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Spirit of Enterprise Overcoming Grief

Times Staff Writer

After Sept. 11, the last thing that Sekou Siby, a banquet cook at Windows on the World in the World Trade Center, wanted was another restaurant job.

After 73 of his colleagues died that day, Siby opted for solitary work. He drove a cab and was a security guard. But as time wore on, Siby missed the camaraderie, and even the hard labor, of a restaurant.

By fall, Siby hopes to have another restaurant job -- as a co-owner along with about 30 others displaced from Windows and nearby establishments.

The mostly immigrant group has worked for more than two years to launch an upscale eatery, tentatively dubbed Colors in recognition of their many different nationalities. They reached a milestone this month when they rented a 4,000-square-foot space in Greenwich Village.

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“After Sept. 11, emotionally we were drained by losing so many of our friends,” said Siby, a 39-year-old from West Africa who lives in the Bronx with his wife and two children. “In memory of those people, we decided we can’t give up. We have to show that we can rebound, and we will rebound.”

The restaurant would be employee-owned, a rarity in New York. Employees would hold a 20% stake initially, and would eventually buy out their fellow investors.

Although rooted in Sept. 11, the restaurant would bear no visible markers of that day. In fact, workers say the best thing would be for Colors to slip seamlessly into Manhattan’s varied epicurean scene.

The 100-seat restaurant would serve American cuisine with a smattering of international dishes, and would focus on food and service, not sympathy.

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“If people come for sorrow, they’re going to come once and never come back,” said Fekkak Mamdouh, a former Windows waiter.

The push for Colors has come from a nonprofit group that also emerged from the trauma of Sept. 11. At the behest of a local union, the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York was formed to assist food-service workers in Lower Manhattan who struggled after the attacks.

In the process, the center has blossomed into a forceful presence in the industry.

Last week, the worker advocacy group released a report detailing the poor treatment of the city’s 165,000 waiters, cooks and busboys. The group has protested in front of restaurants it considers abusive, and has struck legal settlements with several to get workers back pay.

The location the group rented for Colors, at 417 Lafayette St., housed one of the first restaurants the Restaurant Opportunities Center picketed.

“There’s an irony there,” said Stefan Mailvaganam, the center’s restaurant project manager.

Besides giving themselves a livelihood, the workers hope Colors will prove that restaurants can afford to treat workers fairly.

“We want to show a model to the restaurant industry that workers can be paid decent wages and the restaurant can make money,” Siby said.

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The workers face formidable obstacles.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center has raised about half of the $2 million it estimates is necessary to open Colors. About $500,000 of that will come from an Italian food cooperative. The investors would own a portion of the restaurant until the workers could buy them out.

Workers would put no money down, but would get a fractional ownership stake that would grow over time.

The group still must raise $1 million from bank loans. Workers say they’re close, thanks to help from the U.S. Small Business Assn.

“The biggest challenge is how to keep everybody in harmony,” said Utjok Zaidan, a longtime Windows banquet captain.

“We’re almost there,” Siby said. “We’ll be full circle when we see that restaurant open. We take nothing for granted.”


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