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Restaurant Owned By September 11th 2001 Survivors Is On A Mission


In a city like New York, which has over 15,000 restaurants, it is tough to attract attention. But the new restaurant Colors stands apart because of its ownership. Colors is owned by a group of surviving immigrant employees from Windows on the World, the restaurant that occupied the top of one of the former World Trade Center towers that were destroyed in the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

One of the most enduring images of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on New York is that of a white clad figure, his chef's hat pointing downward, falling though space. He apparently jumped 106 stories to escape the flames and intense heat of the fire.

More than 70 employees and 100 customers of Windows on the World died in the inferno.

Now the surviving restaurant workers -- waiters and waitresses, bus boys and cooks -- are running their own restaurant, called Colors.

For the workers, like bartender Patricio Valencia, the restaurant is a tribute to their lost colleagues and a symbol of independence.

"After the tragedy, it was so hard to find a job. After three years of working hard every week, every month, finally this is a reality."

The new restaurant owners, representing more than 20 nations, have contributed recipes from their native countries to the menu, giving it a decidedly international flavor. Diners can choose from a menu spans the globe: Colombian shredded pork and rice, Philippine spring rolls, Thai chicken and papaya, Italian risotto, Haitian conch salad, Congolese seafood, Peruvian rice cakes.

Fekkad Mamdouh says the food and atmosphere set Colors apart. "The chef worked with every worker to take something from his country and develop something great. It's amazing. Everybody is talking about the food. And also the service."

General Manager Stefan Mailvaganam says even the sleek 1930s decor design of the restaurant and map-covered walls have a message. "From a perspective of American history, it was a period of a lot of social reform, whether it is the New Deal, whether it was bringing in social safety nets for America, that is when a lot of things happened. So we are saying not only are we from everywhere else, but we also do celebrate the fact that America is a land of immigrants. We have maps everywhere."

Stefan Mailvaganam says getting $2 million of financing for a business that is worker-owned is not easy, especially when the workers are immigrants.

"We are here to prove we can do this. We are here to prove that there is another way of doing it and that working as a team is often better than working as an individual. We already have experienced growing pains with staff about that. But it is going to take the majority of people believing in the vision of this restaurant to make it succeed."

Colors received major support from the Restaurant Opportunity Center, an advocacy groups for employee welfare.

The group's director, Saru Jayaraman, says Colors will set a new industry standard for the restaurant business. "The primary purpose of our organization is to fight to improve working conditions for all restaurant workers in New York City, all 165,000 of them. And we are using this as one tool of many to improve working conditions by creating a model of a different way of doing things. Good wages. Good working conditions."

One of the big challenges for the workers is getting used to being owners, even if they are dishwashers or busboys.

Mr. Mamdouh adds, "Most of the things you see here -- the design, choosing the chef, choosing the table, choosing how the bar is going to be, how this glass is going to be, it was all the democratic way. We have to get used to the idea that each one of us is the owner of this $2 million restaurant.

Initial reviews have been good. Still the competition is fierce and Stefan Mailvaganam knows a great deal is at stake. "I suppose we have on the down side the fact that so many restaurants fail. But frankly the stakes are much higher. The ambitions and the mission of this restaurant are fairly noble. So we do want to make it succeed."

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