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The Mindful Restaurant Revolution Of Camilla Marcus

Replacing the suggestion box with pre-shift sharing and stretching.

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With education and experience in cooking, hospitality, law, and investing–she holds a JD/MBA, and served as Director of Business Development for Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality–Camilla Marcus brought a lot to the table when striking out on her own at west-bourne, her “accidentally” vegetarian New York cafe. In opening the restaurant, Marcus combined her business background with her native Californian sensibilities, transforming the usual pre-service meetings into “mindfulness minutes” and cross-training new employees so anyone can do any job required.

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Our focus on mindfulness was part of our DNA from the start. Frankly, first and foremost, it has to start with the team. You can’t carry out a larger mission if we’re not taking the same level of care for those within our immediate community, which is who works at west-bourne.

We wanted to rethink how we do things internally. For example, we have no porters, no dishwashers. Every team member comes in at the same level. They’re cross-trained across all positions. They all take care of the house.

I’ve worked in restaurants in a lot of different capacities over the past decade. I’ve had a line cook come up to me and say, “You know, I’m thinking I have to leave because I really want to be in wine. I don’t know who to tell. I don’t know what to do. I’m just a cook here.” I’ve wanted to participate in wine trainings myself and had people say, “You’re not a sommelier. Why do you want to do that?” Well, I really like wine. And yes, I’m not a somm and I’m not trained, but it’s a passion. Why can’t I have an open door to learn?

I feel this kind of gatekeeping limits your ability to keep talent. So many people are actually curious about multiple levels of the business. The old 10,000-hour rule isn’t representative of this generation or my own generation. It’s certainly not how I feel. I’m very much a generalist. Talent would leave to switch roles versus staying, which is not a positive. We were limiting people from where they could develop themselves. And from a labor standpoint, if you’re down a position and no one else can do it, it’s kind of a problem. It makes staffing and managing service a lot less flexible.

We also have an “embrace your side hustle” fund. We give $35 every single month for anything that enriches someone’s development. It can be wellness. It can be arts. It can be culinary. Basically, anything that is developing you. It was our antidote to the very standard gym perk. Everyone at most large companies, and a lot of restaurant companies, you join and you get a fitness membership at Crunch. Well, I don’t work out. For me personally, that never spoke to my internal development and my sense of wellness. It felt very one-size-fits-all, which, to me, is sort of the antithesis of wellness. I think we live in an age where wellness has to be, to some extent, personalized. So we wanted to create space for that.

The pre-service mindful minutes came out of a desire to provide a forum for openness. Like a lot of companies, we run a semi-annual or quarterly town hall. But it’s in the day-to-day that you need feedback. Same way with performance reviews. It’s great to get a review, but I think all of us can appreciate when you sit there in a review saying, “Why didn’t you just tell me that? I could have fixed that five months ago.”

Photo: Emily Schindler.

So it starts with props, progress, and possibilities. Props are shout-outs to the team. So much of the feedback leans towards constructive criticism. Sometimes we forget that we also need to hear what’s working. You don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think even as management sometimes you forget. Someone needs to hear when they’re doing a great job as much as they need to hear what they can improve on. So we start with that forum of looking at what’s working, thinking about where we can make improvements in “progress.” And then “possibilities” is what could we do totally differently tomorrow? What are new ideas that every team member should feel free to contribute? Naming things helps you take a load off. The tension that we carry every day is most often driven by the things left unsaid.

Then we move into a small meditation movement exercise. We rotate who leads, so it really varies. Something that took hold when we opened, which I really loved, is that as we rotated who would lead it, to them, wellness is personal. We’d learn their version of what does being centered before a shift mean? What does getting your blood flowing mean? Some people do jumping jacks after a quiet moment. Some people do different yoga holds and poses. It’s wonderful to see people bring their own practices and share them with the team.

Pre-shift is ingrained in our culture, but it tends to follow a very specific format. We’ve essentially said, “Let’s take this traditional moment in service and ask how we make it fit our ethos, our values, what we stand for.” I think taking a meditative moment was also a way to teach the team that being centered and being well is something that’s within you. You don’t necessarily need to go to a class. You don’t need to leave anywhere. Especially in our jobs. They’re very high stress. They’re very intense. You’re dealing with a lot of personalities and people, and you’re always onstage, so to speak.

So helping our team realize that you can take a five-minute break—walk outside of the restaurant or walk to the bathroom or even walk in place, focus on your breathing and take a moment to look within—can do wonders for stress management, help recenter yourself, and remember why you do what you do. It’s a way to liberate thinking and figure out how to help someone find that feeling, even in the intensity of a really busy shift. It’s meant to be empowering in that way.

Solutions often come from the top down. That’s not always how the best solutions are found. Someone who’s working on a station every single moment of every single day, they’re going to see nuances and things that could be done differently in a much more specific way. As the manager, you see it from a bird’s-eye view, but you’re maybe not in the weeds quite as much.

Photo: Emily Schindler.

Take station organization—our cold station in the restaurant. It’s the one that everyone sees right behind the counter. We had a team member bring up in mindful minutes that each dish’s vegetables should be lined up in a column, and in the order of frequency of which they’re ordered, which makes preparation faster. Genius.

We had one team member bring up that since break rules are different for daytime shifts and nighttime shifts, we had 15 minutes less paid time in the PM shift. This person said, “Well, could we just start 15 minutes earlier so that our hours are exactly the same as the AM shift?” One hundred percent yes. That 15 minutes matters to someone. We agree it matters, so we shifted it immediately.

We’ve had some people over the years ask why we don’t have a confidential suggestion box. And I said, “Look, I think it’s important that we have an open forum. What we’ve shown our team over time is that open forum is without judgment, and it is meant to be helpful and constructive no matter how big or small you think the issue is.” I have a collective team that feels every single voice matters and that we’re only as good as that next loudest voice.

You have to back it all up with action. You can’t open the door and not react to what’s being said if you’re going to have open dialogue. It takes off so much of the stress typical in hospitality because there is an ability to name what you want to name. It’s great to honor your coworker and have that be heard by your team and management.

This industry is changing. It’s not the way it was five years ago, let alone ten years ago. I think even that back-of-house/front-of-house barrier has got to go. It has dissolved at west-bourne. I think more and more restaurants are realizing that sort of ivory wall can’t really exist anymore.