As someone who grew up in the restaurant industry and then spent my early twenties hustling for tips while making some of my best friends during late night shifts, I cannot praise Camilla Marcus‘ modern approach to hospitality enough. Because while I love my time spent in restaurants, there were also some things glaringly wrong with the industry and Camilla is working to change that.
As a hospitality vet and an owner of west~bourne, a restaurant based on the simple principle of bringing people together to eat well and do good, Camilla is bringing a new (yet much needed) perspective on how a restaurant can do good by both its employees and its customers.
I find it so interesting that you describe your restaurant, west~bourne, as “accidentally vegetarian.” Can you tell me how that “accident” came about and why you let it flourish?
As a forward-thinking business, it is vital for us to have a worldly perspective that transcends beyond our own impact. That is why we serve an all-day, accidentally vegetarian, and decidedly wholesome menu filled with local, seasonal produce and ingredients that are inspired by the vibrant bounty of the west coast. California living is not just a saying, but a way of life. It starts with balance, and being thoughtful about the environment in which we live. west~bourne is grounded in the belief that integrating a vegetarian perspective into your lifestyle can have an impact on both your well-being and on our planet.
As a fellow native Angeleno, like yourself, the minute I walked into west~bourne it felt like home, i.e. the warm light of Los Angeles and naturally abundant healthy food. Why is the west coast influence so important in your endeavors?
That makes me smile to hear! As you know, being a real LA native is a pretty rare thing. Everything starts from somewhere, right? At least that’s what I think we need as humans—a center point from which to balance. For me, California is my home and my north star. Funny enough, everything with west~bourne grew organically from a beautifully evocative image, a nostalgic sign on a retro 1960’s apartment building on Westbourne Drive in West Hollywood, on the block where I lived. My husband took a photo of it when we moved back to New York years ago, and we both felt that it would have meaning at some point in the future. For me the photo marks a pure time, before LA was really developed, and it captures the essence of the wild west and the draw for pioneers. Native, naive, and nomadic—that’s what Los Angeles means to me, and it guides so much of how I approach west~bourne as a business, community builder, and brand.
west~bourne is rooted in a giving back mentality, promoting “neighborhood hospitality.” Can you talk about why this is important to you and how you execute it within your restaurant?
At west~bourne, neighborhood hospitality means creating a space and a business model that is inclusive and welcoming to the entire community. By donating 1% of each sale through the Robin Hood Foundation to The Door, a local organization supporting youth development services, we are directly investing in hospitality training for young people in the area. And we don’t stop there—in order to stay deeply connected to this initiative, we also hire from this program to sustain a circular, self-fulfilling, and deeply meaningful giveback model.
Our cross-training model is another essential west~bourne strategy we created to maintain a well-rounded, thoughtful business. In contrast to the traditional restaurant model, we exclude the labels “front of house” and “back of house” and implement equal pay across all team members, regardless of the position. Furthermore, we have no porters or dishwashers, an often-ignored subclass of restaurant teams. Instead we embrace a rotational, generalist program, where every team member learns how to successfully execute every function in the restaurant — from culinary craft and coffee service to wine pairing. This integrative training method ensures that all employees understand the holistic scope of the restaurant and are mindfully pushed outside of their comfort zone. As a result, team members are able to discover their unique strengths and learn how to leverage those advantages to create an efficient and balanced team. By understanding the full realm of restaurant operations, our team fosters empathy and a distinctly collaborative spirit, as quite literally each has walked or soon will walk in the others’ shoes. This adaptable training model makes scheduling effective and productive, but most notably, it allows us to hire individuals with no previous experience in hospitality and offer extended education and experience to industry veterans. Consequently, west~bourne is a launchpad to both develop new skills and hone in on existing strengths.
Beyond training, we also invest in our team’s mental health and wellness. We want to bring our whole and best selves to work, but often you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others. Our Embrace Your Side Hustle program (a monthly stipend given to the team to help them accomplish their goals beyond west~bourne), Mindful Minutes (a grounding, pre-shift breathing and meditative exercise), and our Town Hall meetings are just a few ways we keep our team happy, grounded, and healthy. How we treat, train, and recruit our team members are cornerstones of our philosophy.
We also go the extra mile by maintaining a zero-waste operation. Our sustainability practices include, but are not limited to: a waste-efficient menu (in which food scraps are upcycled into various offerings such as compotes and sauces), a food waste compost system, compostable tea bags and to-go packaging, recycled denim napkins (courtesy of Atelier Saucier), and eco-friendly cleaning products and energy efficient equipment. Through these integrative green efforts, we have come to truly understand what it means to be a sustainable business from top to bottom and why it matters, and we are on track to be the first certified TRUE zero waste restaurant in Manhattan by the US Green Building Council.
The hospitality industry, as a whole, is way behind in terms or fair wage, maternity leave, and other such programs that support their workers. What are you doing to combat that lack of flexibility within the industry?
We seek to bring a fresh perspective to every element of our operation. As this industry employs a critical mass within society, it’s essential for us to be drivers of change and innovation, particularly when it comes to equality.
Our people are everything. Even as a new brand no one had heard of before, we were able to bring on remarkable team members, many of whom were inherent superstars we wanted to grow. They happened to be parents and, most often, single parents. They had drive and passion, yet we couldn’t figure out how to hold onto them. We consistently saw troubling inconsistencies emerge with time and attendance. We take a different approach to our collective, so instead of simply dismissing these team members, we dove in to get to the core of the problem. It wasn’t a lack of desire to show up at the start of a shift or stay through to the end. It was stable, dependable childcare that was missing. A parent or sibling would be helping out informally for a while, but that short term fix would eventually fall apart leaving our team member without help. If forced to choose between your child being alone and potentially losing the job that is your family’s lifeline, there simply is no choice. And understandably so.
What I quickly came to realize is that childcare is the most significant inequity and hurdle to sustaining a career in hospitality. Over the last decade or so, there’s been quite a light shined on healthcare as an essential benefit for employees, but when you really think through the sequence of events, even healthcare is not actually relevant (meaning you are no longer eligible) if you can’t show up on time and keep your job. Even beyond parental leave, the ability to show up to your scheduled shift in order to remain employed relies most crucially on what childcare is offered.
To take a big step towards solving this imbalance, we are so humbled to launch a partnership next month with Vivvi—the first of its kind, hospitality-focused, employer-sponsored childcare program within a professional, high quality center. It’s set to open later this fall, so keep an eye out for more news on the collaboration in the coming weeks.
Why hospitality? What is it about hospitality that is most inspiring to you?
I’ve always believed strongly in people first, mission always. This industry is all about being human–taking care of others and providing a nourishing and fulfilling place where we can be and feel our best selves. To me, the people are the most special part and it’s a real privilege to get to hopefully inspire joy and mindfulness for our team, our guests, our partners, and our community alike.