The Lower East Side restaurant Colors abruptly closed on Sunday, just one month after reopening. Staff found out about the news during dinner service at around 8 p.m. on Thursday, when the restaurant’s chef, Sicily Sewell-Johnson, was informed via text that the restaurant would have to close. It was a sudden ending to what Sewell-Johnson describes as a tumultuous experience. “As far as structure, we never had that,” she tells Grub. “It was like a constant fight.”
The message was sent to Sewell-Johnson by Sekou Siby, the executive director of ROC United, the nonprofit that backs Colors. ROC United was established by former employees of Windows of the World in 2004, two years before the original Colors opened in Noho. The restaurant had been closed for three years before reopening in December, and faced trouble in the past, including a lawsuit by former employees. In Sewell-Johnson’s eyes, ROC was not living up to its own ideals. “This is what you’ve held people accountable to, what you’ve made other small businesses take onus of, and you have no desire to live out that culture,” she says. (Grub has reached out to ROC United, and will update thecpost if and when we hear back.)
Sewell-Johnson’s Colors was a reimagining of the restaurant, with the San Francisco chef and restaurateur Daniel Patterson on as a consultant. (Patterson declined to comment on the record.) The chef turned the restaurant into a celebration of African-American culture both in the design (i.e., an Edna Lewis portrait) and menu (caramel cake, fried fish and spaghetti, and more). The restaurant received some positive press around its opening, but the chef says support from ROC United didn’t materialize. A Google search will yield a listing for a previous iteration of the restaurant (“gluten-free American fare”), and its websites is for what appears to be a questionable writing service.
Employees never got health insurance, and there was never a workers’-comp policy in place. When Sewell-Johnson cut her finger while training an employee, she couldn’t get surgery as recommended by a doctor because she couldn’t afford it. The restaurant’s opening was delayed after no one, the chef says, remembered to renew the license in July. They got a new one for beer and wine in October. When she asked for financial help, she says Siby sent her ways to get grants, even though she was only hired to be the chef.
“Down until Thursday I was looking for grants. I had started reaching out to our community. We were going to start hosting events on days we were closed,” she says, arguing they didn’t look at alternatives like crowdfunding. “After payroll and we pay our vendors, we’ll owe less than $5,000. It wasn’t like we were so upside down that it was beyond repair, it was that you didn’t want to try. “
Sewell-Johnson says she’d be told one thing via text, then given a contradictory message over email. The conversation about the restaurant closing began, she says, when she was told she’d have three months to figure things out. When she followed up about that, she says she was told she was getting three months severance. After the closing was announced, Siby told the New York Post that the restaurant was a “test run” — a reframing that doesn’t align with opening press or the fact that they spent nine months opening the restaurant. (Patterson, she says, “was really great” and stayed on to help her even after he was paid out as a consultant.) The restaurant’s closing hits particularly hard given its mission, and that it employs some particularly vulnerable people.
“You’re literally giving 15 people a three-day notice, and the people that we hired, except for four of us, all went through the CHOW program,” Sewell-Johnson says. (CHOW stands for Colors Hospitality and Opportunities for Workers, a six-week program run by ROC United that provides restaurant training skills at no cost.) “And financially were single parents, people of color, were co-dependent on this job — and that just kind of fell on deaf ears.”
Some of the employees are currently living in shelters, and Sewell-Johnson says they were “trying desperately to fight for their dreams.” To help the staff who were suddenly being cut loose from jobs, Colors offered drink specials over the weekend, with friends and others calling for people to go and tip generously. Sewell-Johnson also established a fund to help her staff, which can be donated to on Venmo at for_the_team, and over the weekend was selling the hundreds of plates, bowls, and other ceramics that were custom-made for the restaurant. She is still selling the mugs, she says.
This post has been updated throughout.