The seeds for Huckleberry Bakery & Café sprouted in 2008 when pastry chef Zoe Nathan and restaurateur husband Josh Loeb started serving Saturday Morning Breakfasts at sister restaurant Rustic Canyon. Her father would make huckleberry pancakes and friends and family would flood the restaurant, since both Nathan and Loeb grew up nearby. The couple met while working together at Rustic Canyon and they launched their now iconic bakery-cafe down Wilshire Boulevard in 2009. I recently joined Nathan and Loeb at Huckleberry on the eve of their 10-year anniversary, which took place February 18 with free slices of birthday cake, and they shared insights into the early days and current incarnation.
Josh Lurie: Did you expect to be open 10 years later?
Zoe Nathan: Yeah!
Josh Lurie: It seemed like you were headed in that trajectory, but I didn’t know what your initial expectations were.
Josh Loeb: We expected like a 7-month run.
[laughter all around]
Zoe Nathan: Honestly, there’s nothing that makes you more present than opening a restaurant. It was literally, “Let’s get the lettuce cleaned and soups made.” No, I don’t think we ever thought about 10 years, but I don’t think we ever thought we wouldn’t make it.
Josh Lurie: Now what are your expectations, now that you’re 10 years in? Have you thought about long-term goals?
Zoe Nathan: We hope that we are always getting better. For me at least, my focus is having really amazing people be part of our lives, and part of this restaurant, and continue to give them a voice along with keeping with our initial vision. It’s really important to not be too stuck in your ways, and allow people to become a part of it. To feel like they have ownership over it and get that same joy. With that in mind, hopefully Huckleberry and all of the restaurants are living, breathing organisms. When you add a new member of the family, things change.
Josh Lurie: What was that original vision, and how would you say that has changed in these 10 years?
Zoe Nathan: This was always supposed to be a place of joy and abundance. It still is. You come in here and it’s loud and bustling. The pastries still look really beautiful and big and fun and inviting. Hopefully you still order a little too much and talk a little too loud and spend a little too long. That still is there.
When I started out, I was 27. I definitely had a lot more ego in the game. Like any young cook and chef, it’s about me. It was my vision, my thing. I had my fingers in every single thing. I had to make every single thing and I would die if it wasn’t perfect. With just growing up and having kids and having more restaurants and realizing it’s not about me. If it’s about me, it’s not better, it’s actually worse. When you can share the love and share the creativity and share the passion, it’s just a better place. I do believe that Huckleberry is better.
Josh Lurie: How many of the original employees are still here?
Zoe Nathan: Norberto, 10 years. [Bakery Director of Operations] Laurel [Almerinda], 10.
Josh Loeb: [Director of Operations] Joel [Dixon] started as our GM and now runs the whole restaurant group. He’s still very much a part of it.
Zoe Nathan: We have a fair amount of employees who started here who are now at other restaurants… A lot of people are still within the group. A lot of people left the group and came back a couple years later.
Josh Loeb: Rosemary [Walker] was an hourly employee here. Then she became GM. She went to run Milo & Olive. She left, but then came back for awhile. We have Max [Mueller] who started here as an hourly employee, went to run Sweet Rose, came back to be an AGM here, and is now AGM over at Tallula’s. Huck has really been a breeding ground for a lot of people.
Josh Lurie: Why do you think that the culture is so sticky, that you get people to buy in long-term? What are the investments that you’re making in people?
Zoe Nathan: They start young here, so they have a lot of room to grow… Josh and I – and this is so much of Josh, I was in the kitchen – have created a culture that’s here to support you, that sees you. Hey, do you want to be in this business long-term? How can we help you grow? Hopefully we can take care of people monetarily. I think we can take care of people emotionally and be part of a really awesome upper level management team as they grow up that we know advocates for the employee. A lot of upper level management teams that get put together are just advocates for the business. What Josh has put together especially, and Joel, they’re advocates for both the business and the employee. People really feel heard and they know we’re always trying to make them more money. If you need a doctor, we’re going to make sure you get there. We’re going to help you.
Hopefully we’ve created kind of a family here. We have a lot of employees and they’re really awesome, special people. There are people in each restaurant and we take some time to see them and support them and hopefully tailor something for them. Hey, “I’m just trying to work because I want to be an actress.” Alright, seen, heard. “You know what, I want to be a chef. I want to open my own restaurant.” Josh has met with so many young people who say, “I want to open my own restaurant. What do I do?” Okay, here’s our business plan. We have shared our business plan with so many people who just plug and play and bring it back. They hopefully feel the love because what we realized after so many years is that we can’t do this without them. I can’t be a mom without these awesome people. We can’t coach our kids’ basketball team.
Josh Loeb: I take that very seriously.
Zoe Nathan: We’re nothing without these people. When I was coming up, beginning in L.A. and then in New York, I just remember so many people would tell you straight to your face or imply, “You are a body. You are replaceable.” I remember that voice in my head. That’s what a chef was.
Josh Loeb: I also think the funny thing is, Huck, more than any of the restaurants we have, and probably Milo a close second, got the most of Zoe and I together. Zoe and I worked so much together here. It wasn’t for some people – some people probably worked there and thought, “This is a crazy environment.” – but for the people who it was for, and really got who we were, that’s why we had a lot of long-term people. We found our people along the way. Zoe and I really advocated for the people we cared about, even if they weren’t perfect or didn’t have the right experience or were a little clunky or would lose their cool, but that person really cares. One thing that I’ve learned from Zoe in working with her – she always said this about her baking – it’s not experience or talent, it’s who cares the most. Who’s willing to be not quite there and throw the whole batch out and start again because they want it to be the right way, as opposed to, “It’s good enough,” so they send it out there and get something mediocre. We’re taking the extra step to do something really good. “I don’t need to take that step.”
We spent so much time with Joel. It’s not a secret that he ended up being our best Director of Operations and hopefully the person that will run our company for years and years and years. We spent so much time getting to know him. He taught us so much. We taught him so much. There have been so many hard conversations back and forth, and that goes for so many people involved in Huckleberry and Milo & Olive. It’s crazy that it’s been 10 years. Sometimes it feels fast, but also so much has happened in 10 years.
Zoe Nathan: We’ve also been married for 10 years. We got married a few weeks before this opened.
Josh Lurie: That was some year.
Josh Loeb: The other thing that was big for us was bringing Erin [Eastland] on as a partner. We hired her as a chef at Milo & Olive. She ended up doing such an amazing job that we brought her on as a partner. At Huckleberry, because who Zoe is as a baker, and because of Laurel and what they set up, it always persists. Even in the rough times, the bakery is solid. When we didn’t have the right chef in place, the savory would start to wane a little bit. It’s the training, it’s the persistence, it’s the evolving of the menu that has to happen. When Zoe was raising kids and didn’t want to do that, that was getting missed. We didn’t have a Laurel for that. When we brought Erin on, she really anchored that part and Huckleberry came to be what it was meant to be, which was not just great pastries, but also great, comforting savory food and pastries and coffee drinks. All of that.
Josh Lurie: When did Erin help to refresh Huckleberry’s savory program?
Josh Loeb: Two-and-a-half years ago.
Josh Lurie: What would you say the biggest shifts were?
Zoe Nathan: She made things simpler. A lot of favorite things are still there.
Josh Loeb: We started doing breakfast all day.
Zoe Nathan: Which is what people wanted. She just makes things really, really consistent. She also helps implement certain things. Three or four years ago, we made sure all of the restaurants either buy directly from the farmers market or almost everything is organic.
Josh Loeb: But good organic, not untraceable organic. Sometimes you’ll see from the meat companies or produce companies, “This comes from Chile and it’s organic.” How do I even know the real stuff? Like getting good milk from Clover.
Zoe Nathan: When we started doing this, I was home. I was pregnant with Tallula, and I got put on bed rest. Laurel and I made it our obsessive project to make sure this is real. When I go into other people’s kitchens, sure, maybe their flour’s organic, but their eggs and milk are not. It’s really hard because we’re all trying to make money. There was this moment – maybe having kids brought this out – we always bought everything from the farmers market, but when we went in and went through everything we were carrying, both of us, there were so many things that they don’t make restaurant size, organic, that they wouldn’t even sell us.
Josh Loeb: Buttermilk.
Zoe Nathan: Or organic sweetened coconut. Now we take our organic unsweetened coconut, we have to soak it in simple syrup. We strain it. We dry it. It kind of changed all of our focus. We did Huckleberry first because that was Laurel and my baby at the time. Now we’ve done all of the restaurants. To go through this process made us just refocus. Everything got elevated just by the care with ingredients. Everybody had to be on their game. Also, there were a lot of things we had to start making from scratch, and it was such a wild ride. It was really awesome. It’s definitely something I was really proud of throughout the restaurants. There are still some moments when we have to fight part of our companies, “No, no, no, this is who we are. This is what we do. This is really important.”
Josh Lurie: Were you driven to do take an organic inventory just because of your personal commitment, or was this feedback you were getting from customers?