It’s a typical California winter morning; the sun is saturating the Santa Monica sidewalks and a fresh ocean breeze hints that spring is right around the corner. Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan, the dream team behind the Rustic Canyon Group, are sitting at an outside table at their crave-inducing Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe, dispelling myths and imparting wisdom.
“[The restaurant business] shouldn’t just be about making money,” Josh explains. “That should come with it.” Not missing a beat, Zoe adds her perspective. “The minute you use words like ‘concept’ or say something like ‘I know this market,’ you’re doomed,” she says. Tallula, the couple’s middle child, also in attendance, appreciates Mom and Dad’s business the only way a toddler can – while alternately eating and deconstructing a frosted sugar cookie.
Splitting their attention between parenthood and the business – a skill at which they have obviously become well-versed – Josh and Zoe takes turns delineating what it means to strive for success in the world of baked goods and slow braises.
Success, according to Zoe, means “being able to be with our family and be with each other … building a business and partnering with people we become happy for.” Quantifying his wife’s point, Josh notes that families will experience Rustic Canyon “nine or ten times a week” between trips to properties that include Esters Wine Shop & Bar, Milo & Olive, Rustic Canyon, Sweet Rose Creamery, Huckleberry, or LA’s hottest restaurant, Cassia.
While the roster is impressive, and the fruits of their labor have been undeniably succulent, the labor was just that: labor.
Josh, like Zoe, grew up on Los Angeles’ Westside (specifically Rustic Canyon, nestled discretely in the Pacific Palisades), ultimately majoring in English at Berkeley before heading across the country to work for magazines such as Maxim and Vibe. In his free time, Josh became familiar with “local food places,” as he called them. Whether at a French bistro or a Moroccan cafe, he was learning by osmosis.
But Josh was looking for more. More stimulation, more culture, more California. Returning to his home state in his mid-20s, Josh took to hosting informal dinners for a handful of friends. As word spread, his dinners of note expanded to include up to 16 guests, some of whom were (former) strangers.
As the old adage goes, one thing led to another.
Josh went from self-contained home chef to host at the Broadway Deli, eventually running the million-dollar wine program at Capo in Santa Monica. He would eventually open Rustic Canyon in December 2006.
Six months in, sensing that Rustic Canyon was in dire need of a talented pastry chef, Josh’s mother intervened. Aware of Zoe’s talent, she facilitated a job interview. Previously, Zoe had spent time in the back of the house at Mario Batali’s Lupa in New York, Joe’s in Venice, and famed San Francisco co-op bakery Tartine. The interview went well. Recalls Josh: “We hired her, and within the next couple months we fell in love and have done everything together from that point.”
A culinary power couple was born. A second brand, Huckleberry, opened two years later. Tracing its origins to a lengthy dessert menu at Rustic Canyon, then Saturday morning breakfast, the concept was driven by Zoe’s desire to do something “where pastry was the star of the show,” explains Josh.
Six years later, as we sit at the sidewalk storefront watching the door open and close like the turnstile at a pastry-laden Disneyland, Josh proudly asserts that “Huckleberry took off and became something really desired by the neighborhood and by the community … people resonated with Zoe’s generosity and love for the food.”
More endeavors would follow their early successes: Sweet Rose Creamery (in 2010 with partner Shiho Yoshikawa, whom Zoe met at Tartine), Milo & Olive (in 2011), Cassia (in June 2015 with partners Bryant and Kim Ng), and Esters Wine Shop & Bar (in July 2015 with partner and long-time Rustic Canyon employee Kathryn Coker).
“Our thing has never been to replicate, which is boring. We live in Santa Monica and we were born and raised here. We want to do things … because if we want it, these people will want it.”
While the trend of one-off and seemingly unrelated properties connected to the same brand has emerged throughout the food scene, it is a particular passionate point for this dynamic duo. They have always put the community first, from ideation to execution, honing in on ideas they think are practical, desired, and able to bring about positive change in their neighborhood.
With six brands and three children under their proverbials belts, Zoe and Josh are resisting the urge to keep expanding – for now. “We want to make money and be successful, but we’ve turned down a lot of opportunities … people want to open Huckleberry everywhere.”
It’s apparent that growth purely for the sake of expanding is incongruous to Rustic Canyon values.
“Being local isn’t just shopping at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. It’s about growing up somewhere and understanding the area,” Josh says. Since inception, whenever asked, “Why the Westside?” Zoe’s answer is simple but not simplistic. “My mom is here and [Josh’s] mom is here; I went to elementary school four blocks away. This is our family.”
As Josh finishes his account of their progression, he hints at what lies ahead, concluding by saying, “Our thing has never been to replicate, which is boring. We live in Santa Monica and we were born and raised here. We want to do things … because if we want it, these people will want it.”
Ten years in, their homegrown philosophy rings true. Josh and Zoe have achieved tastemaker success and a fully functional work-life balance.
Today, the Rustic Canyon Group offers its nearly 400 employees continuing education, full healthcare coverage, and a comfortable, family-like environment. A nurturing and attentive mother, Zoe nonetheless has the work ethic of a drill sergeant. “In my kitchen, you have to work hard. That’s not an option. But,” she promises, “if you work hard, you can talk shit and it can be a slumber party, as long as your hands are moving.”
Beyond promoting education and providing healthcare, Zoe and Josh preach what they practice, noting that, despite the related stigmas, “you can strive for a balance and we push all of our employees to do that,” adding that “we will do anything we can to make this a lifestyle for [employees].”
As we rise to say our goodbyes, a passerby recognizes Josh (Zoe and Tallula have already departed), apologizes for interrupting, and explains that her daughter and entire family are big fans of all of his restaurants. Graciously receptive, Josh spends a minute chatting with her about what’s to come on the spring menu.
If it wasn’t clear before this interaction, it certainly is now. Rustic Canyon is as much a part of the Westside as the Westside is a part of Rustic Canyon.