This Founder Was Dismayed by Food Waste in the Restaurant Industry, So She Started a Zero-Waste Grocery Line That Now Caters Events for Nike An experienced chef by trade, Camilla Marcus noticed a disconnect between sustainability and the food industry — so she set out to change the way we farm, eat and browse grocery aisles.
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; no one wanted anything that was in my lunchbox," Marcus says. "It was so not cool."
The pressures of cafeteria cred never deterred Marcus from her health-focused diet and innate curiosity about where her groceries came 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 traditionally is pretty wasteful," Marcus says. "If you're making a perfect shape of something, what happens to the rest of the carrot?"
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. But Marcus had a contradictory experience whenever she left school to explore the New York restaurant scene.
"I started to realize that a lot of these well-known restaurants [serve] this perfectly shaped potato, but that's ridiculous," she recalls. "That's not how potatoes come in the case. That's not how they're 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 just seemed like no one was paying attention, and yet it's one of the bigger drivers [of climate change]," Marcus says. "You make more decisions about food and beverage in your daily life than anything else. You decide where you're getting your cup of coffee far more often than your foundation."
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 were not having those conversations of, 'We buy more milk than almost any other restaurant group, where does it come from?'" Marcus says.
She knew the power that restaurants and chefs hold and wanted to take the first step in changing consumer behavior — this time 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. Despite the setback, Marcus didn't want to give up on her mission, and she powered through 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 knows she's at the frontlines of something new — maybe unheard of to some — so her approach has always been human-oriented rather than transactional. "I really do believe, particularly in food, things are about people," she says.
So when her production partners were hesitant to get on board, she went there in person to hash it out.
"I think sharing the mission got us over that hump and allowed us to experiment together and say, 'You know what, just try it. We'll be here and physically hold your hand while we do it,'" Marcus says. "The hardest thing is to get someone to try it."
And that's what she did. Now, west~bourne produces dozens of zero-waste, naturally sourced products ranging from pie crust to plum butter, with countless new recipes in the works.
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 not about being the first, it's not about being the only," she says. "I think it's about doing it full scope with an obsessive level of quality and integrity and skating to where the puck is going, not where it is today."