The Waterfront Venice Embraces Modern Surf Culture

By David Jenison on November 17, 2018

Venice Beach has epitomized surf-and-sand counter culture for decades, and for much of that time, the people helping shape the culture made On the Waterfront Café one of the local hangs. The cafe closed in 2017, but it did so with a plan in place for a comeback worthy of a Rocky movie. Like so many cultural landmarks across Los Angeles, Venice continues to change under the bittersweet strains of gentrification, but the newly opened Waterfront found a way to embrace the location's legacy while capturing the positive aspects of community and cultural growth.

The beach-front restaurant features several sections, including a beer hall, a Baja-style taco shop, a beachfront cafe and bar, a Mediterranean-style back bar, a coffee-juice counter and an elegant patio restaurant in the back. Art murals and photography decorate the walls, and the restaurant features a surf program that includes a partnership with the World Surfing League. And in terms of embracing the future of surf culture, The Waterfront plans to feature an entire cannabidiol (CBD) program and that plan will become reality as soon as the state regulations allow.

Waterfront partner and GM David Harper is an Aussie surfer whose lived in Venice Beach for more than a decade. Sitting in the restaurant's back patio on a sunny fall day, PRØHBTD spoke with Harper about how The Waterfront hopes to represent modern surf culture and the roles CBD, coffee and art have in it.

What is the relationship between surf culture and CBD?

The connection between cannabis and surfing was initially a recreational one, but with surfing progressing to the professional sport that it is, the level of surfers is only increasing. I'm sure the recreational connotation still remains in a big sense, but these professional athletes, amongst other professional athletes in a number of different categories like the NFL and basketball, are going back and looking at the actual health benefits and using CBD as part of a structured regime. It helps their bodies get through the rigorous programs of training, performance and execution of their profession.

I think that's filtering down to the amateur and avid surfer level. Surfers are in tune with nature, for one, and with their bodies, for two. Everybody wants to feel better. Surfers aren't any different, and they're probably just a step closer because they all used to smoke weed or still do.

Are surfers embracing just CBD or other cannabinoids and terpenes as well?

When you take CBD, you've got all the other cannabinoids that come along with it within those formulas. CBD is a bit of a craze—it's not a trend because it will last—but the proliferation of the term CBD has really caught hold. Once the broader market understands exactly what it is, how it works and why it's good for them, they'll start to delve more into the different cannabinoids and their functions. But there's such an overload from the consumer perspective right now in regards to CBD itself.

When I was running a CBD business, we had our product on the shelf at Erewhon [Natural Foods], and I was selling it at one of my other restaurants. We found that we were selling more in the restaurant because you have Erewhon customers looking at the Lifestyle Goods section with a price tag of $75 a bottle with about 15 variations on the milligrams. Then they started looking at nano-emulsified, water soluble, full-spectrum, phytocannabinoid-rich hemp oil descriptions, and it was just mass confusion at a very inaccessible price point. People had heard about CBD, they wanted to try it, but there was that barrier.

At the café, people would come in and ask, “Oh, CBD, what is it?” And they have a conversation with the barman or the barista who becomes the educator and the perception-barrier breaker, and they can order a single-serve consumption of CBD at an accessible price point. So you get a cappuccino with CBD in it for four dollars, you try it, you like it, and you feel good. Then you come back the next day and say, “I slept the whole night through. All my arthritis pain is subsiding. I'll have another one of those. Thank you very much.” Then on the third day, they come back and still buy their cappuccino, but then they also buy the bottle. Barmen and baristas are helping people feel educated and comfortable with CBD, and that's important in proliferating this vital nutrient.

Taking capitalism out of the equation, do you see CBD proliferation as something that benefits society as a whole?

I don't mean to get deep here, and I'm by no means religious, but I see it as the tree of life. It's a food, it can create shelter, it can create medicine, it can create power, and it can create all those things we need to have a sustainable ecosystem on this planet. I think it's the answer to a whole lot of things.

What was the CBD company you worked with before?

Ojai Energetics. Very smart young guy, great product, but like what a lot of people in the industry face, we had issues with supply-chain management. Doesn't matter who's got the best product right now, it's who's got the most money to support the message and gain access to the consumers. Charlotte's Web proliferated massively with its exposure on things like 60 Minutes, but their product, from my understanding, is pretty lackluster in its efficacy. Some of the smaller, more authentic or focused suppliers just don't have the money to market themselves as well.

What type of CBD program would you like to institute here?

Great question. I would love to have CBD in our coffee. Why? Because coffee creates everyday consumption, and everyday consumption is what's required to deliver this vital nutrient back into our endocannabinoid system so that we all start feeling better.

I'd also like to have it in our food. In terms of its functionality and benefits for nourishing us, food can be combined very closely with the benefits of CBD. When I was working for that company, we partnered with chef Tony Esnault at Spring [restaurant] in Los Angeles. We did a three-course pairing meal in which he matched the terpene with the functional benefit and the flavor outcome. People walked out of a three-course lunch feeling bloody fantastic. Not only did it taste good and smell good, there was a correlation between those different sensory elements.

Finally, I know alcohol is the most contentious of all [the CBD uses] right now, but it probably shouldn't be. The scientific and functional benefits of CBD when correlated with alcohol make you a less messy drunk. It helps to fight the effects of alcohol in terms of hangovers. Other than being less messy, it also helps keep people calm and relaxed, so less aggressive, which is obviously a huge issue when it comes to societal issues like domestic violence. I'm not trying to say that CBD in your cocktail is going to reduce domestic violence, but it does help create balance within our systems. It does help to offset the effects of alcohol, and those things are beneficial to everybody.

What about CBD and juice?

Absolutely, [CBD can go in] any beverage where somebody has a health focus. Put it in acai bowls. I'd love to have a tincture that guests can add to anything on our program. Again, it comes back to accessibility and everyday consumption. If someone doesn't like coffee, I want to put it in their tea. If they don't like tea, I want to put it in their salad. I want to put it where people will consume it. If people consume it on a daily basis, it will reignite their endocannabinoid system, and they'll start to feel the benefits that I have personally [felt], which is stress and anxiety relief as well as anti-inflammation as it relates to my health and wellness activities.

I also put CBD in my dog's food every day. I have an 11-year-old furry daughter, my darling Isadora, who's my dog. All those descriptors for just my dog, but she's a very big part of my life. She's 11, and when she was nine, she couldn't go to the park two days in a row because of her arthritis. I started giving her CBD. Not only did it clear up her arthritis, her entire health and wellness changed drastically. I now have a new puppy who's one year old, and Izzy goes to the park every day and she keeps up with the one-year-old puppy. That makes me very happy because I don't know what I'd do without my little darling.

The benefits for humans are the same for dogs because we've all got endocannabinoid systems because we all consumed hemp and cannabis products for millennia until some idiot made up a really good PR campaign in the '30s. Now we're all CBD and nutrient deficient. It's like, if we stopped letting people take vitamin C, we'd all get scurvy. But then you give people vitamin C, and everyone's fine again. It's not a miracle, it's just common sense. If you're nutrient deficient, provide the nutrient.

A lot of Australian coffee shops seem to be coming to LA and New York. What is it about Australian coffee culture that makes it distinct?

It is very, very, very simple: We had coffee at the level of third-wave roasters in North America in the '50s and '60s in Australia. We completely missed the brewed-coffee phase because Italians migrated there after the war so we went straight to espresso. We simply didn't have brewed coffee. Places like North America and Scandinavia have a much bigger focus on specialty coffee right now, and a lot of great companies are doing amazing things with coffee. They want to be the antithesis of Starbucks.

How would you characterize the coffee program here?

Accessible yet professional. Our flavor profile is crafted to sit between all the multiple audiences who may want coffee. In a previous role, I did a lot of work with hotels, and I told the Montage Laguna [Beach] that you need to consider the international guests before you put in floral, single-origin, third-wave coffee. The Italian who comes here will throw the espresso back at you. The Folgers drinker from Iowa will do the same. The Starbucks drinker from Orange County will do the same.

Going back to being the antithesis of Starbucks, people wanted to have small-batch, slow-made, intricate detail about their farmer, the origin and those types of things, but those stories only come when you talk about the farmer and the farm and the conditions under which it's growing. Our program here is crafted to have something for everybody. We have beans within our blend that have light florals, so if hipsters walk in, they're going to say, “I appreciate that.” But to be accessible to everybody within those categories I outlined, we went for medium to dark roast because that yields flavors of chocolate and caramel, and then we have the hints of florals. We wanted to make sure we had a product that was accessible to anybody but that also impresses people on the upper echelons of these approaches.

If I'm a coffee snob, or a wannabe coffee snob, what should I order?

If you're a real snob, you order single espresso. Not a double ristretto espresso. Outside of that, if you're an annoying Australian, you probably order a flat white.

All the third-wave roasters don't actually do espresso, they do double ristretto, which is the first 15 seconds of each side of the handle. It is the strongest, most stringent flavor because you haven't run water through the grounds yet. If you have a double ristretto espresso, frankly, it's like getting a punch in the face. I think the craftsmanship comes when you add the volume of water. You have two full ounces of the one basket, and that's a true espresso. Around 30 seconds of extraction, one ounce or 30 mills of coffee out of each side, is a true espresso, if you're going by the Italian standards.

How would you characterize the surf community's relationship with coffee?

Surfers are unique. They've got this relaxed, beachy, kind of stoner vibe about them, but they don't have a hard time getting up to surf at five o'clock in the morning if the surf's good. I've got all kinds of theories around flow and feeling good once you get in the water and when you get out, but you don't get into the water without coffee first. Traditionally, coffee's been a strong friend for surfers who want to get up for the early. But as coffee's proliferated into every culture—it's in surf, it's in skate, and it's in design and art—the third-wave roasters did a great job with awesome packaging and design. That's made coffee cool, and that trickles down to surf.

How did you perceive Venice surf culture before you moved here, and how is it now?

I had images of Point Break with Warchild and things like that, and I've actually had a couple of encounters in the surf… someone pulled a knife on me once. There are a few idiots out there, but there always are, and I think Venice surf culture is lightening up a bit. There are so many more people in the water now. Even the old salties who sat and yelled at people start to feel like an idiot when they're in the line-up and there are more kooks out there than good surfers.

Surfing is about enjoyment and fun and interacting with the dynamic force of nature. The people who are aggro often don't represent and uphold the laws of surfing that I've lived by internationally. They drop in on people, they're not respectful, they try and control the break, but nobody controls the beach, and anybody who tries to is not the type of person who embodies the best parts of surfing. The true surfers are the ones out there with a smile on their faces, being respectful and trying to share the joy and the love.

How does Waterfront represent modern surf culture right now?

Our entire execution of the business is accessible and community focused. I could talk about that in the context of our board program, where people can rent a soft top board and go out and learn. We partnered with the World Surf League and Airbnb to deliver those experiences, and we've got pro surfers like Mitch Coleborn who runs that business so people have an access point to surfing through boards that are soft and not a danger to themselves or other surfers.

Another partnership through the World Surfing League is with Awayco, who re-imagined the demo model for high performance shapers and board manufacturers. We'll have Haydenshapes boards in here, we'll have Dead Kooks boards in here, we'll have Chilli boards in here and hopefully Christenson boards as well. People can come here and borrow a 5'4" Hypto Krypto, and if it's too short, they can come back and try the 5'6". If any of my mates come over for a surf trip in Mexico and they don't want to cart a coffin full of boards with them, they can book a 5'4" Hypto, a 6'6" Christenson and a 9'6" Dead Kooks. Then they pick them up when they arrive and avoid the baggage fees and the terrible, terrible fear that something's going to happen to your babies on the plane. Babies being boards obviously.

We also have the accessibility for people who just surfed to come in. We don't care if you're wet, and we don't care if you're sandy because we're providing a platform for people to enjoy the beach and do what they love, which is surfing. Coming into Dogtown and doing something like this in the midst of gentrification, we were critically focused on how we were received by the old salty surf community. Our creative director, Sean Tully, is a semi-professional longboarder. Damien Fahrenfort, or Dooma, is the captain of our surf team. Luke Stedman, a former World Tour pro surfer, is conducting lessons. We want to create a community hub where, if you don't know how to surf, come here. If you're a pro, come here. We'll give you a coffee before you go and a beer when you get back.

Tell me about the art program.

All of our works are done by people who surf, and they're all within the Los Angeles and Santa Barbara area. Sean Tully, who was integrally involved in making sure we had Jeff Ho's endorsement, has his own brand called Innocnts, which has a gallery and art curation division. We hired Sean to curate all of our artists, all of whom are surfers. We've got Dane Peterson's photography in here, we have a Max McMaster mural in the beer garden, we have Marco Zamora's work in the lounge bar and Sofia Enriquez in the taqueria. Our entire execution here is an ode to the Californian beach and surf lifestyle and the Baja beach and surf lifestyle. It's a good cross section of American and Latin artists, all tied together by surf and the curation of Innocnts gallery.

Anything we didn't cover?

We didn't cover our community initiatives, like GRLSWIRL, an all-girl skate team we've sponsored. They put on really cool vintage retro gear with long socks and just get out and skate like they did in the Dogtown days. They go out for skate meetups at the Bowl or on the boardwalk, and they foster their attitude towards fun and enjoyment with people who are less advantaged.

We've got access to a bunch of awesome athletes and influencers, and it's integral that we carry those core people down to the grassroots level. We want people to enjoy the beach, surf and active lifestyles as much as anyone because it can turn people's lives around. When I was a young ratbag partying too much, the one thing that got me back on—I wouldn't call it straight and narrow because it's not that yet—is surfing. [It had me] waking up early, being healthy and being mindful of my health. It ties back to CBD. As you get older, you don't want to be doing lots of drugs, but cannabis is not a drug. It's a nutrient.

David Jenison ( is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.

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