By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
On a sunny Tuesday this past April, a few hours before the Met's gala performance of Strauss's Die Helena, the dramatics have already started across the street, outside the pre- and post-opera hot spot Café Fiorello. Despite the balmy weather, all the outdoor tables are empty. But the sidewalk is packed with protesters. Behind police barricades, they shout, sing, and carry signs: "Stop Stealing Tips" and "Being Dehumanized, Being Abused." Some placards bear the image of Martin Luther King Jr.
"Which side are you on?" a protester yells. "Are you on the side of the rich man, or are you on the side of the worker?"
The backs of the protesters' shirts carry this slogan: "We are power. We are strong. Who are we? ROC-NY."
The Restaurant Opportunity Center of New York (ROC-NY) is a nonprofit organization founded shortly after 9/11 by Saru Jayaraman, at the time a 25-year-old Ivy Leagueeducated lawyer, to help dislocated workers from Windows on the World, the eatery that used to sit atop the World Trade Center.
From that beginning, ROC has helped those workers open a trailblazing worker-owned co-op restaurant, Colors. It's also shaking up the city's restaurant industry. Although not a union, it often employs the tactics of bargaining, protesting, and picketing. Started as a nonprofit, it's also now in the restaurant business itself.
ROC's influence has changed some long-standing practices at Café Fiorello and other popular eateries and may yet pave the way in setting new labor standards in all city restaurants.
Squared off against Jayaraman is Yale film graduate John Fireman, son of restaurateur Sheldon Fireman, who opened Café Fiorello and a string of other high-profile Manhattan eateries. For a couple of young Ivy Leaguers, Jayaraman and John Fireman aren't afraid of getting their hands dirty in this food fight.
Since 9/11, ROC has been mostly a media darling, its cause and lineage seemingly unassailable. As in any labor struggle, the Firemans accuse ROC of strong-arm tactics. But some of ROC's own members accuse ROC of aiming those tactics at them.
A lawsuit filed late last month by eight dissidents claims that ROC, famous for its belligerent tactics, ousted one of its co-op members for being . . . too belligerent. Trouble has been brewing for a long time. During the process of setting up Colors in 2004 and 2005, more than a dozen ROC members filed an angry petition asking: "When will the ROC-NY board come and answer our accusations about their aggressive behavior, mistreatment, and lack of respect?"
Back on Seventh Avenue, the nearly 100 protesters led by ROC beat on upside-down orange Home Depot buckets, blow whistles, and shake homemade maracas as tourists stop to take pictures of themselves in front of the police barricades. The protesters march their way down Seventh singing, "Went down to the rich man's house/and I took back what he stole from me/I took back my humanity." A city bus blares its horn in time to the song.
The marchers troop past the entrances of Central Park, where a mime in head-to-toe white body paint "eats" a bowl of spaghetti to show support. They head to the Brooklyn Diner, on 57th Street between Seventh and Broadway, waving signs in front of the eatery's street-level window. Inside, a man with a ponytail and his blond companion turn away from the window and stare at their menus.
The march continues on Broadway to hit two more eateries, Trattoria Dell'Arte and the Redeye Grill, both on 57th and Broadway, directly across from Carnegie Hall.
All of the restaurants targeted by the protesters are owned by the Fireman Hospitality Group. John Fireman joined his father's restaurant business at a tough time. Fireman had always worked in the restaurants: During the summers as a kid, he would bus tables, and he has worked as a line cook, a host, and a food expeditor, as well as in the pastry kitchen.
"It was always my plan to be responsible towards the business, because that wasn't a choice," he said. After graduating from Yale with a film degree, Fireman didn't join the business full time. Instead, he worked on movies, directing and producing. For a documentary he made about the recently deceased psychotherapist Albert Ellis, Fireman spent the year after college practically living with the psychologist while also working in the restaurants.
Now he's working for his father full time. On a recent evening, the 26-year-old is home from work early for a change. At 7 p.m. in his West Village apartment, he looks exhausted as he drinks an extra-large iced coffee. "There was a protest tonight," Fireman says. "No, I'm sorry, not a protesta prayer vigil." He raises his eyebrows when he says "prayer vigil."
A native New Yorker, Fireman's father Shelly opened Hip Bagel on MacDougal Street in the '60s. It was a notable place, its fame aided by Woody Allen, who lamented in the 1972 film Play It Again, Sam: "I gave her a home, affection, security. This was a girl I found waiting on tables at the Hip Bagel. I used to go there every night and over-tip her."
In 1974, as Lincoln Center was being built, Shelly Fireman opened Café Fiorello. His son John grew up in an apartment over the restaurant. "Work has always been intertwined with life in my family," he says. "Maybe because we lived so close to the restaurants. They were literally my home."