Elyse Walker and Café Vida Highlighted at Palisades Chamber Speaker Series

By Sue Pascoe
Editor

More than 100 people attended the Pacific Palisades Chamber of Commerce speaker series that featured Elyse Walker, owner of the boutique of the same name, and Luis Castaneda, co-owner of Café Vida. Both businesses are located on Antioch Street.

The September 5 event, which focused on “How to Have a Successful Business in Pacific Palisades,” was held at the Palisades Woman’s Club and was sponsored by Ultimate Health & Wellness.

“I’ve been selling playground balls for 35 years,” said moderator Bob Benton, who owned the successful sporting goods store Bentons, the Sports Shop. “I’m taking a break but I’ll be back.”

Luis Castaneda and Elyse Walker spoke to more than 100 people at a Chamber event about the elements necessary for a business to succeed in Pacific Palisades.

Luis Castaneda

Castaneda and his partners, Marcelo Marolla and Francisco Cornejo, opened Café Vida on Antioch Street in May 2002. Since then, the partners have opened restaurants in El Segundo (2005), Mexico City (2010) and Culver City (January 2014).

As part of a licensing deal with the Bay Club, they also opened a Café Vida in Carmel Valley in north San Diego four months ago, one in Los Gatos a month ago, with plans to open cafes in San Francisco and Santa Clara.

Castaneda said his early life in Mexico re- volved around food. His dad was Mexican, his mom Italian. “At breakfast, we talked about what we were going to eat for lunch,” he said. “My mom was an amazing cook.

“When they had parties, I loved to go in the kitchen where the creative process of cooking was happening. It was chaotic and confusing. Then I’d go into the living room where the emphasis was on what guests were eating.”

That process, he said, is not unlike a restaurant. “It’s the proof of food and how it brings people together.”

Castaneda came to the United States in 1981 after finishing his first year of law school in Mexico. He was taking summer classes at UCLA and “I landed in paradise,” a dorm filled with mostly women and only a few guys. He decided to stay in California.

After receiving a degree in advertising and marketing from UCLA, Castaneda worked with the ad agency Chiat/Day.

“My job was to help all the big brands relate to the Hispanic market,” he said, noting he did this for about eight years. “I learned a lot about branding and thought, ‘Maybe I can do it for myself.’”

A theme in both Castaneda’s and Walker’s talk was about not being afraid of change nor worrying about reinventing oneself.

About 2000, Castaneda was working out at the Pacific Athletic Club (now the Bay Club), on Sunset at PCH. “There was a café/juice bar, Pure Energy, run by Marolla and Cornejo,” Castaneda said. “I thought they had incredible food and we spoke about opening a restaurant.”

He said the three reasons he thought a café such as this might work in the Palisades was 1.) there was an interest in nutrition and a healthy lifestyle; 2.) the feelings towards ethnic restaurants in L.A. were start- ing to change; 3.) there was a perception that healthy food was boring. All things would be addressed in Café Vida, with healthy, flavorful, yet unique recipes.

“When people ask me tips about opening a restaurant, I tell them the first thing one has to think about is food,” Castaneda said. In this case, the decision was made to create a healthy California kitchen with wholesome, natural ingredients.

The first day the restaurant opened, the owners were “slammed,” unprepared for far more customers than they had expected. I thought “What did I get myself into?” Castaneda said, noting that neither he nor his partners had restaurant experience. They ran out of food and had to run to the market to replenish supplies.

Café Vida has been an impressive success ever since, at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Castaneda said the partnership has been important because “We all believe in the same thing—we all like food and we like people.”

He also credits their success to the price points at the café. “It helped us a lot that we were positioned between a high-end restaurant and a fast-food restaurant,” he said, noting, “We didn’t do a lot of marketing. Our best marketing was word of mouth.”

The owners liked being a “mom and pop” restaurant and allowed locals to display their art on the walls. “Some people thought we should charge to put it up,” Castaneda said, “but the artists would unite a lot of people to the restaurant to see their work.”

He added, “We build relationships with families—we’ve seen their kids grow.” One audience member wanted to know why they hadn’t expanded their space or moved to a larger location, because there always seems to be a waiting line outside the 1,200-sq.-ft. eatery.

“Haven’t had the opportunity,” said Castaneda, who added that they looked at the former Mort’s Deli space on Swarthmore, but the timing wasn’t right.

He was asked if he is considering going into Caruso’s Palisades Village. He answered that Café Vida has four years left on its lease, so a move is most probably not in the near future.

Castaneda’s advice to the audience: “Don’t be afraid to reinvent oneself ” and “Don’t take life so seriously.” He emphasized that failing at something could be the best experience to help a person figure out where he or she is going to go in life.

Elyse Walker

Walker returned just in time from a European trip to walk onto the stage for the chamber event. “Sorry if I yawn,” she said. “My body thinks it’s 5 a.m.”

Her advice to young entrepreneurs was simple: “You can’t find your success without some failures along the way.” She pointed out that even the top baseball players who hit .300 will make an out seven out of 10 times at bat.

Growing up in Scarsdale, New York, Walker played sports, and was competitive. She said that she loved the quest for winning, as well as the teamwork involved. Even though her mother had a successful shoe store in the suburbs of New York, “I was not interested in fashion at all. I wanted to work on Wall Street.”

While attending Columbia University and majoring in applied mathematics, Walker discovered a shoe store on Madison Avenue that she thought would be perfect as a second store for her mother. In 1987, she borrowed money from her dad, signed a lease and thought she could run it [Capreto] for her mom while she was in college.

“The stock market crashed two weeks after I opened the store,” Walker said. “No one on the upper East Side was shopping.” But this downturn soon passed, and a year later Walker graduated from Columbia after three years.

Her mother died of ovarian cancer in 1989, so when Walker’s oldest son was born in 1991, she closed Capreto and moved out of Manhattan back to Scarsdale to manage her mom’s store fulltime. “Retail sucked me in,” she said.

When Walker’s husband David was transferred to the West Coast in 1996, she sold the store, by which time she had two young sons. “I continued to assist in the buying as a consultant for the first two years,” she said. “I attended all the shoe shows in New York and Las Vegas.”

“We lived in the Highlands for 15 years,” said Walker, who drove her two boys back and forth to Village School and was active as a room mom.

Elyse Walker

While she waited for her children to come out of school, she would look around the Palisades business district and ask herself, “Why is there no luxury retail?”

As a way of describing how she made the decision to open a store on Antioch, she said that both of her sons, now young adults, are working in the music business. “Music is the most powerful when there is a pause,” she said. “My life was at a pause.”

Initially, Walker looked at the space where Café Vida is now located, but was told she couldn’t take down the building’s historic green awnings. “Awnings are good for a café, but not good for retail,” said Walker, who decided to lease part of the former Colvey’s space across the street.

On opening day in 1999, Elyse Walker carried expensive denim and T-shirts in the 900-sq.-ft. store. “By the end of the first day we had nothing left,” she said. “We had to run downtown and buy more.”

Walker said that people found the store as they walked to Gelson’s or Starbucks. With the success of the first store, she expanded into an adjoining storefront, then third, fourth and fifth spaces.“ We have five separate leases,” she said. “We tried home decorating, it didn’t work; we tried apothecary, it didn’t work.”

She also opened a men’s store in 2008. “Then the economy crashed, and it was reminiscent of 1987,” she said. “No one was shopping.”

Yet through all the economic challenges and the failed ventures, Walker’s flagship clothing store, which carries couture and contemporary designers, managed to prosper.

“I spread my tentacles in a way that I wouldn’t have if I had stayed in New York,” Walker said. “I had to take a chance, take

She told the audience that she loves going to work every day and building a team. She tells new employees, “We’re going to make mistakes today, but tomorrow make new ones.”

Her clientele includes Jennifer Garner, Kate Hudson, Cindy Crawford and Reese Witherspoon.

Walker’s biggest piece of advice to young people: “Don’t worry if it’s a bad experience, just go through it. Not everything is going to be a touchdown. You might get knocked down a few times before you score.”

After starting an online business in 2010, “We hit a bump in the road and I found I couldn’t run an e-commerce in the store,” Walker said. So, in 2011, she partnered with Revolve and merged elysewalker.com and forwardforward.com to form forwardbyelysewalker.com, now FWRD.COM by elysewalker.

“After I took over Forward by elysewalker, we grew about 400 percent the first year, then about 100 percent the second year.

“There’s tons of growth in the on-line business,” said Walker, who opened a second store a year ago (12,000 sq. ft.) in Lido Marina Village in Newport Beach. (Her store on Antioch is about 6,500 sq. ft.)

Walker is also known for her annual Pink Parties. From 2005 to 2015, she raised more than $11.7 million for cancer research at Cedars-Sinai in honor of her mother.

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