There are certain indisputable truths about running a restaurant: logging long hours on your feet, hiring and managing a dedicated staff, putting out any number of fires, day in and day out—it is very real, very physical work. The places we all love to frequent make the whole thing look so easy, don’t they?
For the founders of Botanica, one of Los Angeles Magazine’s 10 Best New Restaurants of 2017, these truths are an unavoidable part of maintaining a business. Heather Sperling and Emily Fiffer helm the vegetable-forward, hospitality-driven Silver Lake operation, which includes a small in-house market as well a content arm via BotanicaMag.com, and they are refreshingly candid about the challenges (and yes, joys, too!) of turning their shared dream into a vibrant, beautifully curated reality—a true feat, considering neither partner had any experience running a restaurant before. The two ex–food media veterans joined forces to open Botanica last year, building “something that we thought should exist but weren’t really finding,” according to Sperling.
Read on for more of my conversation with Sperling about their inspiring journey, including what wellness looks like for busy restaurateurs, and how being female business owners in a male-dominated industry is shaping their success.
HANA ASBRINK: How did Botanica come about?
HEATHER SPERLING: Botanica evolved from a friendship with food at its foundation. Emily and I met in Chicago in 2009, when we were both editors at digital publications; we discovered that we shared a fierce love of vegetables and a desire to spend most of our time eating, cooking, reading about food, and talking about what we ate/cooked/read. Fast-forward through five years of collaboration—on everything from dinner parties to pop-up food-and-design markets—and we’re in 2014, deciding to leave media and dive into the world we’d been covering for so many years.
We’re expert restaurant observers: My previous career had me dining out five to eight times per week for the better part of 10 years, and Emily documented the food, design, fashion and wellness worlds for just as long. We poured all of our observations, ideas, and knowledge into building something that we thought should exist but weren’t really finding.
We wanted to create a place where vegetables are lavished with love and creativity, where breakfast/lunch/dinner could feel like a vibrant and bountiful feast, where healthfulness is valued as highly as innovation, where we could develop our idea of nourishing hospitality, and where we could engage all of our interests and aptitudes (and get very, very tired, but never bored!).
HA: The concept of a restaurant + market is gaining in popularity. What are some of the challenges of combining all of these platforms and revenue streams?
HS: We have a market where we sell pantry items, produce, and natural wine; we regularly use our space for events (readings, talks, tastings); we publish our recipes on BotanicaMag.com; we’re active on Instagram. All of this has helped a strong community spring up around Botanica.
The restaurant business is HARD. Labor and ingredient costs are astronomical, if you want to pay living wages, provide healthcare for your employees, and source top-notch produce from local farmers—all of which we do. Our hope is that creating something with multiple elements might help us create a bigger and stronger community, which, in turn, could give us a leg up in an exceptionally challenging industry.
HA: How would you describe the Botanica customer? Why do you think Botanica’s getting so much buzz right now?
HS: The Botanica customer is food-savvy, has a sophisticated palate, is well traveled, and wants to eat interesting, exciting food—but wants to feel good after doing so. Our regulars love to feast, and love that they can do so here while also knowing that everything on the table is wholesome, nourishing, and sustainable.
In our years of eating, we observed that a concern for healthfulness was largely absent from the otherwise exciting, ambitious, chef-driven restaurants we were frequenting. We thought that bringing that element into a restaurant context—via food that’s beautiful, bountiful, creative, and also crafted with wholesomeness and nourishment in mind—would resonate with savvy diners who also cared about wellness.
The enthusiastic response to Botanica has been awesome. We hoped that approaching this as “creating more than just a restaurant” would lead to something that people connected with in a greater way—and that’s definitely proven to be true. Really, we’re just over-the-moon thankful that people are responding the way they are, not just to the food, but to the space, the hospitality, and the overall spirit of the place.
HA: What is the L.A. landscape like right now for wellness?
HS: L.A. is truly next-level when it comes to wellness, but not aggressively so. This is a really easy place to grab an adaptogen-spiked smoothie after Reiki, and then swing by the crystal shop before your naturopath appointment. That said, it’s also the best city in the country for drinking natural wine (an essential part of my wellness regimen), eating Korean barbecue, and taking a mellow hike for exercise.
The amenities and ease of access are what make L.A. so special and low-key, as far as wellness is concerned. Farmers markets are numerous, all across the city. The most innovative and ambitious practitioners in every realm of wellness—from exercise to reproductive and mental health—are here. There are even two local grocery store chains devoted to organic produce and natural foods (Erewhon and Lassens), both with an epic natural supplements department (and multiple brands of chocolate sweetened with maple or coconut sugar, also essential to my wellness regimen!).
I’d say this is the most fun, exciting, and delicious place in the country to love food and also care about health. And we’re so psyched to be a part of that.
HA: What does wellness look like for two busy entrepreneurs? Tell us how you fit in time for self-care and mindfulness.
HS: To me, wellness is all about making time to do something positive for my body, spirit, or mind. This is hard during our 10-hour-plus workdays, so Emily and I have been cramming wellness into the days when Botanica is closed. A “try to counteract all the stress from the last week” Monday includes pilates, a massage at my favorite local spot (The Raven Spa), lunch at Honey Hi, gardening, tackling my epic pile of New Yorkers, cooking dinner with my husband, or going to our favorite neighborhood spot, Journeymen. During workdays, a mishmash of vitamins, lots of Leaves & Flowers matcha, multiple spoonfuls of vegetable dips (beet muhammara, romesco, and roasted squash hummus on repeat), and many swipes of Tata Harper Aromatic Stress Treatment have to suffice.
Physical wellness can only take you so far, and my biggest wellness goal for the near future is to prioritize the mental side of things. I’d love to be a ray of optimistic sunshine every day (c’mon, who wouldn’t). But to push our business to operate at the highest level requires constant scrutiny of all the things that are going wrong/need to be improved, plus a massive amount of creative output, plus long hours of physical work. I have yet to reconcile the intensity of boss-dom with the peace-love-happiness-gratitude vibe I aspire to.
HA: Has being two boss ladies in this male-dominated industry impacted your success at all?
HS: We are so excited to be women forging an independent path in the culinary industry at this moment in time. We feel super conscious of the example we’re setting, and how meaningful it is to be doing this here and now.
We wouldn’t say that the philosophies and values we espouse are inherently feminine. But our predisposition towards positivity, balance, healthfulness, and respect is very much a response to what we’ve witnessed in many traditional, male-dominated kitchens in the past. Many of our staff have told us that they’ve never worked at a place that’s filled with such kind, caring, and supportive people—and that’s definitely a top-down thing. It also impacts the guest experience in a big way; we get nonstop comments about the kindness and good vibes coming from our staff.
The industry as a whole is moving in a really positive direction in terms of kitchen culture, and both men and women are leading the charge. We’re just excited to be a part of the sea change! We also hope that the sheer fact that we built this—that we raised money, oversaw a crazy massive gut-renovation, and built a thriving business, despite never having done it before—can serve as encouragement for would-be female entrepreneurs.
We got this business off the ground by working our asses off; by being open, enthusiastic, energetic, and positive; by being unafraid to ask a million questions; by being confident that we could learn anything we didn’t know; and by truly caring about everyone who has been a part of the journey. Maybe those are characteristics of boss ladies? We’ve definitely noticed shared tendencies in the other women business owners we’ve come to know—and it just reinforces our belief that women should, could, and will take over the world.