This Founder Was Dismayed by Food Waste in the Restaurant Industry, So She Started a Zero-Waste Grocery Store That Now Caters Events for Nike
Camilla Marcus’ journey to becoming a climate-focused chef and entrepreneur began before she was even born.
Her grandfather, Bertram, was the self-proclaimed foodie of the family as Marcus’ mother was growing up. Although the family didn’t have a fortune, Bertram would create sprawling and elaborate dinner creations for his kids as a way to teach them about culture and understand other parts of the world — without ever leaving the dinner table.
Although Marcus never met Bertram, she relished the stories her mother shared about his thoughtfulness and intentionality regarding the connection between food, culture and health. Naturally, the Los Angeles native grew up conscious of the ingredients she was eating.
” I grew up with the untradeable lunch; nobody wanted anything in my lunchbox,” Marcus explains. It was not cool. “
Marcus never let the pressures of cafeteria cred deter her from her health-focused diet, and her innate curiosity about where her groceries come from. The passion only grew as she got older and began to realize that what was second nature to her was unheard of to others.
The “aha” moment came when Marcus moved to New York to pursue her culinary career at the French Culinary Institute in 2007.
” It was traditional French cooking, which is traditionally quite wasteful,” Marcus says. What happens to the rest? “
Marcus’ culinary school was an outlier at the time in that it did minimize waste and had conversations in the classroom about composting and recycling materials. Marcus had a different experience when she went to New York to explore the restaurant scene.
” I realized that many well-known restaurants serve perfectly shaped potatoes, but that’s absurd,” she says. “That’s not how potatoes are made. This is not how they are grown. “
“You decide where you’re getting your cup of coffee far more often than your foundation. “
Marcus began to increasingly notice how other industries — from fashion to beauty — shifted towards minimizing waste, but food always lagged.
“Food seemed like no one was paying any attention and yet it’s one the biggest drivers of climate change,” Marcus says. “Food and beverages are the most important decisions in your daily life. Your foundation makes far more decisions about where you get your coffee than you do. “
The reality only became more apparent when Marcus graduated from culinary school and began working for Union Square Hospitality Group. Although the firm is well-renowned and offered a wealth of experience, Marcus couldn’t help but wonder why no one was talking about sustainability in the boardroom.
” We weren’t having those conversations about, “We buy more milk than almost every other restaurant group, where is it from?” Marcus agrees.
She understood the power of chefs and restaurants and wanted to make the first step towards changing consumer behavior, but she had to do it on her own.
“The hardest thing is to get someone to try it. “
In 2018, Marcus opened west~bourne, an all-day cafe geared towards assimilating consumers to a plant-based and sustainability-focused mindset. With the help of the organization TRUE, west~bourne became the first zero-waste restaurant in New York City.
However, when the pandemic sparked city-wide shutdowns, west~bourne was forced to close up shop just two years after opening. Marcus refused to give up on her mission despite the setback and continued with a new agenda. She rebranded west~bourne as a zero-waste grocery store, which allowed her to scale wider than ever before — but again, she was met with hesitation from those who had never heard of what Marcus was trying to do.
Many of her production partners had never seen a compostable bag, let alone worked with them. However, if there’s anything Marcus isn’t scared of, it’s communication. She is aware that she is at the forefront of something new, which may seem unheard of to others. Therefore, her approach has always been more human-oriented than transactional. She says, “I believe that everything is about people, especially in food.”
She went to meet her production partners when they were reluctant to join.
” I think that sharing the mission helped us get over that hump. It allowed us to experiment together, and then say, “You know what, just do it.” Marcus says, “We’ll be there and physically hold you hand while we do it.” “The hardest part is convincing someone to try it. “
And that’s exactly what she did. Today, westbourne produces dozens oz of naturally sourced, zero-waste products, ranging from pie crusts to plum butter. There are many new recipes in the pipeline.
West~bourne started small, but the company has already had a widespread impact — including recently catering Nike’s 50th-anniversary event. Since its founding in early 2022, west~bourne has protected 23,000 acres of forest and prevented 14,000 cars-worth of emissions, according to the company site.
Marcus is confident in her mission and knows that change requires individuals to step up. When in doubt, Marcus looks up to brands like Patagonia, whose commitment to improving human lives goes far beyond the products it creates.
Like Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard, Marcus is dedicated to her mission and its impact on the future, despite what the norms are — because for Marcus, it’s not about sticking to the status quo, it’s about changing it altogether. “It’s about being the first, but it’s also not about being alone,” she said. “I believe it’s about doing it all with an obsessive quality and integrity, and skating to where it is going, not where is is now. “
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.