By Jennifer Mascia
When Manhattan restaurateur Rene Pujol decided to sell his eponymous 35-year-old French establishment in the theater district, chef Vincent Purdy couldn’t bear to see his close-knit staff scattered to the winds. So Purdy sat down with the waiters, line cooks and busboys and asked them if they were ready to stop thinking like employees and start thinking like owners. Together they bought the restaurant and retained the Rene Pujol name.
Purdy’s idea to go from a single owner to a cooperatively run business was an unusual move, given the unforgiving, cutthroat nature of the New York restaurant industry. In New York, about 95 percent of all restaurants fail, and half of all new restaurants don’t survive their first year.
But Purdy and others have found a measure of success as collective owners in an experiment modeled after the successful cooperative movement in Italy. Cooperative restaurants have popped up in recent years in tucked-away corners of California, Ohio and Virginia.
But does the European co-op phenomenon have a long-term future in the frenetic restaurant market of Manhattan? More importantly, can split-second business decisions be made when a business is ruled by committee?
Mamdouh Fekkak thinks so. The former waiter at Windows on the World, which sat atop the World Trade Center before it was destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001, envisions a Manhattan cityscape replete with co-op restaurants, where newly emigrated cooks and food runners can own a piece of the pie.
To that end, Fekkak, 44, and his colleagues at the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY), a non-union restaurant advocacy group founded shortly after Sept. 11, want to change a largely unregulated industry in which undocumented workers are frequently abused and underpaid. So the group opened Colors, a restaurant cooperative last year.
“It’s going to work because [decisions] won’t all be up to one restaurant owner,” Fekkak said one recent afternoon at ROC-NY’s offices in Tribeca. “People believe in owning their own stuff, and customers want to see workers who are treated well.”
Originally from Casablanca, Morocco, Fekkak and his displaced co-workers formed ROC-NY in the spring of 2002 with the idea of opening their own restaurant. Newly hired executive director Saru Jayaraman, an attorney familiar with the risky nature of the restaurant industry, persuaded Fekkak and his membership to model themselves on the co-op movement in Bologna, Italy.
At Colors, which benefited from a $500,000 investment from a group of Italian food service cooperatives, the restaurant’s 50 workers do not need money to gain a stake in the collective, but instead need to put in 100 hours of what co-op coordinator David Jimenez, 30, calls “sweat equity.” This can be earned by attending regular meetings, speaking to reporters to publicize their cause or protesting for better restaurant working conditions on the steps of City Hall.
While the workers will have a 20 percent stake, the Italian food collective owns 40 percent and ROC-NY controls the remaining 40 percent. Eventually the workers hope to buy out 31 percent of the Italians’ share, owning a 51 percent majority.
While grocery cooperatives proliferate in enclaves in the United States, Fekkak and Purdy both acknowledge that a restaurant run on the co-op model presents unique challenges.
Getting things accomplished democratically is “very, very, very hard,” Fekkak said. All decisions are voted on by a board, including all hiring and firing, architectural design and menu changes.
Fekkak thinks that another reason co-ops have not taken off in the United States is because of the pull of unbridled capitalism, especially in New York, where restaurant companies that group their properties into “mini-empires” dominate the industry.
One obstacle that Fekkak and Purdy have both encountered is workers’ lack of an entrepreneurial mindset. “Thinking like an owner is different from thinking like a worker,” Purdy said. “You’re changing the working culture. We’re no longer just employees.”
But change is exactly what pushes ROC-NY forward. Jimenez wants “to show the industry that immigrants can run their own business and be successful,” especially in a state where restaurant employment is “at will,” meaning that a worker toils without a contract. As a result, he or she can be fired at any time for any reason, except for race, gender, age or religion, leaving employees at the whim of owners. Every state except Montana is an at-will state.
ROC-NY member Rafael Duran, 31, wants to change the abusive conditions he’s witnessed in his 13 years working as a dishwasher, cook, porter and now, a waiter.
“There is a lack of respect toward the worker,” said Duran, who is from Mexico City. “The stereotype the restaurant industry has toward me is that I have to be a busboy or food runner. They don’t even ask me, ‘What job are you looking for?’ They assume,” he said.
In industrial Harrisonburg, Va., the Little Grill operated for four decades under private ownership until two years ago when its owner, worn out by the frantic pace of running a restaurant on a daily basis, offered his staff the chance to be owners.
The staff, united by a commitment to serving the community—every Monday the Little Grill offers a free soup kitchen for the needy in the area—and their dedication to healthy food, accepted an equal share in the business. Each worker, from dishwasher to busboy to waiter, receives the same wage to the penny, and so far the operation, while not yet particularly lucrative, runs smoothly.
“Everyone here is interested in making a better world,” worker-owner Jason Wagner, 26, said. “We have a vision to strengthen the community here.”
Though Colors also has socially progressive goals, one obstacle has delayed the grand opening: money. ROC-NY is $65,000 away from serving its first meal, despite a successful preview dinner and reservations already on the books.
“There’s a lot of people who want to see them succeed,” said Tracy Nieporent, co-owner of the Myriad Restaurant Group, which includes such celebrated Manhattan eateries as Nobu, Tribeca Grill and Montrachet. But after that goodwill fades, Colors will have to compete like everyone else, Nieporent said.
“Restaurateurs always have one foot on the grave and the other on a banana peel,” he said.
The test of the long-term viability of restaurant co-ops in New York ultimately will be determined by the finicky tastes of Manhattan restaurantgoers. But Fekkak and Purdy feel they had no choice but to embrace change.
“Either we did this, or we were thrown to the wolves,” Purdy said. “We just want to get into the lifeboat. Then we’ll worry about changing the world.”