#119. west~bourne is a mission-driven, LA-inspired hospitality concept. We talk with founder Camilla Marcus about the process of building a restaurant group from scratch and how she built a workforce where everyone can do every job. The Loose Threads Podcast features in-depth discussions with leaders across the rapidly changing consumer economy.

Check out the full transcript below.

Camilla: [00:00:01] I find, in hospitality, the answer, especially in my career was always like, “Oh, but that’s the way it’s always been done.” I’m like, that is just a crappy answer. Everyone has those inspirational images everyone has a menu wall. I was like, let’s do none of that. 

Richie: [00:00:15] That’s Camilla Marcus, founder of west~bourne, a mission-driven and LA-inspired hospitality concept. After leading business development to Union Square Hospitality Group, she went on to start west~bourne as a restaurant group focused on putting neighborhood hospitality at the center of everything it does. With its first outpost opening in New York City in January 2018, the all-vegetarian and all-day concept has built a loyal following of regulars. 

Richie: [00:00:37] I’m Richie Siegel, the founder of Loose Threads, which analyzes and advises next-generation consumer companies, and FaceLift by Loose Threads, a retail incubator and accelerator for leading brands and retailers. For our latest analysis and insights, check out our free weekly newsletter at LooseThreads.com. We also just announced Loose Threads Live, our invite-only and entirely off the record gathering for founders executives and investors, on October 3rd in New York City. Learn more at LooseThreads.com/live. 

Richie: [00:01:10] I started the Loose Threads Podcast to spark engaging discussions with leaders across the consumer economy. That’s why I was excited to talk with Camilla about the process of building a restaurant group from scratch and how she created a workforce where everyone can do every job. Here’s how it all began. 

Camilla: [00:01:29] I’ve always been a very visual, physical person; it’s one of the reasons I love real estate. Even though I came from sort of finance/math background—that was always sort of my strong suit—I also was an artist growing up, so I’ve always had a very left brain/right brain dichotomy which, honestly, when you’re young in your career, you’re working for someone else, is a little bit hard, because unless you’re the founder or the owner you’re really tracked. And it’s sort of like, creatives on the left, you know, analysis on the right, and you’re not allowed to collaborate and those departments don’t really do things together. You know, “stay in your lane” kind of messaging. And I think that was one of the nudges I needed to start my own thing. 

Camilla: [00:02:07] I started seeing that it was hard. I’m very creative, I like the branding element, I like the marketing of it. I like the problem solving but I also enjoy the challenge of: Is this a business? Will this work? And so I think I started feeling that ten years into my career, realizing that I just wasn’t going to be able to find a sandbox where I could play in both fields and I understand why, but it started to become a little frustrating for me personally. And then I started to really see a big white space in something I was really interested in. Ironically, I was doing a consulting project that was somewhat in the field of philanthropy and food, and my dad was like, “You know, you really only talk about this consulting project. Maybe there’s something there that you haven’t really tapped into. Like, it’s all you talk about, but it’s probably 10% of your time. Maybe you should start thinking about that.”

Camilla: [00:02:58] And I started really seeing a big white space. Hospitality is such a generous community, most people really don’t know. I mean, restaurants and hotels actually give so much away, they’re so supportive of so many different interesting causes, and yet I think it’s really disconnected from the guest experience. And I think most people don’t realize that. So, there’s something lost there. I started seeing over those five years such a rise, obviously, in conscious consumerism and conscious capitalist brands, like Warby [Parker] and Toms, and even Everlane was mad transparency. And [I] started also seeing changes in my friends and my generation; the way they look at philanthropy is different. My parents have always been hugely philanthropic, both personally and professionally, it’s just sort of how I was raised, yet, you know, my friends weren’t going to galas. They really don’t want to buy a ticket to something, yet they’re decked out in every brand known to man that they can sort of support by living their life. 

Camilla: [00:03:56] So I started seeing philanthropy changing—it’s not about amassing wealth and buying a building anymore. It’s, I want to live day to day with my values and I want to do it in my routine. I don’t really want to do something, I don’t want to be so proactive, but I do want my day to day life to compound. And then, putting my finance hat on I was like, “Well, it’s kind of like compound interest, which is actually much smarter than a lump sum at the end of the rainbow.” And just seeing that, okay. Then you really look back and you think, we make more purchase decisions in our lives about food and beverage than pretty much anything else. 

Camilla: [00:04:33] Steve Case once famously sat on our TechTable stage. It is 100% total addressable market. You have to eat and drink every single day. The power in that is pretty incredible, and I just didn’t feel that there was any hospitality brand, truly, full circle, in an earnest way from the start, and locally. Warby [Parker] and Toms give money from Americans abroad. We have real problems in our country. And so I also started seeing that dynamic of, you know, we can turn an everyday routine—eating and drinking—into something really powerful for a much larger compound impact. And I just became obsessed with it and was, honestly, a little reluctant. I’m very risk-neutral, I love extreme sports. You know, my friends will tell you I’m very impulsive, but in business I was cautious. You know, I’ve never had an intern, I never had a single person ever work for me. I’ve always been sort of a SEAL Team Six, sort of on my own [person], for whatever reason, in the companies I had worked for. So, you know, my biggest fear was like, okay, how do I build a team? Like, I don’t even know how to manage anyone. 

Camilla: [00:05:39] And everyone’s like, “Oh, you went to business school.” I’m like, “They don’t really teach you that…” You can read a book, but it’s not the same as a real human in front of you. So I was very reluctant, I think, a little fearful. And my dad wrote me an email, no joke, every day for a month with the subject “just do it.” And finally, after [that] month I was like, all right, fine. So that sort of was the kick in the butt I think I needed. 

Richie: [00:06:00] Gotcha. So where does one begin then, after you decide or you commit to doing it? 

Camilla: [00:06:03] The first thing I did was—I wouldn’t say it was necessarily a full business plan, because I self-funded. I’d been investing for a long time and saving and, you know, we’re in sort of early innings of a very long plan that I had for west~bourne, and much bigger vision and dreams in my head, but I knew the first thing was, we need to create a proof of concept. I knew I wanted to self-fund it because I didn’t want to compromise on like, this is what it really is. And I felt that if we got the first step right a lot more optionality would open a lot more opportunity, if we could really set ourselves in the market with guests and as a brand. It was very important to me to not compromise on that first step, so it’s one of the reasons our first location is relatively small. And I knew from the start I did not want to take outside capital, which is funny because I’m lucky, being an investor myself, I have a wide network. 

Camilla: [00:06:56] And I was super-stealth-mode. I did not tell anyone. I’m the person that doesn’t ever like to talk about anything, I just do it. To the world I was unknown, to the market here, to landlords. No one knew me despite the fact that I obviously have a wide breadth of experience and I knew I had to create something I could send, to be like, this is what this is, this crazy thing in my mind has to be tangible. I always say and remind our team, you know, I think a lot of people don’t have imagination, and I do think you have to really paint the picture for them if you really want to get them sort of on your team and just share that vision. So, that was kind of the first step was, a rough model of okay, like, what’s the latitude of rent we can pay, what does this business have to do in sales, what are sort of rough costs. So, putting up the guardrails within. 

Camilla: [00:07:43] And then I found a friend out of San Francisco—shout out to Margo—I was like, “I need you to put this deck together, I have this crazy idea, and I need to bring it to life.” And she is a godsend, I’ve sent her to so many people and she’s the best at sort of reading my crazy language and mind games. One of my first meetings, really, was with the Robin Hood Foundation, and I knew having a give back model was important. I knew exactly what I wanted it to be, but I also know I’m on the board of charitable organizations and I always have been, but I’ve never run one myself. And as a startup I felt, I don’t think we could realistically do a for-profit venture at the same time as creating a 501(c)(3) and managing it with integrity, so I knew I needed a partner in that, and Robin Hood being a 100% pass-through entity— their board funds all of their overhead—I thought, this is great, if they think this is a mildly interesting idea. 

Camilla: [00:08:37] They set a gold standard of a 501(c)(3) for hire. They do all the compliance, the oversight, they make sure that our grant, every dollar, is going to what we say it is, and that was very important to me. So I sat down with them and, honestly, I thought they would laugh me out of the room. I mean, they’ve never partnered with someone who’s doing this and, as far as I know, there’s not really anyone in the country who does our model the way that we do. 

Richie: [00:09:00] Can you explain it? 

Camilla: [00:09:01] Oh sorry, yes. So we give 1% of every single purchase—whether that’s catering, a product, in-store, an event, what have you—every single thing that we do kicks back to a grant that Robin Hood manages for us, that goes to a local organization called The Door, which is three blocks from our location. We’re funding hospitality training for youth in the neighborhood and then we hire from the program. So it’s very full circle, and the goal is really targeting social mobility and sustained job opportunities in an industry that really is one of the last frontiers to a real middle class. There’s zero barriers to entry to work in hospitality, you can even have a record. You don’t really have to go to any sort of schooling, there’s no prerequisites, and yet hospitality will always be there. I think it will not be taken over by robots or A.I.. It is one of the last human-to-human experiences that isn’t, I think, gonna go away with technology as we progress. And it’s a real career. If you really are good and diligent and you stick with it you can have a six-figure career for the rest of your life, which is hugely powerful. And there’s just not that many avenues left anymore in our country, I think. 

Camilla: [00:10:07] So amazingly they got it, almost instantly. You know, they see everything under the sun, rigorous in how they look at things financially as well. And that was sort of the first time I was like, okay, there might be something to this, some very smart people didn’t laugh a kid out of the room. And so that was sort of that first step, was putting the business plan together. I knew I was gonna target downtown New York in and around Soho. We sort of looked, I’d say, a mile radius around there, the idea being, you’re near NYU, there’s a lot of schools around there, there’s tons of creative office that was moving in and around Varick at the time, and it’s a really bustling residential neighborhood. It’s not investment properties, it’s people who really live there. And, you know, Soho is going through an interesting resurgence. Ironically, it’s actually cheaper than a lot of neighborhoods in New York, even though it used to be sort of overpriced, and now it’s sort of come back to being a local neighborhood. 

Camilla: [00:11:00] So, I knew it was an all-day concept, I knew we needed an area that was activated 24/7, so that was the target market. We selected The Door because they’re close by and their programming is very holistic, the way ours is. So really putting pen to paper on what that looked like and how this was gonna be different, and set the stage for a larger play in, could we stand for community hospitality and really define what that means in food and beverage. 

Richie: [00:11:27] Talk more about the all-day piece, in terms of, it sounded obvious to you that you would do that. You see some places are only open for lunch in more commercial areas, some only for dinner, etc. How did you figure out what you wanted there?

Camilla: [00:11:37] Yeah, it’s funny. My dad always says, if it was easy everyone would do it, and I think that’s sort of my life mantra, I think I like to make things as hard and complicated as possible. But I also think it’s one of the only ways you can create a real moat. I mean, in food and beverage, nothing’s really patent-able. It’s not really that protect-able. So we have an interesting weave of an operation and a brand. I think that makes us very unique and it’s complicated as a business. 

Camilla: [00:12:01] So, the reason I tackled all-day… I mean, one was this idea of, if we really want a compound impact, the more you’re in someone’s life, the better. And I feel that all-day has been one of the hardest things for hospitality operators to really pin down and to successfully. 

Richie: [00:12:16] And this means breakfast, lunch, dinner? 

Camilla [00:12:18] So we’re 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week. And, again, I’m pretty sure no hospitality group or operator has ever done this before, but we opened day one full-hours. Full hours, full days—

Richie: [00:12:29] Right. Because normally you phase, right? 

Camilla: [00:12:31] Exactly. And it was actually something I really wanted Danny to experiment with. And I said, you know, the dynamics I see from a bird’s eye view is, every meal period we roll into, or every day we roll into, it’s really a different team that does that meal period. So why do we care? You know, it’s not like the same person that opened breakfast is gonna work lunch and gonna work dinner every single day. What you end up doing is, you stabilize one meal period, then you shake the whole boat again. I’m like, why don’t we just get the boat down the straight and jam it through, and let’s have three months of pain rather than nine months of pain? You know, I don’t get it, ’cause it’s not the same team. And even then you’re rehiring, retraining and you’re sort of going through multiple openings in what to me should really just be one. 

Camilla: [00:13:13] So I’m lucky I have a team who really believes in experimentation. I think we’re unusual, a lot of hospitality groups don’t run quite as risk-neutral as we do. I’m very into beta testing, and ripping it out and restarting in a way that is kind of unusual in our industry, but that was one of the things I really believed strongly and it paid in spades. I mean, it was so much easier to stabilize and I think we were able to really see if it worked and tweak it holistically, versus if you’re just doing breakfast and then you’re doing dinner, it’s complicated, even though it’s the way everyone does it. It allowed us also to set in the minds of the community and guests of, this is who we are. Again, if you just start with one meal period and then you roll into the other, you’re sort of having to reintroduce yourself to someone, and I think it ends up being a lot more work than it’s worth. 

Camilla: [00:14:04] So I think the all-day for us was kind of just the more opportunistic, it seemed like a niche we could own. Very few operators have been successful in doing it, and I don’t know, I just felt up for the challenge. And given our model for impact I just felt it was the best way to set us up for success, and to really be an anchor in the community, to be used all day and really, again, be part of someone’s daily routine, whether that’s breakfast, lunch or dinner. 

Richie: [00:14:30] Continue working us along, post-Robin Hood deck. Where do you go from there?

Camilla: [00:14:36] So putting together in parallel to finding a space, which took about a year, we had three failed leases that were horrible and traumatizing for all different reasons. Every day touring multiple negotiations at the same time. I mean, intense, intense, intense but, in parallel I was really putting the team together. So I had cold-emailed a design architecture firm in LA that I’d been following for a long time and always wanted to work with. At the time they didn’t have a New York project, but little did I know when I approached them they were actually working at a hotel here, which was quite opportune and nice for me, ’cause I was like, whatever. We’ll just tack onto all your trips for that hotel. 

Richie: [00:15:16] Right, when they pay to fly them over. 

Camilla: [00:15:17] Well, and I was like, we can be flexible. I’ll work around your schedule and I come to LA a lot to see my family where I’m from, so I was like, look this is kind of great. I can have an out-of-town firm at a local price. So I cold-emailed them and—I actually pull up that email sometimes and send it to him as a joke. You know, I said, “You don’t know me, I’m working on this like, crazy project that no one’s heard of. No one’s heard of me, but will you let me take you to a coffee? I’d love to see if you’re willing to do something in New York.” And he gave me this very polite, very clear “Thank you, but no thank you,” and I was like, “Ha ha, so cute. I’m still gonna take you to coffee. You need to give me a date. You can totally reject me if you meet me, even in five minutes, if you think I’m psycho you can get up.” You know, no harm no foul, let me give you a free glass of wine, like, please just trust me. And he was like, “Okay, you insane person.” 

Camilla: [00:16:03] So we met actually at the Mercer Hotel, and sure enough we hit it off right away. And he was like, “I can’t believe I’m saying yes to this. I’ll do it.” He really helped me through, you know, with every space you have to create a floor plan, you have to create schematics. Even just to go to the community board for your liquor, you have to have some sort of architecture person on your team and some sort of design intent. So he was really in the trenches day one. And then, I had already worked with a construction team that I knew, so they were sort of an easy pull on, and then [an] amazing consultant of ours—his name’s Keith Durst, I always call him my fairy godfather—he said, “Look, the design agency in LA isn’t certified in New York, you need an architect of record. I have the perfect person. He’ll get you everyone else that you need to fill out the build team.”

Camilla: [00:16:50] Boom, done, Richard Lewis is like the nicest human ever. He’s also [a] fairy godfather. And then through Milo at Studio Mai, our design and architecture firm in LA, I said, “Look, I want you to pick the branding team. I’ve worked with a lot. I don’t want a New York agency. I think everything looks the same. I’ve worked with way too many here. They’re too expensive, they’re very cookie-cutter, and I want something out of left field and ideally someone who’s never done anything in New York before. But I need you to pick them, because if the two creatives don’t get along, which I’ve seen in many projects before, you’re dead in the water. So I need it to be someone that you really like that you’ve worked with. Give me like, two to three options and then I’ll pick from their portfolio.” And he said, “You don’t even have to pick among three, I know exactly who it is.”

Camilla: [00:17:34] So he introduced me to Jett Butler from FODA Studio out of Austin. They worked pretty closely with McGuire Moorman and they had just done the South Congress Hotel together. So I thought, all right, if you can survive a hotel project and still recommend someone, like, you’re pretty good. So we had one phone call and he was like, you know, we’re very particular about projects but we’re in. This sounds amazing when can you come to Austin so we can meet. So that was sort of that first, I’d say, three months of really—you know, you have to put together your tribe. It takes a village to build something physical. And I think making sure that everyone plays well together and respects each other. 

Camilla: [00:18:09] You know, I have a very collaborative, hands-on and positive approach. I mean I consider them all friends. We socialize. I enjoy them as people and I think, for me, that’s really important, and I think it shows in the work. I think you can tell projects where there’s angst or people don’t get along. So I think building that rapport and sort of having a no-assholes rule is pretty important. 

Richie: [00:18:30] In terms of turning to a lot of creatives and professionals outside of the city, how much did you want to expose that in the end? In terms of, did you want it to feel like this was from another place and you were gonna talk about it a lot? Or did you want it just to feel different, as in not from this place, and it was okay if people couldn’t pinpoint the Austin, the LA, the whatever that was kind of baked into it?

Camilla: [00:18:50] You know, my reference point was always 1960s Los Angeles, sort of before massive development and LA became what I would say [is] a bonafide city. And part of that is also, I have a unique perspective as a second-generation LA native, and that’s something that not a lot of people hold and something I did want to share. Austin really was more, I wanted someone that they knew and loved, and I don’t know that I cared where they came from. I mean, it could have been Mars as long as it wasn’t New York. And as I said, I very intentionally chose someone who’d never done something in New York before so that it was a fresh pair of eyes. Someone who could also see the competitive set in a way that I couldn’t, ’cause I’ve worked in restaurants here for so long, so I did kind of want that bird’s eye view. 

Camilla: [00:19:32] The reference really was bringing a very strong sense of local Los Angeles to New York, and talking about that. And creating a place that I missed, that kind of environment and a different design aesthetic that I felt didn’t exist here. You know, you start to see a lot of the same trends because a lot of people use the same people. So, you know, anyone will tell you, I travel a ton, I’ve eaten in probably more restaurants than anyone could count. I am a research junkie. To me that’s all R&D, so I see the references everywhere, and I was very clear. I think that was my clear intention too, was, wherever the ball is going, I want to go the other way. So I do not want to see any trends. 

Camilla: [00:20:13] I mean, it was interesting. Before meeting Jett I had poked around with one or two other agencies, design and branding agencies, and I would say, look I get it. I look girly and I see what you see, but I was raised in a house of boys. I’m very tomboyish in my heart of hearts, and I don’t want people to walk in and be like, “Oh, a woman owns and designs this.” I don’t want it to be girly. I think there’s way too much pandering to that, and I think guests are more sophisticated than we give them credit for, and if anyone’s doing something I want to go the other way. 

Camilla: [00:20:44] So, even with Jett, the first thing they do is create a research document and they do a massive deep dive down to typeface, whether things are capitalized, how they’re capitalized, what fonts they use, what reading level brands write to, what their collateral looks like. I mean, it was literally the most amazing—I told them, I’m like, “This is why I love you. You’re creative but you’re also psychoanalytical like I am.” And then they sort of say, hey, this is the white space. Like, you don’t have to take it but, just so you know, this is where everyone, not just in New York but across the country, brands that you admire or that you consider potentially in your competitive set, this is where they’re all going. This is what the landscape looks like. Now, you can decide to go left or right. 

Camilla: [00:21:24] So I think in that way I’m probably an obsessive contrarian. And I find in hospitality the answer, especially in my career, was always like, oh but that’s the way it’s always been done. I’m like, that is just a crappy answer. It’s fine if there’s a reason and you can justify it but I really don’t like, “Oh, that’s the way it’s always been done.” And I think, even in design, that’s why you see trends. It’s like, there’s safety in numbers. “Oh, we have to have the neon. We have to have this. We have to have the Instagram moment.” I mean, everyone has those inspirational images. Everyone has a menu wall. I was like, let’s do none of that. Let’s write down all the elements that every trendy, hot, buzzed-about restaurant in casual space is talking about and doing and like, let’s move the other way, because I just can’t stand seeing everything look alike. 

Richie: [00:22:08] Bring us up to the launch, in terms of—I assume you found the space at some point. 

Camilla: [00:22:11] It was interesting. So, after the second deal that fell through, I’d always loved Navy on Sullivan Street. I live in the neighborhood, I have for a long time, and I went to NYU for grad school and I just had a weird feeling about it. And so I kept telling Keith, I was like, “There’s something about that space, I’m telling you. And it’s gonna become available, just watch.” And, sure enough, Hugh called me about three weeks after that last deal and said, “Well, you’re right. They do want to get out of their lease and it’s yours if you want it, totally off-market.” Within a month we had everything signed, got our liquor license and everything in about April, and we were actually ready to go with construction in about October/November. 

Camilla: [00:22:47] So build was actually very fast, which we were lucky about, and the team gelled very quickly. And in that time hired, you know, our management team, we brought on our culinary director, I brought out a director of people and culture. And then, around like November/October is when we brought on the full team. And we had our brand director Nikki, also part of the crew as well. We were pretty much ready to go, and Con Ed comes in to turn our electricity back on—and then obviously you get in line for gas, which is everyone’s bane of their existence in New York—but what we didn’t anticipate or know about is, when Con Ed came, it turned out the building was three phase power which is what you need for a real restaurant, for that kind of equipment, but for whatever reason it was never pulled into our space. So the next door retail space and every single apartment had three phase, and you can’t know until Con Ed opens what they call the lock box. So there was no way in all the times that we had surveyed the space and, you know, we did a lot of reconstruction work we couldn’t know. And so Con Ed said, “Well, you’re screwed, because a whole other team has to come in and connect it and that’s gonna take you another couple months.”

Camilla: [00:23:53] So we could not get Con Ed to turn on our electricity. Even without gas, we could have done something like induction burners and at least soft-opened or tested things before the end of year, but we ended up being totally stuck without gas and power in the dead of winter. I mean, our trainings are hilarious. Everyone was basically in ski gear, training in this space that was built out with no power, no lights and no gas. So we decided we’d give everyone the holidays off, two weeks paid, everyone stayed onboard. I think it was like the 22nd of December, Con Ed shows up, both electric and gas in the same morning which is unheard of. And you’re like, obviously because we just let everyone go and it’s the holidays, thank you so much. Two days before Christmas. Cool. 

Camilla: [00:24:36] So they turned it on and we opened very quickly thereafter, on January 10. You know, you do all the pre-opening photos, all the pre-opening press. And, I mean, it’s not that funny. We did pre-opening photos I think on like the third, and I ended up getting food poisoning the night before. Worst I’ve almost ever had. So I was supposed to style the shoot, I’m in the corner totally throwing up. Like, feeling worse than I’ve ever felt my entire life. And that week was zero degrees, most people don’t remember, but we had one of the worst snowstorm weeks of life. It was zero degrees. It was horrible. And our lovely photographer Nicole Franzen, bless her heart, was like, “Look, we can reschedule.” I’m like, we actually can’t, because press has to go out in two days and we need these photos, and we couldn’t do it before the lights were on because you can’t shoot anything. 

Camilla: [00:25:21] So a lot of hiccups that people don’t often have and you have to roll with. And I was like, “Look, you have to style it. I know it’s not your thing but I literally am dying and you have to finish this.” Plus we had to do a portrait of me. So all the opening photos are me in profile because I was literally on my deathbed. It’s like me in profile with a paper boy cap on, trying to hide the fact that I probably should have gone to the hospital. That then sparked the flu. So I had the flu for basically the week before we opened. What do they say, everything that could go wrong will go wrong? Yeah. Then we opened January 10th, come hell or high water. 

Richie: [00:25:53] Very cool. So, before talking about that, given you went to culinary school but also spent a lot of the career on the business side, and also given this wasn’t your name on the door, this wasn’t gonna be Per Se—not saying his name but, you know, Bobby Flay or whatever that was—how do you think about where you wanted food and bev to be, what it would be, and how it would kind of manifest, as well? 

Camilla: [00:26:15] Well, I am a food-forward person. I mean, I care a lot about that. So before I met our culinary director I had a lot of the menu already set. I knew in my mind the categories, the types of things, you know, I’d already been playing around with recipes. But it’s collaborative, it’s definitely collaborative between the two of us. We’re about the same age, we’re both from Los Angeles, born and raised. You know, it’s ironic. I went to culinary school and she didn’t, but she worked her way up through the line. So we sort of have like, opposite career paths. And it was pretty natural. We share a very similar palette for things, we share a similar perspective, we work really well creatively together. But I knew I couldn’t be on the line every day, and grow a business, and start it and do it all myself. So that’s where I think it gets murky for people of like, what do you do? 

Camilla: [00:27:00] And the food and beverage were so important. We really did [an] immense amount of tastings and research. My friend Allie Cayne owns Haven’s Kitchen, and they were gracious enough to basically let us squat there for a couple months before, and we would host dinners and breakfasts and test a bunch of recipes and dishes, frankly, on most people who are not vegetarian, so the food’s all, we sort of say, “Accidentally vegetarian, decidedly wholesome.” We don’t talk about it, we don’t advertise it, we won’t allow ourselves to be pinned as a vegetarian cafe, but I just felt that there were no vegetarian concepts that were delicious, food-forward, and that weren’t sort of preachy and artificial. So we don’t have tofu or seitan. None of that stuff. Nothings, you know, quote unquote “chicken wings.” It’s more how I grew up eating in Los Angeles. Like, just great food, great produce, flavor-forward, interesting. But also daily-crave-able and at an approachable price, where like, I could eat at this place four days a week for different meals, that could not only change my diet but change our impact on the environment and do something together without you even knowing it. You’re just going to have a great meal. 

Camilla: [00:28:07] So we did a lot of recipe testing and a lot of intake from a lot of different people, as many strangers and non-vegetarians as we could get we did, and really did a lot of surveying and focus grouping, honestly. Which, again, I think a lot of restaurateurs and chefs don’t do. They’re sort of like, well the market’s gonna know. Like, we’re gonna tell them, and I come from a different camp. I feel like it’s good to see how it’s resonating, what you think in your mind isn’t always as someone’s going to interpret or feel about it. And, again, if your goal is to be somewhat of a broad appeal, I think you have to be willing to take that advice and that feedback. 

Richie: [00:28:43] And what about on the beverage side?

Camilla: [00:28:44] So beverage, the goal was really, from the start, I knew I wanted natural wines from California. I have a very close friend who lives in Sonoma who’s born and raised there who helps us liaise with vineyards directly. So we use distributors, but we have very close relationships with our winemakers personally. We do a lot of interesting custom collaborations. We get hard-to-get stuff that you won’t see on most menus. We obviously take a very strong preference towards female winemakers, that is no surprise. And then we use local beers. So we’re partnered with Threes, Grimm and Other Half sort of on a rotating basis. 

Camilla: [00:29:21] It was funny, originally I was like, “What about California beer?” And everyone I talked to in California was like, “California beer kind of sucks. Don’t do that.” So I was like, okay, great. So we do mostly Brooklyn beers, but the wine was very important. You know, I think to have an all-day concept you have to morph in the night. So like, our lights dim low, we play old school West Coast hip hop, it sort of gets house party vibes-ish, you sort of feel like you’re in someone’s kitchen. You know, our whole design aesthetic and floor plan is all open, you can touch and see everything, and the goal is the way you eat at someone’s home. You sit at the counter, you watch them cook, you see where everything is made and really feel part of the experience. So we always say, dinner, to me, turns into sort of the ultimate dinner party or house party. Very casual and approachable but it’s the same menu, but people kind of use it differently at night, which is interesting. 

Camilla: [00:30:07] And then the goal was to have a real wine destination of discovery. So helping people learn about smaller vineyards that maybe they hadn’t heard before, or try wine from a well-known winemaker that honestly you wouldn’t get unless you were friends with them, and they’ll sort of send special packages through our distributors. But even that was an interesting process. You know, I would meet with some who we don’t work with. I only work with nice people, but I did meet with some big distributors here who really hazed me, and they were like, “You know you’re not a somm, you’re not a wine person.” I’m like, “Every vineyard you rep, I am friends with them. So, okay, if you wanna judge me and you think I’m not legit for you then, great. Then we won’t work with you.” So, we’re lucky. Our distributors that we work with are wonderful and fun and totally get what we’re doing. And it’s led to a really exciting, I think, wine menu. 

Richie: [00:30:55] So you mentioned that it’s basically the same all-day menu that switches on at night as well. Was that an obvious thing to do? Some places will, of course, have different, a breakfast, a lunch, a late, an early or whatever? 

Camilla: [00:31:06] Yeah. For me, it came a little bit more personally. I really hate when you go to places and they’re like, “Oh no, that’s only for breakfast.” Or, “That’s only for lunch.” Or like, I won’t name the place, but it’s one of my favorites, but the other day they handed me the wrong menu. And I ordered and halfway through our meal they’re like, “Oh, we don’t have that dish. Someone gave you the wrong menu.” And I’m like, “Okay but we’re 30 minutes into the meal. Like, great. Want to suggest a main course?” You know, it just creates to me a lot of friction and a lot of “no” in an environment that I think should be very yes-oriented. And I think having a balance of, do we have enough things for breakfast, do we have enough things for lunch, do we have enough things for dinner, and sort of melting them back and forth was important to me. 

Camilla: [00:31:50] I just hate that. It’s like, you have eggs on site. Like, make the eggs, you know what I mean? 

Richie: [00:31:54] Yeah, sorry, the egg guys not here. 

Camilla: [00:31:56] It’s always like that. Or like, I just felt like there’s so many places I go to like that. And especially when it’s casual and in your daily routine. I’m like, you have it. Just give it to me. 

Richie: [00:32:05] Like a diner. 

Camilla: [00:32:05] Yeah a little bit. I don’t know, I just felt strongly that to have an all-day concept—but again, that’s so categorized, maybe it’s again my fear and angst against labels and limits. Probably. I just felt like, you know what, we’ll see. And again, the market will tell us. So, we are gonna start rolling out some like, two to three dinner-only specials but they’re sort of smaller and a little bit differentiated in that way, but like, we sell more waffles with wine at night than you could imagine. I mean, people have our breakfast sandwich for dinner regularly, sunset grains is one of our top sellers. It’s sort of our take on a risotto. It’s a porridge base, and I really thought it was gonna be more of a dinner dish and we see it eaten all day. So I think the gamble paid off, seeing that people want different things all parts of the day, and I think scripting it for them and putting up those guardrails is not the right approach. 

Richie: [00:32:55] So I’m curious how the launch went, and when did you start to feel it working?

Camilla: [00:33:01] Ironically I think the launch is what I had the most experience with before. I mean, construction for sure, but like I said, the whole building a team and training a team is pretty new for me personally. Openings I’ve done. You know, I’ve done the friends and family thing, I know the system. You know, we had massive—I think it was like a five page questionnaire if you came to friends and family. And then we went through it every night. We typed up anything I said to the team. Anything that shows up more than three times, we have to fix, ’cause I believe strongly if you’re trying to be everything to everyone you’re nothing to no one. But I also think you have to listen to what the market’s telling you, and I think if three to five people are saying the same thing, there’s something going on there. And I think to ignore that is just you being foolish and blind. 

Camilla: [00:33:41] So we made only a few tweaks in general. It clicked, honestly, pretty right away. We started getting breakfast traffic almost immediately. We open at 8:00 a.m. before pretty much anyone in our neighborhood—9:30 a.m. is where most coffee shops open in our hood. And again I said, look we can always push back hours, but there’s something that tells me that no one is serving breakfast to these neighbors. Like, no one is here serving breakfast in the morning, there might be something there. And sure enough that was one of our first pickups, was people really wanting to do something in the morning, dropping off their kids or on their way to work or heading to school. 

Camilla: [00:34:17] I think the first proof point, too, was the menu was pretty even on performance in the first three months which is highly unusual. Usually there’s a massive menu overhaul, and I think we’ve had, I think only two to three menu tweaks. We added a fruit salad because people kept requesting it and like, I was dying watching our team running around the walk-in like, putting together some continental fruit salad. I was like, we don’t do that, let’s create a composed fruit salad. Like, if we’re getting enough requests for that, fine, but let’s do it our way, not just sort of hodgepodge. And then we got a lot of requests for a soup. So now we do a seasonal soup. So, small things here and there like that, but it clicked pretty quickly, and you could see regulars building pretty quickly, which is unusual, and we open in the coldest month. I mean everyone will tell you a January opening’s horrible. I would agree, but c’est la vie. So to see people come out in the dead of winter was a proof point for us. 

Richie: [00:35:12] So, once you’re open, where does your focus shift to?

Camilla: [00:35:16] I mean, in the early months of opening it’s definitely towards stabilization and bolstering our management team. We’re young, all of us are very generalist and I think very driven, but relatively green, I would say, combined. So I think the first couple of months was much more focused on how do we help all of management feel empowered, energized, learning, growing and sort of getting to the place where we need to get. Making sure all systems are talking to one another. How do we get the P&L stabilized and where it needs to be to budget, and things like that. I think it’s sort of like, okay, the boat’s down the strait, keep everything in the boat and then sort of get to cruise control. 

Camilla: [00:35:54] And then my focus really goes towards a few things. I mean, one, I’m very hands on when it comes to our marketing communications programming. Really thinking about how do we recruit, train and keep and retain the best team possible. And, you know, I’m lucky; every one of our management team members has been with us since the beginning. We haven’t had a single person leave. So yeah. I mean, to me it was really like, how to create this core team. Is it the right team, which thankfully it was, and how do we sort of build ourselves as a unit. So a lot of management development, a lot of culture development and thinking through, okay, this is our business model, these are all the inputs, it’s very complicated. Is it working? How do we strengthen it? How do we tie it down? That’s sort of where my focus was. And then, say about six to nine months in is when I’ve been shifting my focus more towards business development. Like, how do we build, how do we grow, how do we expand, while obviously keeping a pulse on those things. 

Richie: [00:36:50] So you’ve said across this discussion about calling it a restaurant group, our first location, our management team. Only those are not words someone says when they only are making a little small business. Talk a bit about… 

Camilla: [00:37:02] It’s not a little small business! 

Richie: [00:37:03] Right. Right. They don’t wanna stop there. 

Camilla: [00:37:06] Yeah. 

Richie: [00:37:06] So talk a bit about the scale piece and how you’re thinking about that. What some of the larger kind of biz dev pieces look like. And, I guess, to whatever you’re willing to hint to kind of the grand aspirations, as well. 

Camilla: [00:37:18] Yeah. I mean, when we started I told the team we are a hospitality brand. We’re not mom and pop, we don’t run like a mom and pop. We’re very structure, we’re very systematized. I mean, it was very intentional. Like, we could have a license agreement tomorrow. Everything is systematized, everything is documented. It’s so much of also what I learned in my prior experiences was, even really sophisticated groups don’t have the systems you think they do, and you’re sort of like how, why, what? And the longer you go without them they’re really hard to put back in. It’s sort of hard to put the genie back in the bottle, so we’re very obsessed with being very structured on the back end. Anyone who works with us or for us knows, you know, we’re a lot more buttoned up than seems as one location. 

Camilla: [00:38:00] It was always really proof of concept. It wasn’t the end goal to have one freestanding location. And the truth is, from a business standpoint, I would say, like, one is near to impossible, three is the sweet spot, past three starts to get hard again, you need to build sort of a new infrastructure. But our society is very hard on small businesses. Insurance is prohibitively expensive. Everything we deal with, it’s like, well if you had 50 employees the costs come down 50%, and you’re like, that is ludicrous. But that’s how our world is really structured. It’s actually very anti-small business. We are very anti-small business as a society, despite the fact that you know, “shop small” is the favorite tagline. 

Camilla: [00:38:38] I look at it really like a tree, sort of multiple branches on a core foundation of community hospitality which is our roots, and always having our mission, our sustainability goals in mind. You know, one element certainly, we’ve been looking in New York for ideally in another location. My goal would be two or three total in New York. And a little bit different, but sort of staying at our core with the all-day concept. 

Camilla: [00:39:02] Two is products. So we just launched some snack products that we’re developing in-house, working on some spices and sauces likely next, with the goal of if someone maybe has never eaten at west~bourne, how cool would it be if you opened your mini-bar and there was something there, and you could learn about our brand and what we do outside of the four walls. I think it’s important to think beyond the box. 

Camilla: [00:39:23] Three, you know, we’re toying with, again, some international partnerships that I think could be super-interesting. I think one of the things I learned watching Shake Shack’s development—I don’t want to be a Shake Shack, I don’t dream of 100 to 200 restaurants and going IPO. That’s not really the scale I look at. I look more at lifestyle brands and something that is certainly scalable and exit-able, but a little bit more broad-based than just like, let’s stamp out a hundred of these. But I do think international partnerships are interesting. Again, a really wonderful way to sort of spread your wings but also, depending on the partnership, doesn’t necessarily require the same sort of startup capital and startup energy, and can finance a lot of the, hopefully, the expansion here. 

Camilla: [00:40:06] And I think the other element is, we’ve really thrived on events in catering. We do a lot of really cool activations and, you know, myself and Amy our culinary director, we come from fine dining, so when we do events people are always shocked. It’s like, very different to what we do in the restaurant. It’s always very out there, we usually create totally custom things, oftentimes based on whatever that brand is doing. Like, we did a dinner for Guerlain, and it was like, okay, make a dinner based on the tasting notes of our perfume. They were like, cool, great. So I think keeping that element growing and big, too, I think is an area that we thrive on that the team really loves, ’cause we get to do sort of different stuff at different scale constantly. So, we got a long way to go. 

Richie: [00:40:46] In terms of the marketing communications side, how have you looked at that? I’m also curious like, what does it take to get someone to [become] a regular?

Camilla: [00:40:54] Well, I think in any restaurant setting you live and die by your regulars. I mean that’s the—

Richie: [00:40:58] The core, the business. 

Camilla: [00:40:59] For sure. The way we think is sort of marketing PR and communications, I really always look to a lot of different businesses and brands. Again, I think so many only look to their own industry and I’m constantly seeking out what are different businesses that I admire that aren’t in our community, and what are they doing. We got really big on social from the start, in a very different way. I remember when we started, yeah, some of our team members were like, “You know there’s not like, a lot of food on the feed.” I’m like, “Yeah but how many images of a dish can you look at?” And every restaurant does that. It’s boring, it doesn’t say anything, it doesn’t connect to the consumer. That’s not what it’s about. And that’s the only channel we control 100%. So, we really built, I think, a very big following. Ironically, we found so many team members on Instagram. We connect with so many brands and guests through Instagram, which is amazing. I want someone to come to the page and like, honestly, maybe not even be sure that we’re a restaurant. That is, as weird as that sounds, kind of the goal. 

Camilla: [00:41:57] We definitely look at community activations, partnerships, pop-ups, whether it’s in New York or elsewhere. And even with press we have so many areas that we can talk about and that we do, and trying to be really diligent about, like, “Okay, yes. Part of it’s the food. Yes. Part of it is New York, part of it’s our philanthropy, part of it’s our sustainability, part of it’s our new labor model.” And trying to make sure that we’re balancing that conversation whereas, again, I think restaurants, it’s sort of like, “Food-food-food, hours-hours-hours, this is what we do,” and I just don’t think it’s interesting for guests, and I don’t think it’s a way to differentiate yourself. 

Camilla: [00:42:31] And I think the other thing we took big was using social media, but also our newsletter to really tell stories, to bring our community to life. We do a lot that’s interactive, so we have pocket maps, we’re on issue three, now every six months we do them. We’ll partner with an artist, we talk about other businesses in the neighborhood, and when we opened, the first one was all about our neighborhood and so many people said, “I can’t believe you’d like, promote other restaurants. That’s amazing.” And I was like, “Well you can’t eat here three meals a day every day.” I mean, you could, I just don’t think that’s realistic. You know what, we’re one of many, and we’re proud to be part of this network. 

Camilla: [00:43:06] As far as building regulars, it’s something we focus on in training a lot. We are cross-trained, so every single person knows everything about the restaurant. They’re expected to know everything. And I always say, we’re an open format, because I think our industry is so big on like, shoving people into a lane, and you never really know. You know, we wine train the whole team, the whole team gets coffee trained, and we’ve had so many people who’ve said, “Wow. Now I love beverage. Like, I didn’t even know, I was never allowed to go to a wine training before, and now my real passion [is] wine. Can I help on the wine?” So, again, we really focus a lot on breaking down those silos and making sure that everyone really is part of the whole messaging and why we do what we do. 

Camilla: [00:43:47] And we hear a lot—which I love but it’s also sort of funny—people always say to me, one, “You have the most diverse team we’ve ever seen,” which is both a compliment but a sad compliment in my opinion. It’s sad that it’s noticeable. And then, two, we always hear, “The team’s just so happy. Like, they’re wonderful, the food’s amazing, we love the environment, but also your team is really special, they’re different. They seem really like they wanna be there.” And, again, it’s a really nice compliment, but a little bit sad that that stands out. 

Camilla: [00:44:16] I always say, I think people are the key. Happy people make delicious food. I think it totally comes from the soul of people, food is a very soulful way of communicating. And so, to me I think the biggest thing that we invest in and care about the most is our team, and I think that’s why you go back to a place. It’s how you feel when you’re there, and if you feel that that people care, and that they care about you, but they also care about themselves and why they’re there, and that starts with self. You know, if the team’s not happy none of it matters. And I think, even if you’ve had the greatest meal from a technical standpoint, like the food and everything was amazing, if you didn’t really feel welcomed and like part of their community I just don’t think you end up going back. 

Richie: [00:44:57] And is the menu changing or it’s constant? 

Camilla: [00:44:59] So, 70% is locked and then 30% swings seasonally. And then we do adjust things. Like I said, you know, we added the fruit salad, we added the soup. We do sort of seasonal updates every quarter on certain dishes and we’ve only pulled off one to two dishes to date, which is pretty unusual. And then some swings obviously are like, what we can get at the green market, or we’re out of something and we’ll sort of riff on it. So I think the goal is to keep most of it pretty structured, but then update obviously for seasonality and what we can get from our farmers. 

Richie: [00:45:31] What’s been the cheapest the most expensive lesson you’ve learned, building this business so far?

Camilla: [00:45:35] Ooh. Most expensive lesson is failed real estate deals hurt a lot, and there’s no recourse. I think in that sense, looking back and going forward, I think I would be sooner to cut off those negotiations. Like I said, if it feels like a slog I should have jumped off sooner. I think I learned that the hard way, which I should have known ’cause I’ve done real estate for a lot of my career, but I’m an optimist and realist at the same time. And so, you tell yourself like, okay, it’s moving forward, it’s moving forward, but ultimately I should have cut it earlier. And I think, again, when there’s so much friction in those things it’s just not meant to be. 

Camilla: [00:46:11] The cheapest lesson I would say I’ve learned, I can’t tell you how many times I tell my team like, you realize I don’t know what I’m doing. So like, if you don’t like something or you think something can be better, say something. Like, see something, say something. I am candid; I am very open book. The best things that have improved our operations, 90% come from our team members. So, you’re required to give a 30 minute break for an a.m. shift and a 45 minute for the p.m. And someone—he was literally new, I mean, he’d been there two weeks, he’s now with us a long time but—he pulled me aside one day and he was like, “Why does the p.m. shift work 15 minutes less? That’s not fair.” I’m like, “What do you mean?” He goes, “Well, we don’t get in 15 minutes earlier even though we’re required to take 15 minutes more of a break. Like, I feel docked. I don’t wanna work the p.m. shift because I get paid less.” And I was like, “So true. Tomorrow that changes.” You know. But like, he’s right. You know, you do your best, we’re very thoughtful about things and we we ruminate a lot on how we do things and are careful about roll-outs but like, greatest ideas ever. 

Richie: [00:47:09] Where’s the name from? 

Camilla: [00:47:11] So I used to live on West Bourne Drive in Los Angeles, and there was this beautiful sign, this old 60s apartment building on the end of our block that like, we always would photograph throughout the day, my husband and I. And just, I don’t know, there was something about it that just captured all the nostalgia and warmth that I feel for my hometown, and he turned to me when we were living in LA far before west~bourne was even there. He was like, “One day you’re gonna use that as a name.” He was like, “I think this is the right thing for whatever you want to do at some point. Like, let’s store this picture.” He even was very cute, he made postcards for me out of them. So when I started thinking about this I was like, it’s perfect. I knew I did not want a food related name, that was very intentional, and wanted something that evoked much more of a feeling and a sense of place rather than—everything in the market is based on some sort of refined food or color or something. 

Richie: [00:48:01] A name. 

Camilla: [00:48:01] Yeah. And they all kind of start to sound the same. So I also liked we get a lot of visitors from England and, you know, we had the British spelling, west~bourne. So I liked that too, that it just had a little bit of something that you can’t put your finger on. And Jett and FODA came up with putting the tilde in between the West and the Bourne, with the idea that, you know, I’m born from the West but West Bourne is also the street, but the tilde to represent everyone’s daily journey. And there’s sometimes short space in it, there’s sometimes a long space in it, but our goal is really to be part of everyone’s daily journey and that being sort of the centerpiece of what we do and why we do it. 

Richie: [00:48:38] Awesome. Thanks so much for talking. 

Camilla: [00:48:39] This was awesome. Thank you. 

Richie: [00:48:46] Thanks for listening to the Loose Threads Podcast. You can read full transcripts of the podcast and join the newsletter at LooseThreads.com. Feel free to leave a review on iTunes, we always appreciate it, and thanks to George Drake, Jr. for editing this episode. We have a great roster of upcoming guests and we hope you tune in next week.