Less than five years ago, Justin Rosenberg worked full time as a financial analyst and asset manager while pursuing an MBA at Temple University. He and his wife, Halie, had a new baby at home, and despite all he had on his plate, he couldn’t shake the desire to start his own company.
“I was on a plant-based vegan diet at the time, so I was making a lot of salads and stir-fries at home,” he says. “I thought, what if I could combine the two and create a business concept based on wholesome eating?”
Rosenberg didn’t have a background in the restaurant business, so, adding to the hectic pace of his life, he started traveling to Washington, D.C., from his Philadelphia home every weekend to gain some relevant experience working in fine-dining restaurants. He did extensive market research, created recipes, wrote a business plan, and, after being rejected 93 times, found an investor.
The result is Honeygrow, a Fast Casual 2.0 concept offering fresh-to-order salads, stir-fries, and smoothies. It is not a vegan restaurant, but has several vegan options. Rosenberg says all ingredients are responsibly sourced and, when possible, local and organic, including the honey available at its signature “Honeybar.”
At the Honeybar, guests choose up to three fresh fruits, which they can drizzle with a choice of local wildflower, buckwheat, or clover honey. Toppings like granola, dark chocolate chips, coconut, and whipped cream can then be added.
“I didn’t want to do something that’s been done already, like frozen yogurt,” Rosenberg says. “But I wanted to offer a snack that would leverage more dayparts. The Honeybar was the dark horse of Honeygrow, but it’s doing phenomenally well. It sells really well in off-peak hours.”
Founder/CEO Justin Rosenberg
YEAR STARTED: 2012
ANNUAL SALES: Undisclosed
TOTAL UNITS: 7
FRANCHISE UNITS: 0
At lunch and dinner, house-designed stir-fries—like the vegetarian Red Coconut Curry made with rice noodles, roasted organic spicy tofu, carrots, red onions, bell peppers, and coconut red curry sauce—sell well. The most popular stir-fry is the Spicy Garlic, featuring a house-made spicy garlic sauce combined with freshly made egg-white noodles, roasted chicken, bell peppers, broccoli, red onions, pineapples, and parsley.
As for the salads, the bestselling Cobb is composed of chopped romaine, roasted chicken, hard-boiled egg, bacon, apples, grape tomatoes, avocado, crumbled Blue cheese, and white balsamic vinaigrette. The Vegan Kale salad features organic baby kale, roasted organic spicy tofu, apples, roasted corn, a roasted squash medley, bell peppers, red onions, sesame sticks, and a sriracha-tahini vinaigrette.
Both salads and stir-fries come in a popular create-your-own option, too, and, thanks to touchscreen ordering, customers never have to waste time trying to remember what they put in their meal the last time they ate at Honeygrow.
“Customers have the capability to swipe their credit card or put in their phone number and see their previous orders,” Rosenberg says.
For $8.75, a Honeygrow guest can create a custom stir-fry with a protein, noodles, three veggies, two garnishes, and a house sauce. Adding a drink brings the average per- person ticket at Honeygrow to $11–$12. Beverage choices include Maine Root sodas, bottled waters, rotating seasonal smoothies, and the Honeygrow signature smoothie called the Kale’atta, which is made with kale, banana, pineapple, and mint.
Honeygrow offered big-name fountain drinks in the beginning, but those were dropped because Rosenberg wanted the beverages “to be more analogous to our brand.”
He says he created the original menu himself, but Honeygrow has since hired a culinary director. With menu development, recipe testing, staff training, and day-to-day operation taking up more space, Honeygrow opened an 18,000-square-foot office and commissary in April.
Producing the sauces and dressings at the commissary takes some pressure off the restaurants’ kitchen staff, plus Rosenberg believes it’s important that employees coming in for training see that Honeygrow is a startup and that “everyone here is doing 10 things.” He also believes it’s important to have a space where everyone in the corporate offices can come together and connect.
“Honeygrow is all about thinking differently,” Rosenberg says.
As an example of that thinking, he cites the restaurant operations. Employees who complete training to get certified at different stations earn raises. Engraved kitchen knives and chef coats are awarded when employees rise to various levels.
Honeygrow thinks differently about sourcing, too. “We buy as local as possible and make a lot of things from scratch,” he says. “We’re happy to train people how to do it.”
Honeygrow will open eight or nine new locations this year after securing $25 million in financing led by Miller Investment Management in June 2015.
Rosenberg says initial growth will come in Washington, D.C.; Hoboken, New Jersey; Philadelphia; and Baltimore.
“We’re also evaluating new markets, trying to figure out the next step outside of the Northeast corridor,” he says.