Justin Rosenberg’s Honeygrow is expanding at a rapid pace. The fast-casual chain features made-to-order stir-fries and salads that you customize by selecting ingredients on a touchscreen kiosk. The emphasis is on fresh, local and healthy. Honeygrow was founded in Philadelphia in 2012, and now has approximately 25 locations including DC’s Chinatown, Rockville, Pentagon City and soon Reston and Tyson’s Corner.
It’s unusual for a restaurateur to attribute a biblical patriarch as serving as his inspiration, but this is indeed a factor in Rosenberg’s story. In establishing his business, Rosenberg created LLCs (limited liability companies) as legal entities for Honeygrow, one of which starts with the letters LL. “The LL actually represents the Torah portion Lech Lecha. This is a random Honeygrow fact that no one knows,” he admits.
In Parshat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1), God speaks to Abraham, commanding him, “Go forth from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you.” Following God’s command, Abraham leaves Haran to settle in the land of Canaan.
The story motivated Rosenberg. “Abraham is the first Jewish entrepreneur. He went out there and took a big risk. He followed his heart, followed a voice and went after it,” says Rosenberg.
The restaurateur’s own story is one of exceptional perseverance. When Rosenberg was raising money to launch the first Honeygrow, 93 investors rejected him. He wasn’t deterred, and the 94th person he approached finally gave the “yes” he needed to start the business. Rosenberg is thankful to Jewish investor David Robkin. Robkin is now the president and CFO of Honeygrow.
Rosenberg grew up in Melville, New York. His family was affiliated with the South Huntington Jewish Center. He attended Penn State University and received an MBA in finance from Temple University. He knew that he eventually wanted his own company, and his lifelong passion for food seemed a natural fit for a business.
Like Abraham, Rosenberg ventured from his home to pursue a new path. While working for a finance company in Philadelphia, he came to the DC area every weekend to learn about the restaurant business from Chef Steve Mannino, then the executive chef at Rustico in Ballston.
“There’s something to be said about following your passion. If you do, you’re going to work that much harder on it, because you love it.”
Rosenberg wanted to pursue a fast-casual concept with a fine-dining sensibility. At the time, he was trying to control high cholesterol and was primarily eating a plant-based diet consisting of salads and stir-fries. This led him to the idea that eventually became Honeygrow.
Rosenberg lives in the Philadelphia suburbs with his wife and three children and is a member of the Conservative Har Zion Temple. He says there are other Torah and Haftorah stories that inspire him, citing Moses and Aaron as examples of risk-takers. A Jewish holiday also plays a role. If it weren’t for Rosh Hashanah, Honeygrow probably wouldn’t have had its unique honey bar, where customers enhance fruit and yogurt with light, medium or dark honey and toppings such as chocolate chips and coconut.
“I was developing the concept and menu for Honeygrow, and I’m watching my daughter eat apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah. And I think to myself, that’s really great. It’s a delicious clean snack with ingredients that have been going well with each other for centuries. At the time we were already using honey for some of the sauces and dressings. It’s been a good seller, particularly during off-peak hours.”
Technology and design also differentiate Honeygrow from competitors. The touchscreen kiosk adds visual interest, helps avoid bottlenecks and keeps the ordering process moving. Rosenberg is a self-described “nerd for design.” He employs local photographers and artists to create unique works for each location. “Design details are important. There’s so much competition out there. People have a discerning eye when it comes to restaurants, and so do I.”
Rosenberg’s values contribute to his success with a concept that relies on a dedication to speed, accuracy, cleanliness, hospitality and always delivering a superior product. He treats each new location as if it’s the first. “How do you maintain the soul every time you open up? That’s a challenge I embrace.”
Jewish stories and memories have played a role in shaping Justin Rosenberg’s business. A biblical commandment applies, too: “Be fruitful and multiply” is clearly a directive for the rapidly expanding Honeygrow.