Camilla Marcus is the founder and chef at one of our favorite Manhattan restaurants, west-bourne, an all-day counter-service vegetarian cafe in SoHo that is as known for its hearty “mushreuben” sandwich as it is for being zero waste and providing compassionate neighborhood hospitality. west-bourne donates 1 percent of its revenue to The Door, which provides hospitality training to youth, and is known for eschewing traditional restaurant hierarchy: all employees are paid equally, and everyone is trained to work to do all jobs.
Like many restaurants in New York City, west-bourne was forced to shut its doors due to the Covid-19 crisis—but Camilla is currently working tirelessly to raise financial aid for restaurant workers as a co-founder of Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants (ROAR), a New York City organization that partnered with Robin Hood and the National Restaurant Association. The mother of one is a hospitality industry leader for her commitment to equality in the workplace, from being an early investor in The Wing to championing accessible childcare for hospitality workers. Before she was a restauranteur, she earned a business degree from Wharton, a MBA/JD from New York University, studied at the International Culinary Center, and worked for Tom Colicchio and Union Square Hospitality Group.
We spoke with Camilla about promoting equity in the culinary industry, the work that ROAR is doing to save the restaurant industry and support restaurant workers during the Covid-19 crisis, and how we can help right now.
Especially these days in your work as an organizer and activist, do you think your background in the law has shaped the way you work in the hospitality industry?
Oh, yeah. Look, I think experiences are a toolbox. If you’ve got it, you’re going to use it. My mom really insisted that I get a law degree because so much of business is legally driven—you’re signing a contact, you’re signing a lease, et cetera. I probably sign four contracts a day. She wanted me, as a woman, to feel like I was in the driver’s seat and that I didn’t have to rely on someone else to explain the rules of the game. At the same, it seemed insane, but it was also 2008, our last mass recession.
I didn’t know the world was going to collapse when I applied [to law school]. It was amazing timing to be in grad school when 90 percent of my friends were out of work. You know, restaurants are very heavily regulated at all levels. Having a legal background helps you understand compliance, liability, litigation risk, and more. I think that’s the part of the business that many people don’t see or understand. So, yes, I use my law degree every second—as well as my MBA and my culinary degree.
Same with cooking. Chefs sometimes think they’re bad at math and science—when really, that’s actually all you’re doing! Cooking is so much chemistry and physics, and there’s so much math that goes into food cost and portioning. We, chefs, are actually really good at math and science. I’ve always been a very left-brained, right-brained person. I was a painter and I’d always felt the need to have a creative outlet, but I was also very focused on math and science—and those were the two areas I excelled in the most when I was younger in school.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more comfortable with that, and I know what a knack it is to be a generalist and to be well-rounded. I think we live in a world that pushes specialization, but I just don’t necessarily agree with that camp. In my younger days in my career, my résumé was all over the place and no one could put me in a lane or figure out what my singular superpower was. And it was hard to get jobs like that. But it was also hard working for myself and being an entrepreneur, and I’m so grateful now to be a generalist—it has paid itself back in spades.
One of the best parts about being an entrepreneur is that you get to set the company culture and values. west-bourne has always been very grounded in its community and neighborhood. What inspired you to set these values for your restaurant?
Both my parents have always been very community oriented. They always felt strongly that no matter where you’re from, there is always a neighborhood or neighbor that is in need. A lot of companies focus on needs abroad. But I grew up with the value of thinking about where you live first, and giving back in your own backyard. I was also inspired by the rise of conscious consumerism with the early days of Warby Parker. We make more decisions about where we eat or drink than anything else in our lives, after all.
You’ve been an advocate for women and restaurant workers long before the pandemic. Can you tell us about the work that you’ve done? For example, when you teamed up with childcare center Vivvi to provide childcare for your employees.
Yes, actually, Vivvi has been providing childcare for frontline workers. I’m someone who loves to solve problems—I see problems and I just feel like I have to solve them. When I started West-Bourne, one of the things that I started seeing very early on was that this industry is just really hard for parents. Traditional childcare is 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, and that’s just not a hospitality schedule! Not even close. If you’re trying to get ahead in your career, you want to pick up that extra shift, you want to say “yes” to that extra training. If you don’t have flexible childcare, it’s impossible to do that. People were relying on informal networks, and that’s just not stable enough to really invest in your career.
I don’t feel that people should have to choose, and I think in other industries, you don’t. I started surveying people in our industry, and alas, everyone said that they were struggling with that on their teams as well. Hospitality is the largest private employer in the country. So I thought, if all of us are being ignored by childcare, that’s a pretty big business opportunity. I ended up connecting with Vivvi and finding out that one of the co-founders went to college with me. It was a sign. My goal as a founder is to remove as many barriers as possible.
How do you balance being an entrepreneur and a mom yourself?
It is hard to be an entrepreneur and a mom. It’s hard to have a job and be a mom. I always say, being an entrepreneur is in some ways harder because it’s 24/7, but in a lot of ways, it’s easier because you get to decide your own schedule. One of the big things I did was taking three full months of maternity leave. My Head of People & Culture sat me down and told me. “You have to show others that that it’s possible because no one else will. We need to show that it’s okay to take that time off and that time is something we’ll never get back.” And she was spot on! I’m so glad that I did it, and I would have done it so full-heartedly without her.
We read your eloquent piece in Fast Company about the restaurant industry’s lack of support from lawmakers. Tell us about ROAR and your involvement with ROAR.
I’m a founding member of ROAR and the national organization, Independent Restaurant Coalition. I started realizing that our industry was going to be so disproportionately harmed by Covid, and also recognizing very quickly after we all closed our doors, that lawmakers really had no idea what was happening in our industry. Like I said, I’m a problem solver. I’m the first to jump in the water. We realized that without coming together for the first time in a big way before, both in New York state as well as across the country, the situation was going to get more dire than it already was.
What did the last few days at West-Bourne look like?
The week before closing, we sat down as a team and assessed different scenarios pretty much every single day. Every day, there was a new regulation in ordinance, and we were trying to be ahead. It’s tough. Restaurants exist to take care of others, right? We’re the lighthouses when everything else goes dark. It was a hard balance to figure out whether we were adding to the problem or were we taking care of others? We ultimately made the decision on the 15th [of March] to pause.
Our neighborhood, SoHo, is not a food desert. SoHo residents have access to grocery stores. And under those circumstances, it wasn’t safe for our team members to come to work anymore.
What are some actionable things that we can do right now to help restaurant workers?
First and foremost, you can donate to ROAR. We are giving direct cash assistance to those who are economically harmed by these closures. It’s on a first come, first serve basis. Doesn’t matter where you’ve worked, as long as you’re in our industry.
Second, I would say to share what’s happening. We are the largest private employer and we haven’t gotten any industry-specific support. We’ve been lumped in with other businesses and it’s not working. We’re very distinct. We’re going to face the toughest and longest road to recovery. We need industry-specific restructuring and planning from all levels of government. There are 11 million people around the nation working in our industry who are mostly currently unemployed and many of whom will remain unemployed without the proper help. This is a very big issue that’s going to compound on top of the enduring health crisis and assured economic recession. This level of unemployment being sustained is going to be brutal.
Third, I would say is, if anyone has any level of government connections, now is the time to talk them. This is the time to wake them up. We need awareness.
Fourth, you should help anyone. If you have a favorite restaurant, go drop them a line right now and say, “Hey, I want to help. What do you need?” This is the time to be proactive. This is the time to reach out and to offer whatever you have.
Lastly, take care of your neighbors and your friends and your family. Check in on them. If you have elderly in your neighborhood, see if you can do errands for them. If you have friends who are struggling or by themselves, check in on them. This is the time to be a community more than ever. If not now, then when?