D.C. has an insane amount of fast casual restaurants. From locals like Sweetgreen, Beefsteak, &Pizza, and Cava Mezze, to national chains. And, get ready, because we’re about to get one more. The totally authentic, Philly based restaurant Honeygrow is opening two stores in the District this year. I took a couple of minutes to chat with the founder Justin Rosenberg, who was delightfully more candid than most, about how he went from a cubicle to running a restaurant, what advice he would give his past self, and more.
Take me back to the beginning.
So, I’m originally from New York. I’m a Penn State undergrad and definitely a creative, I was a history major and Spanish minor, definitely a liberal arts side of the brain. I got my first job in Philadelphia in 2004 working in a chocolate factory and it was actually really really cool. After that, real estate. I just found it very fascinating, so I got involved with a company that was buy apartment building and eventually I got into working for a company that basically owned shopping malls. So I somehow got a job doing asset management and finance, at the same time I was going to school at night to get my MBA in finance, because I wanted to get better at numbers… but I’m really a creative at heart. I’m a huge music person, design, etc and I just really didn’t feel fulfilled sitting in a cubicle every single day and pursuing something that was interesting, but not something I’m fully passionate about.
At the the time I was vegan, so I was eating a plant based diet, and I was really just eating a lot of salads and making myself stir-frys for dinner. You know, a bunch of veggies, soba noodles, whatever. I thought it would be really cool if I could do something with this and build a company. It was like, in my DNA that I really wanted to build a company, something special that I could align with my interests. Great food, design products, etc. I wrote a business plan and did the research. I didn’t want to create just a salad concept because there’s so many of them all over the country, especially in D.C. It’s been done, and I just don’t feel like doing something that’s already been done. So I thought, we could serve salads, but I really wanted to add a stir-fry component, with the intention of capturing not just mostly girls, but guys as well and to have people… well it’s two things 1. You can go and get a salad for lunch and then a stir-fry for dinner, so you’ll get the repeat visit. 2. I wanted people to come more than just once a week, and when you’re only eating one kind of product you might get tired of it. So there’s that component of more than once a week, but twice a day. So I studied different concepts.
What concepts inspired you?
My favorite concepts have always been Southwest Airlines, just that culture of hospitality is incredible. I’m a huge Apple nerd, I always have been, I’m upset that Apple has taken the course it has over the last three years, but my first computer was an Apple back in the 90’s and I’ve stayed true. Even companies like Starbucks. If you think about it, back in the 80’s they created a company that really is based on cups off coffee that were, back then, really expensive and had names that you couldn’t pronounce and today there are over 20,000 locations and it’s worth over $80 billion. They never lost focus on what makes them great. They never lost focus on their employees, or being a best of brand. Do they have the best cup of coffee in the world? No, but ultimately there an amazing company that’s striving to be the best from their coffee to taking care of their people and that’s very inspiring to me.
I always thought, how do I do that and meld my passion for music and design and all the crazy stuff I learned in school? So I wrote a business plan with the concept of stir-frys. You’d pick and ingredient, it would be as local as possible. It’s really about a beautiful product.
Where did you go from there?
The next business problem was that I had all this stuff on the menu, how do I get people to order it? We’re not an assembly line like Chipotle, we’re more like a Shake Shack where it’s made to order. I thought it would be kind of cool is we had touchscreens, not like schlocky looking shitty design touchscreens, but touchscreens where a lot of thought and a lot of design went into it. We don’t want to do tech for technology’s sake, it was because we had a lot of stuff on the menu and I had this feeling that most people will want to create their own stuff, so the touchscreen really leveraged that ability. From a labor standpoint, it’s like four people taking your order, which is great. At the same time, we do a lot of training on hospitality because we want to make sure it’s not a sterile vibe when you walk in.
I had to figure out how to get this things financed, mom and dad didn’t have it, and banks were not going to lend it to me. At the same time, I worked at a restaurant on the weekends just to really get some street cred and learn fine dining. Our concept is very fine dining. Reading the ticket, the order has to be accurate and it’s gotta look great. That fine dining aspect is critical. I was in the kitchen for a while and on Mondays I would go back to work and everyone would wonder why I was so exhausted. It took me about two years to find the right business partner and the 94th guy is the guy who said yes. It was crazy, I still have my spreadsheet. The 94th guy was crazy enough to invest in me, definitely a smart guy, but crazy. We opened up the first store and basically I made the menu, the recipes are my recipes. It was 2012 and we had our challenges in the beginning. There was a period of time where I thought we were going to close because we were just getting kicked. It was tough.
Three weeks after opening my wife gave birth to our second daughter, so it felt like Murphy’s Law in full effect. I ran the store day and night, so the systems are my systems. The training program, I lead it. I know the stores. I get it. It’s more than just a little pet project for me. I’ve lived the store, I designed it. Now we have a lot of people and they made it way better than when I had it because they’re smarter than me and they know things that I don’t. We’ve come a really long way from those days. We opened the second store in January of 2013. At that point, we had just opened the first store and it was crazy. We lost tens of thousands of dollars in the first month. My business partners were asking me, is this going to work? To my wife’s credit, she was the one who said, it’s going to work and I said fine let’s do it. When we opened up the second location we knew what to do. We had the right product and the right team. Our second store was very successful from day one. It took off from there.
We opened one store in 2014 and had a few fundraisers and the last one raised $25 million. It’s really helped propel our growth into the D.C. and New York market. Now we have 350 employees total. We’re just doing our thing.
One of the main ideas behind Honeygrow is that you can go there multiple times a day. Are people doing that?
Yes! We actually have a total 50-50 split between lunch and dinner dining. Some locations skew more toward lunch, some dinner, and others are 50-50. So we have that… and we do have a 50-50 split between male and female. The way we verify, besides just looking, is when we look and see who is accessing the website it is 50% male and 50% female.
Why do you think you’ve been able to hit this balance while other fast casual spots have not?
I think a lot of other fast casuals, especially, there are so many in D.C. There’s just a culture of fast casual. I think a lot of guys open up, not thinking about these things. Take a burrito concept, or a complete salad concept. For burritos, I’m not going to eat that often. For salads, I love salad, but how many guys are going to come back more than once a day for a salad? Or more than once a week? I considered all of that when I was making the concept. We’re actually 65% to 45% stir-fry to salad. So we definitely skew more towards that end.
Would you ever get rid of the salads? Just because they’ve been done?
No. Not really. The salads, I think, bring in the female demographic, and I think guys will follow girls. But also, a lot of people just get a salad for lunch and then we’ll bring them back for a stir-fry dinner, and quite frankly, I tend to eat more salads than stir-frys.
Did you ever think you would end up starting a fast casual chain?
I was always a big food person. Growing up in New York, I was very lucky that I could go to all of these amazing places. So food gets me really excited. So does music, so de design. Jen, who is sitting next to me, knows very well that these are the three things that get me pumped. Oh, and traveling. If I’m going to create something, I want it to be something that I love. Those elements, food, design, music, art, that’s me. That’s what I love to do.
Do you still consider yourself a startup? You guys have seven locations and that feels like a lot.
Yes. I will always feel like a startup. I’m always nervous, it’s like the nervous jew in me. I always feel like this could all end tomorrow. It feels like yesterday, I was sitting in my room and my kids were coloring on the invoices because my office was in the bedroom. It feels like it was yesterday. I don’t think I ever had the chance to sit back and process everything we’ve done and gone through. I’m hoping to do that one day and I think because I’ve never really done that, I still feel like we’re a startup. It’s also part of who we are. That gritty DNA, I think that really gets me excited. We’re underdogs, we could lose. It’s always important to have that startup mentality. Keep things tight, everyone’s held accountable Everyone is doing four different things but they’re doing it really well. That’s part of the culture of this company.
Why do you think you’re attracted to that kind of culture?
Because I’m fucked up in the head… I don’t know. [Laughs] I think that’s probably your answer right there. I’m definitely an intense human being and I want us to be the absolute best at what we do. I like working with people who think like that. I find the hardcore, gritty people that get that shit done.
You’re coming into D.C. with two locations. Why D.C.?
That’s a good question. I’ll take a step back, I think D.C. is such a cauldron / melting pot / there’s just a ton of fast casual concepts there, but we did the research and a lot of guys there do really well. I feel like a lot of the concepts there have been around for a long time, so I’m excited to bring something new and different into the market. So considering the fact that it seems like fast casual is so excepted, coupled with we’re doing something totally different, and considering the government is not going out of business anytime soon. There’s so much growth going on it just made sense for us to head down. It’s kind of a natural progression, Philly being right between D.C. and New York. It’s really the natural way to go.
This is a big pictures question, but why do you think fast casual is having a moment right now?
I think there are lot of reasons. I think that… well primarily, no one is going to do something where you can’t make money. Name a place in D.C. at lunch time, there’s a line out the door. Restaurant guys, or business guys, or chefs, or whatever see that these guys are really making money and they think, “I could do that. I could do that better.” So a lot of people go into the business thinking that, and I think a lot of them fail. It takes a lot to be successful in this business. You have to have a great product, you have to operate really proficiently, you have to have a good culture, you have to have an amazing training program, you have to find good real estate, there are so many variables that make it successful. You may have a chef who knows food, but doesn’t know the business side of it. You may have a business man who doesn’t know the food side of it. There are a lot of variables.
Plus, there’s so much growth with Chipotle and other concepts. There’s a lot of buzz around it, but I think what’s going to happen is that even more are going to open up, and a lot of them that I’ve seen are pretty stupid. Unless they’re really focused on having a great product, team, and guest space, I could care less about your message of having locally sourced blah blah blah, nobody gives a shit. I mean, we do it because I think it just tastes better. That’s the way my family and I eat. We go to farmer’s markets, I buy really good stuff, I cook at home. That’s just what we serve. It’s the same thing with recycling, we don’t brag about it. We’re not making a whole marketing campaign around it, we just do it. That’s who we are as a brand and I think guests see it and value our authenticity.
If you were to hop in a time machine and go all the way back to the beginning when they started, what advice would you give yourself?
I feel like all the mistakes I made happened for a reason, and they made me way better at what I do. I made a lot of mistakes on like… hiring the wrong people, or working with the wrong people or whatever. It forced me to stumble and get cut up and get back together and do my thing.
I don’t know. I think my solid answer is that I wouldn’t tell myself anything. I think I would hop in a Delorean, see the 2009 version of myself, and say, “Fuck you, I’m not telling you anything.” Honestly, you have to get through it.