Los Angeles, CA
It all started with... a home cooked meal.
When Helene Henderson began hosting cooking classes and dinners from her home, she had no clue that the same people who were dining in her backyard would soon be dining in her restaurant. This was the humble start of Malibu Farm: a restaurant and cafe on the Malibu Pier. No stranger to the food world, Helene had previously run a catering business and worked as a private chef for celebrities such as Barbra Streisand. This is a glimpse into Helene’s recipe for success — key ingredients being good people, belief in what you do and alfalfa as an accessory.
Was there a particular point during the growth of Malibu Farm when you realized—this is a real business now?
I still catch myself thinking, holy crap, I opened a restaurant and have customers—I have a real business! Part of me still operates as if it’s still happening in my backyard. I’m pretty disorganized and was very clueless when it all began. I had no restaurant experience or any knowledge of how a POS system operated. Alas, when there is $70,000 worth of payroll due per week, I’m reminded it’s definitely a real business.
What are some lessons you’ve learned from the restaurant business?
Every day brings new challenges, from late deliveries to products out of stock. Some days, your entire staff will be late or you’ll have several no-shows. Electricity or internet might down and your POS won’t work. There is something broken every single day. Regardless of the problems we face, customers still expect the best experience, so the hard lesson we learn daily is no excuses allowed. I seldom panic during crisis, which is every day when you run a restaurant. Whether in the catering business I used to run, my private chef days or here on the pier, my daily goal has always been to do the best job I can, and to not beat myself up too much if I don't succeed at every task every day. Something I do well is spotting the biggest problem in the room and trying to fix it. This can be anything from bussing tables, folding merchandise, cleaning the bathroom or jumping behind the stove.
Has your lifestyle and business influenced the way you dress?
I’m always ready to work and dress accordingly — whether I’m at the restaurants, harvesting in the garden, feeding animals or kids. I feel slightly out of place when wearing clothing that would make it difficult for me to jump behind the stove, pick grapes or feed chickens. I am much more comfortable working a party than attending a party, and I am definitely borderline socially awkward. I’m a proud member of the ‘freaks and geeks’ club. Every year I make it a New Year's resolution to dress better, which I haven’t succeeded at yet! I have a uniform of good jeans, a Malibu Farm tank or t-shirt, and good shoes. I love boots, but often wear hiking shoes because I’m standing all the time and need something supportive. So that’s a bummer, I really wish I could wear cuter shoes to work!
Alfalfa stuck in my hair is pretty much a fashion accessory of mine.
How important is it to have a good group of people around you when you’re building something?
When I started teaching cooking classes from my home and hosting farm dinners in my backyard, I did it all for fun and never had a business plan. I did it purely for the joy of creating an experience that I could share with my friends and neighbors. It turned out to be the best grass-roots promotional campaign ever. When I opened the cafe, a lot of people knew me, had been to my house and cooked with me already. They were invested in my success. I don't think I could have succeeded without the support of my friends, the community and the city of Malibu.
What do you find the most rewarding?
There was a point when I felt too old to become successful and create a company with value. So there is definitely a ‘never too late’ sentiment to my Malibu Farm journey which has been rewarding. I used to call myself a 'cooler lady', by which I meant someone who brings a cooler full of food to work. A friend of my daughter recently said that I had finally gone from being a ‘cooler lady’ to a cool lady... so there you go! It’s never too late.
When I started doing what I believed in, everything fell into place.
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Photographed by Bridget Fleming September 2015