive the tough industry was a battle that I was proud to be in to show people that living and working for their passions could be one and the same.

Moonshine 152 just celebrated it’s 5th anniversary, and ironically enough, with the loss of the parade and the ever-changing takeout/capacity restrictions, we never got to celebrate our 6th St. Patrick’s Day… Instead, on March 17th, we literally had to close.

The entire team is heartbroken. We were lucky enough to employ everyone from some of the longest tenured families in Dorchester to multiple people from your city offices. There wasn’t one person who didn’t say that Moonshine was the best job they’ve ever had, during the phone calls where I had to lay every single person off. This is a group of people, who like EVERYONE in the small business and restaurant industry in Boston, are not asking for extreme handouts; we are asking for a real way to go back to work and serve the city.

The small businesses/service industry needs expedited, significant relief. We NEED government mandated rent/mortgage freezes. Not all of us have landlords that will negotiate, and who can blame them if they are still responsible for the mortgages? Also, there is NO help from insurance. Personally, I will be held responsible for a year’s worth of full rent, no matter what. That isn’t my LLC, it is me. Declaring personal bankruptcy, bankruptcy of the small business, and losing the ability to employ and provide income for one of Boston’s hardest working teams will be a horrible reality.

If there is any way you can really help us, until more is figured out in the future with grants/loans, of course, it is through controlling rent both commercial and residential. THIS IS WITHIN YOUR CONTROL. I am not saying it is a solve-all, but all of these so-so, promissory “we will support and help small business” statements will not be enough. Our administration’s limited loans that further indebt us, the allowances to do takeout only–these are only bandaids for a system that is fundamentally broken now, and we need immediate and serious HELP.

I am a working chef and owner. I have worked every single day, 7/days a week, since we opened during the Snowpocalypse five years ago. In Southie, which is buried between the evolving neighborhood of Dorchester and the South End, Seaport, and Ink Block, we have been able to truly distinguish ourselves and stay true to EVERYTHING that I have found important to the community. We have always operated with integrity and would be heartbroken to lose that opportunity to be part of the community simply because the tight margins and restrictions didn’t make sense for the impact of this pandemic virus.

We poured over every permutation possible to stay open. Restaurants like ours not only would have continued to hemorrhage money due to the tight margins everyone is aware of–we were also receiving xenophobic threats and calls by the minute by staying open. That, in addition to the obvious concerns for the health and safety of my employees led to the necessity to close indefinitely. I also believe in doing all we can to “flatten the curve” to truly stop the virus as best we can. The struggle to reopen will not only be a burden about having had to pay things like past bills and rent while being closed, it will also be the unprecedented situation of finding our bearings in a new world. To have a chance, there needs to be help from top down, and it needs to be regulated.

Please feel free to contact me however you can if it helps. Yesterday, I converted my lifeless restaurant into a hub for much needed blood drives for the Red Cross, while I still could. In times like these, where there is such universal fear and self-preservation going on, we have to do what we can to be the best examples possible for those who follow us, and take care of each other. If you do not mandate help to the small business industries, we will not be able to be there on the flipside to provide service to the people the way it will be needed more than ever.

All of my best wishes and hopes for everything I know you can do for this city. We are all behind you, but we need your help too.

Best, Asia Mei

Email: Asia@moonshine152.com

Asia Twitter

Moonshine 152 Twitter

Asia Instagram

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Listen to Facts, Science & Experts-Shut it Down, Now, America. Humans Will Not ‘Do the Right Thing’ On Their Own

By: Patrick Maguire

Book Chapter: Human-to-Human Service

Posted: 3/15/2020

It’s time to take the guesswork out of the equation and shut all non-essential businesses down, now. Yes, that includes dine-in restaurants. Given the facts and science, the crowds gathering in tight quarters in South Boston, MA last night were disgraceful. The joints packed to the gills with long lines down the sidewalk shot themselves in the foot. It was selfish and short-sighted. Shutting it all down now is the responsible thing to do for the greater good of all. And the US, state, and local governments sure as hell better step up and help restaurants, small businesses, and all of their employees suffering through this crisis. If we can spend trillions of dollars bailing out big banks in 2008, we sure as hell can take care of restaurants, small businesses and their workers, many, pillars of our communities.

Sad to say, but too many humans can’t be trusted to ‘do the right thing,’ despite great intentions. Please read this post from (Restaurant) Industry United group member, Danielle Egger:

Thank you for creating this group. As a former state health inspector and foodborne illness investigator/biological scientist, I’d like to weigh in on this.
I understand closing restaurant doors is going to be financially devastating for many folks (I’m in the biz – this impacts me as well). We all have to make a living. However, this is a special circumstance that affects EVERYONE – not just the restaurant industry.
While we’d like to believe our restaurants are practicing the sanitation plans they claim to have activated in light of this situation, let’s be real. It’s not possible for them to maintain those standards when they’re 20 people deep at the bar.
Yes I was guilty of being in the masses yesterday. NO MORE. I’m not going to throw the restaurant under the bus, because every single restaurant here has the same issues – no matter how well they’ve trained their staff.
The restaurant I visited yesterday posted signs adamantly stating their “increased sanitation measures”. Here is a list of violations I observed while sitting at the bar:

1. On 14 different occasions, servers pushed the tongs out of the way to grab fruit garnishes with their bare hands. Four of those servers were observed handling cash immediately before touching the garnishes. No hand washing.
2. A bartender cleared soiled plates and glasses from the bar to the bus tub, then proceeded to reach – with their bare, unwashed hands – into the mint to make mojitos. No hand washing.
3. The wet rags were not placed in sanitizer solution between wiping down soiled spots at the bar.
4. The sanitizer solution in the pail was heavily soiled with food debris, visible from ten feet away. Food debris drastically reduces the efficacy of the sanitizer.
5. The fruit garnish tray was wide open and directly in front of where patrons walked up to order drinks. This includes one gentleman who graciously turned his head 20° to the right to sneeze.
6. The 3 compartment sink water was cruddy – all three compartments.
7. We were there for approximately 2.5 hours. In that 2.5 hours, ONE bartender washed his hands. ONE, folks. And it was one time. The cash changing hands here was too frequent to count.
8. Servers were scooping ice with cups instead of a handled scoop. The cup they just handled with their unwashed hands has now potentially contaminated the ice.
9. The bar caddies were placed with unwrapped straws directly in front of bar patrons, some of which reached over those straws to pay the bartender, coming in physical contact with the straws.
10. The menus were sticky and visibly soiled.
11. The condiment baskets were also sticky and visibly soiled.
I’m not blaming the staff. They were in the weeds and just trying to pump out the orders. This is the pattern everywhere, though.
No matter how well written your “increased sanitation measures” may be, they’re only as effective as the team that follows them.”

I will repeat one more thing I have shared everywhere I could: Restaurants, small businesses, and their teams are the first to answer the call and donate their spaces, time, creative effort and energy, food, drink, gift certificates and hospitality for people who are hurting and charitable causes in their neighborhoods and communities. It’s time that we step up and demonstrate our appreciation as neighbors and a nation and prove that we really mean that “we’re all in this together” and save their lives and livelihoods, please. Thank you-Patrick Maguire

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Rent Reprieve-Emergency Legislation Required to Save Restaurants & Small Businesses

By: Patrick Maguire

Book Chapter: Human-to-Human Service

Posted: 3/13/2020

The notifications popping up on our phones are relentless. Disneyland shutting down, travel banned, Broadway shows suspended, pro sports suspended, March Madness cancelled, Boston Marathon postponed, the stock market wiped out, and hoarding of supplies underscores the severity of the pandemic. Amidst the chaos, one of the scariest realities is that no one knows how bad things are actually going to get before they get better. Even the most cynical should temper their sarcasm and mockery–‘this shit is real,’ and no one is exempt.

Social media and our email inboxes are flooded with messages about what restaurants and small businesses are doing to survive in the face of the crisis. After a while, they all start to sound the same. The fear and anxiety are real because many lives, livelihoods, and jobs have already been impacted, and many are at considerable risk.

Restaurant Business Magazine featured a story by Heather Lalley titled, “Is Seattle’s Restaurant Emergency  a Sign of Things to Come for the Industry? Restaurants in the biggest city in the first state hit by coronavirus are struggling to survive amid the quarantines.” From the piece:

Washington was the first state to report a coronavirus case. And, in the weeks since, its restaurant industry has been shaken to its core.

At least a half-dozen Seattle restaurants have closed permanently, according to local media reports and restaurant social media, and more than a dozen have announced temporary closures, including the stunning announcement late Wednesday that Seattle’s best-known chef and restaurateur Tom Douglas would be temporarily closing all 12 of his establishments, effective Sunday, after sales declined up to 90% since the outbreak began, according to The Seattle Times.

“I am sad for our city,” Douglas told The Times. “It’s tough going for Seattle now. I am optimistic [that] at the end of the day, in eight to 12 weeks, we will be back at it.” 

There are huge risks to temporary closures (like losing staff), and not all operators can afford zero income for 12 weeks and survive. Those who don’t have the financial reserves to weather the storm will be forced to close without a lifeline or dramatic adjustment to how they conduct business. From the same RB piece, here is how one restaurateur is adapting:

Award-winning fine-dining bastion Canlis announced Thursday it will temporarily shutter its restaurant Monday and open three new concepts in its place: A “bagel shed” for breakfast, a drive-thru burger spot for lunch and a family-meal delivery service for dinner.

“Fine dining is not what Seattle needs right now,” Canlis said in a Facebook post. “Instead, this is one idea for safely creating jobs for our employees while serving as much of the city as we can.”

Restaurant operators and staff are beyond anxious and searching for creative solutions beyond the obvious. Short of modifying their whole business plan, some are taking thoughtful, proactive steps to adjust the best they can. This Instagram post from Mom & Pop, full service restaurant, Farmstead Table in Newton, MA is a good example:

The Ashmont Grill, another independent restaurant in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, posted the following;

And the good, neighborly folks at Narragansett Beer posted this, including the excellent idea of buying gift certificates online or by phone from their partner restaurants and retail stores for future use;

If enough people step up, this will help, but it’s not nearly enough. Something drastic needs to happen to save many restaurants, shops, and small businesses teetering on the brink of closing. As I have often stated before, the restaurant business is one of the most difficult grinds to make a living, and the profit margins (if any) are painfully thin. Despite thin margins, restaurants and small businesses are often the first to donate gift certificates, food, and products to help local charities in their communities. Now it’s time for us to step up and help them survive.

In an almost unprecedented move, Irene Li, the well-respected chef/owner of Mei Mei, a counter service restaurant in Boston, MA, shared her full profit-and-loss for Mei Mei for 2019 with Eater this week. The piece is titled, What Does It Really Cost to Run a Restaurant? From the piece, “I have always thought to myself that the version of Top Chef that I would want to watch would be chef-owners plunging a toilet, cleaning an overflowing grease trap, balancing a balance sheet, and running payroll as fast as they could — a decathlon of all the administrative bullshit,” says Irene Li, the chef and owner of Mei Mei, a Chinese-American restaurant in Boston. “And obviously, people would be bored to death by that show, but that’s what it really is.”  I strongly encourage you to read the full piece.

I love the Eater piece, and Li’s subsequent, genuine commentary in a webinar the evening the article was released. Her transparency, candor, and humility are very refreshing.  A few things stood out after studying the piece and webinar. Li cares very deeply about her staff, their compensation, benefits, and quality of life, her vendors, her mission, and how she conducts every aspect of her business. The monthly rent at Mei Mei is $7,225. On $1,215,000 in income, including paying herself a VERY modest salary, the net income total (‘profit’) was only $22,116(1.8%). And that’s before paying taxes, debts, investors, new equipment/improvements, or into an emergency ‘cash reserve’ fund. Obviously, this is just one example, but it’s real and more common than most customers and restaurant staff are aware of.

Given extremely thin ‘profit’ margins across the industry, many restaurants and small businesses are a minor ‘event’ away from closing, never mind a major pandemic. We need to talk about tangible steps to save these business, now.

Walking to one of my neighborhood ‘locals’ last night (Thursday) was eerie. When I walked in at 8pm, there were 12 people in the entire 75-seat restaurant. One of the servers said, “It feels like The Twilight Zone.” I responded, “It reminds me of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” As I enjoyed my Manhattan at the bar, I read the Eater NY piece: “Starting Friday at 5 p.m., all venues in the state seating 500 people or less will need to reduce capacity by 50 percent — including restaurants and bars, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Thursday afternoon. Events for more than 500 people have been completely banned. It’s the latest measure hoping to curb the spread of COVID-19 as numbers rise in New York. As of press time, New York City had 95 confirmed cases, while the state had nearly 330. Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a state of emergency.”

Mayor de Blasio issued a statement on the official website of the City of New York, “The City will provide relief for small businesses across the City seeing a reduction in revenue because of COVID-19. Businesses with fewer than 100 employees who have seen sales decreases of 25% or more will be eligible for zero interest loans of up to $75,000 to help mitigate losses in profit. The City is also offering small businesses with fewer than 5 employees a grant to cover 40% of payroll costs for two months (an average of $6,000) to help retain employees.”

Ideas and information are coming at us fast and furious, and it’s extremely hard to keep up, pivot, and adapt to our “new reality.” I realize that the federal government is working on emergency legislation for paid sick leave and unemployment benefits in order for restaurants, small businesses and their staff to survive, but I believe we need to do more that. If we can bailout big banks (to the tune of trillions of $$ in 2008), we can certainly take care of some of the most important people in our communities and our country, the owners and workers at restaurants and small businesses.

I propose that the US federal government (and worldwide governments) immediately create a tax incentive for landlords to give restaurants and small businesses a 3-month reprieve on rent beginning on 4/1 to allow them to breathe, take care of their employees, and plan next steps for their survival. It’s almost impossible to strategize when you’re preoccupied and stressing about money and day-to-day survival. And it’s easy to mandate that restaurants and small businesses offer more sick days, but very hard to cover the cost when you’re living week-to-week.

This rent reprieve would not be an advance or a loan, it’s money that would not be paid back. Yes, conditions would need to be included to prevent the incentive from being exploited, but this immediate savings could be the difference between shutting down on 4/1 and a renewed sense of hope for thousands of restaurants and small businesses across America. If something like this doesn’t happen, thousands of small businesses will tragically close for good in the next few weeks. In the case of Mei Mei above (and many others), 3 months of rent is the equivalent of their entire ‘profit’ for a year. This proposed rent reprieve could make or break them, and at least gives them a chance for survival. If we truly are “all in this together,” we need to prove it at every level. I will be sharing this idea far and wide, and with every public servant I know, hoping it gains traction. I encourage you to do the same.

These are drastic times that call for drastic measures. As my dad (and many others of his generation) would say, “Money talks and bullshit walks.” Rhetoric is bullshit. ‘Buy local.’ ‘Shop local,’ and ‘Support small businesses that support our communities,’ mean nothing if we’re not willing to step up and help restaurants and small businesses on the brink of survival.

I will add to the list of resources below as I discover them. Please fell free to email at Patrick@servernotservant.com, or add more resources and ideas in the comments. Thank you-Patrick

Industry United is a Facebook Group dedicated to informing and educating the restaurant industry about the COVID-19 outbreak. It is a place to ask questions pertaining to your restaurant, staff, safety and general information.

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ROC United Reveals True Colors in Wake of Abrupt Closure of Colors Restaurant in NYC

By: Patrick Maguire

Book Chapter: Human-to-Human Service

Posted: 1/22/2020

When your ‘socially conscious’ mantra is embracing the ‘high road,’ you don’t blindside the leader of your restaurant via text, ever, never mind only 3 days before closing your business for good. And exploiting and abusing the very people you claim to be advocating for, is even worse than the ‘low road.’ It’s the gutter.

From the official ROC (Restaurant Opportunities Center) website:

TAKING THE HIGH ROAD – A HOW-TO GUIDE FOR SUCCESSFUL RESTAURANT EMPLOYERS

What is the High Road?

Employers defined the “high road” as employment practices that support workers and unleash their loyalty, creativity, and productivity to make the restaurant successful. High-road employers emphasized that the benefits of increased productivity of invested long-term workers and the reduced cost of employee turnover outweigh the short-term costs of high-road practices.

While specific practices varied, these “high-road” policies fell into the following three areas:

1. providing livable wages
2. maintaining a healthy workplace through paid sick days, vacation, or health insurance; and
3. creating career ladders for employees through training and internal promotions policies  

From early on, ROC United set themselves up to fail because the foundation they ‘built’ (I should say, ‘sold’) their business model and ideals on is fraudulent. They do not practice what they preach and lead by example. With the shameful closing of Colors restaurant, they have zero credibility.

As I stated in a 1/20 tweet:

Shortly before Colors restaurant reopened after a 3-year closure, Eater NY reported, “It’s a comeback attempt for the 70-seat restaurant at 178 Stanton Street, between Clinton and Attorney streets. After the September 11 attacks, surviving Windows of the World employees regrouped and organized to build Restaurants Opportunity Center United, one of the country’s most important restaurant labor organizations. They also opened Colors, a restaurant intended to embody their ideals of fair pay, diversity, and employee equity. But while ROC and its advocacy took off, Colors never mastered the balance of running a profitable business with a nonprofit heart. Former employees have filed lawsuits, and many claimed that their fair wages weren’t paid on time.”

The 12/11/19 Eater piece also quoted Colors’ leader, Chef Sicily Sewell-Johnson just before the reopening:

Sewell-Johnson also is working to regain New Yorkers’ trust. “Colors did the community a disservice. We weren’t open for three years. We were inconsistent and let them down,” she says. “Then, among peers, ROC challenged the [industry’s] sub-minimum wage and tipping policies, but we weren’t co-laboring to make the changes. We have to repair those relationships to be taken seriously.”

There was no mention of Colors as a pop-up or “test drive.”

It’s ironic that the entity that prides itself as the standard-bearer of loyalty, equality, and trust betrayed one of their top leaders and advocates in a disgraceful fashion. They didn’t even have the intelligence and courage to meet with Sicily and her team in-person to tell them they were closing and why. And it gets worse…

Excerpts from Eater NY (1/21/20):

After only one month of service, the surviving Windows on the World employee restaurant Colors has closed yet again. Head chef Sicily Sewell-Johnson announced the closure Friday — saying that the restaurant’s owner, labor nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, had suddenly pulled the plug.

And in another twist for the embattled restaurant, the chef tells Eater that ROC United is currently not letting her release the more than $2,000 that she raised over the weekend through Venmo to provide “a cushion” to staffers who have just lost their jobs. It’s another bump in what she says has been a “crazy” time with ROC, which she alleges has mismanaged the restaurant from the beginning.

“I’ll never look at this organization the same,” she says.

Management, though, was “a mess” from the beginning, she now says. Structures such as payroll, health insurance, and worker’s compensation were not in place, she says. Sewell-Johnson alleges that she sometimes paid vendors for food and other products out-of-pocket and filed for reimbursement, despite multiple requests for ROC to put a business debit card into place. When her finger got injured during business, she paid for care herself because the nonprofit never gave her health insurance that it had promised, she alleges.

Plus, ROC did not properly tell locals that Colors was open for business, Sewell-Johnson says. The restaurant was still showing up as closed on platforms such as Google and Yelp until the last week of business, she says.

“It was already a mess,” she says. “There were no systems. There was no structure.”

But business was also difficult because ROC did not seem committed to figuring out a financial plan that worked, she says. The nonprofit touted how it pays servers a $15 minimum wage plus tips, an extension of its ongoing fight to end the tipped minimum wage.

In practice, though, trying to pay $15 plus tips while creating an equitable pay structure throughout the restaurant created some bumps, Sewell-Johnson says. Because pooling tips is illegal, Colors also paid its kitchen staff above minimum wage. Entry-level positions like a dishwasher made $18.30 an hour, and with taxes, the restaurant ended up paying much more for labor than most restaurants in the city.

Sewell-Johnson wanted to start considering what other models would work, such as eliminating tipping, but she faced opposition from ROC. Ultimately, she says, paying a dishwasher a high wage doesn’t matter if the restaurant closes and the dishwasher can’t leave with additional skills.

“It’s easy for a lot of people to say — everyone deserves better, and this is what you should do,” she says. “It’s hard to find the middle to make that work.”

The New York Post, who broke the story on 1/19/20, quoted Sewel-Johnson, “…systems weren’t in place to make Colors succeed, when this place is the epitome of what ROC stands for.” BINGO. In other words, if you don’t practice what you preach, you have absolutely zero credibility. Remember, this comment is coming from a former ambassador of ROC.

The Post also stated, The chef said she was blindsided late Thursday when Sekou Siby, a former employee of Windows of the World and ROC’s executive director, informed her the plug was being pulled. Johnson was informed by Siby in a text that the eatery would close Sunday since funding could no longer be provided.

Reached by The Post for comment, Siby denied Sunday that the restaurant was closing, claiming the latest opening was always intended as a “test drive.”

“It’s not a closing, per se, but we are assessing the financial situation,” Siby said. “the last six weeks was a test drive, to analyze what is possible.”

I’ve had email exchanges with ROC ‘leadership’ in the past, so I sent the following email to Sekou Siby and cc’d Fekkak Mamdough and Saru Jayaraman on 1/20/20:

Hello, Sekou- I’m working on a blog post about Colors NYC closing. Could you please provide answers to the following questions/comments:

#1- Chef Sicily Sewell-Johnson told the NY Post on Sunday, “… systems weren’t in place to make Colors succeed, when this place is the epitome of what ROC stands for.” Your response, please.
#2- If your own staff of your own failed restaurant feels this way, how do you expect restaurateurs around the country to see you as trusted and credible advocates?
#3- Have you ever offered independent, full service restaurateurs a financial pro forma clearly demonstrating how they can operate at a profit while raising server pay to $15/hour and eliminating the tip credit? If you have, can you please furnish a copy?
#4- Do you regret texting Sicily on Thursday that Colors was closing Sunday (3 days later) after service?
#5- Why wasn’t Sicily told in-person?
#6- Why was there such short notice?
#7- How were all of the other Colors employees informed by senior ROC leadership?
#8- On 9/10/19, amNewYork published a piece that referenced a press release from Saru, including this quote, “We are truly excited about the reopening of COLORS in honor of our brothers and sisters who worked at the Windows on the World,” Saru Jayaraman, president and co-founder of ROC United, said in a news release. “Through the lens of COLORS, we are proud of all the hard work that our members and supporters do to continue raising the issue of race and gender equity and fighting for living wages in every restaurant across America.” There was no mention of a “test drive” and probable closing. Please provide a copy of the full press release from ROC announcing the reopening of Colors.
#9- The 12/11/19 piece from Eater NY included, “It’s a comeback attempt for the 70-seat restaurant at 178 Stanton Street, between Clinton and Attorney streets. After the September 11 attacks, surviving Windows of the World employees regrouped and organized to build Restaurants Opportunity Center United, one of the country’s most important restaurant labor organizations. They also opened Colors, a restaurant intended to embody their ideals of fair pay, diversity, and employee equity. But while ROC and its advocacy took off, Colors never mastered the balance of running a profitable business with a nonprofit heart. Former employees have filed lawsuits, and many claimed that their fair wages weren’t paid on time.” There was no mention of a “test drive” and probable, temporary closing “to analyze what is possible” as you mentioned to the NY Post. Are you now saying that contrary to the omission in the press release, the amNewYork piece, and the Eater NY piece, that a ‘trial run,’ then shut down to re-evaluate was planned from the get-go? Feel free to provide evidence.
#10- To reiterate, the 1/19/20 piece in the New York Post stated, Reached by The Post for comment, Siby denied Sunday that the restaurant was closing, claiming the latest opening was always intended as a “test drive.” “It’s not a closing, per se, but we are assessing the financial situation,” Siby said. “The last six weeks was a test drive, to analyze what is possible. We didn’t have a grand opening — this was just a test drive.” Is Colors closing or not? Feel free to elaborate.
#11- If ROC can’t successfully operate a 70-seat, full-service restaurant with grants and outside financial help, after 2 tries (including a 3-year closure) paying servers $15/hour and BOH starting at $18.30/hr (Eater), how do you expect independent, full-service restaurants across America to survive, given the same ‘playbook?’
#12- From the 12/11/19 Eater piece mentioned above: Sewell-Johnson also is working to regain New Yorkers’ trust. “Colors did the community a disservice. We weren’t open for three years. We were inconsistent and let them down,” she says. “Then, among peers, ROC challenged the [industry’s] sub-minimum wage and tipping policies, but we weren’t co-laboring to make the changes. We have to repair those relationships to be taken seriously.” How do you expect anyone to take ROC seriously now?
#13- Feel free to add anything else that you would like me to include in the blog post.

Siby did not respond to my email or reply to my voicemail left on 1/21/20.

It has been widely reported that Colors restaurant and ROC United have been partially funded by millions of dollars from the Ford Foundation. From and old post the Ford Foundation website:

In her new book, Forked: A New Standard for American Dining, Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), explores the good, the bad and the ugly in the American restaurant industry. The book profiles fabulous restaurants taking the “high road to profitability” and provides ratings of America’s most popular eateries based on the wages, working conditions, and promotion practices they afford workers.

I sent an email to Sarita Gupta, director at the Ford Foundation on 1/21/20. In addition to copying Sarita on the email I sent to Sekou Siby, I included the following:

#1- How much money did the Ford Foundation grant ROC United in 2019? And in 2020?

#2- Was any of that $$ earmarked specifically for Colors NYC?

#3- In light of the recent egregious behavior of ROC United senior management, will the Ford Foundation sever their relationship with ROC?

#4- Did you read this damning Eater piece? Would you like to comment on it?

#5- Would you like to make a statement on behalf of the Ford Foundation as it relates to Colors restaurant closing or on your relationship with ROC?

I will update this blog post if Gupta responds to my email or a voicemail left this morning.

Edit/update: I received the following response from Sarita Gupta via email at 1:56pm on 1/22/20:

Hi Patrick,

We are aware of this situation with Colors NYC closing. The Ford Foundation has a practice of conducting extensive due diligence processes for grantees, and particularly in times of changes. We are doing our part to look into this matter. In the meantime, I wanted to pass along the statement from ROC.

[I will publish the statement from ROC if they send it.]

Kudos to Daniel Cassady & Jackie Salo at the New York Post and Caroline Hatchett, Serena Dai & Morgan Carter at NY Eater for covering this story.  The truth about the hypocrisy and the egregious, fraudulent actions of ROC United exploiting their members and the people they claim to be advocating for, needs to be exposed. And their leadership must be held accountable.

Please contact me with additional/related information. I will update/edit this blog post or write new posts as more information becomes available. Thank you.

Previous Server Not Servant blog posts:

Saru Jayaraman, Fekkak Mamdouh, ROC United Leadership & Members: Is ONE FAIR WAGE really FAIR for ALL? Tip Credit & Tipped Minimum Wage-Part 1

Is Lobbyist ROC United’s ONE FAIR WAGE Really FAIR for All Workers? Tip Credit and Tipped Minimum Wage-Part 2

1/23/20 edit:

In the wake of the Colors restaurant public relations disaster and the decision by NY Governor Cuomo to leave the tip credit in place for restaurant industry workers, ROC United posted an evasive statement that didn’t answer my questions and this:

You can’t make this shit up. When you don’t exhibit dignity, equity, and respect for your own employees, you have no business or credibility preaching about. Stay tuned.

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