Fresh out of Penn State University, native New Yorker Justin Rosenberg planned on making a quick stop in the Philadelphia area while his girlfriend finished up her degree at the school’s Abington campus. That was 20 years ago. Rosenberg’s girlfriend, Halie, is now his wife, and they live in Gladwyne with their three children. “My kids are born and raised Philly fans,” says Rosenberg of Emma, 14, Liv, 11, and Mason, 8. “It’s all good.”
Sitting in his cubicle at Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, a 26-year-old Rosenberg battled that nagging voice in his head. Was this really what he wanted to do? His passion was food.
At the time, he weighed much more than he does now. After a doctor told him he wouldn’t see his daughter walk down the aisle if he didn’t make some changes, Rosenberg knew it was time to turn his life around. He packed salads for lunch, then tossed the leftovers into a wok for dinner, making stir fry with udon or soba noodles. Inspiration struck, and the idea for Honeygrow was born.
But first, Rosenberg needed some formal culinary experience. On Friday afternoons, he’d slip away from his corporate job and catch a bus to Washington, D.C., where a friend of his owned a fine-dining establishment. Over six months, he took on weekend shifts in the back of the house.
At the start of 2009, Rosenberg set out to find funding for his new venture. It wasn’t easy. “Nobody wanted to invest in a kid who had no track record,” he recalls. “I told myself that if I didn’t find capital by the end of 2011, I was done.”
The 94th potential investor bit, and Honeygrow made its Center City debut in 2012. A Bala Cynwyd location came a year later, then Radnor in 2014. Now, there are 36 Honeygrow locations from Boston to the D.C. metro area. Seven of them are local. “This is my home market,” he says. “We’re very invested here.”
All locations offer customizable stir fries, salads and tasty fruit-and-honey combos. Proteins—steak, chicken, shrimp—are roasted in house, and fresh produce is delivered almost daily. Everything is sourced locally when possible, and the egg-white noodles are made in New Jersey. “We could save millions of dollars a year if we got a subpar noodle, but there are certain things I won’t sacrifice,” Rosenberg says. “It’s who we are, what we do and a signature of the last decade.”
All locations offer customizable stir fries, salads and tasty fruit-and-honey combs. Proteins—steak, chicken, shrimp—are roasted in house, and fresh produce is delivered almost daily.
Rosenberg and I are chatting at the Radnor location when Minerva Garcia, its assistant general manager, appears with her daughter. The two are stopping by for lunch, and Rosenberg greets them, asking where Stephanie would be attending college in the fall. To his delight, it’s Penn State.
Garcia has been a Honeygrow employee for four years, and her daughter works at the King of Prussia location. “My wife’s favorite Honeygrow is Radnor, and Minerva is the reason why,” Rosenberg says.
Rosenberg cites staffing as his biggest challenge. It’s a common issue in our post-COVID world, though many Honeygrow employees do tend to stick around. “[Rosenberg] takes a lot of feedback from us and hears our voices when we talk,” says Kent Beaverson, the Radnor location’s general manager. “As an employee, it’s empowering.”
For Garcia, Rosenberg has been a breath of fresh air. “He’s always respectful and listening,” she says.
“We’re not looking to plant a million flags right now. As badly as I’d love to throw Honeygrow into California tomorrow, we’re not going to do that. Smart and steady is the way.”
No task is beneath Rosenberg. Nicole Ragland has been with Honeygrow for 10 years and is now its operations manager. She recalls seeing her boss hop on the wok for an evening shift. “I was like, ‘That’s the owner, guys,’” she recalls.
It’s also worth noting that Honeygrow’s best-selling Highland Summer Salad was created by an employee in Pittsburgh. “If you have great people and a great process, you’ll be successful,” says Rosenberg.
The key to any business nowadays is reinvention, and Rosenberg finds plenty of that in his home state. He scours the restaurant scene in Manhattan and frequents Szechuan Chinese establishments in Queens, bringing back menu ideas to Honeygrow. “We get way more inspiration from that than going to other fast-casual restaurants,” he says. “I don’t really care what they’re doing. We’re cognizant of it, but we want people to come here and feel like it’s a special experience.”
Beaverson notes that Rosenberg has always had a clear vision for Honeygrow. “How we want to get there has changed over the years, but we’ve learned that some things work and some things don’t,” Beaverson says. “That’s the journey any business takes.”
When it comes to Honeygrow’s success, Rosenberg credits smart growth, learning from mistakes, always moving forward “and, honestly, finding people smarter than me to do stuff.” As the Honeygrow team seeks out new locations, he continues to take things day by day. “We’re not looking to plant a million flags right now,” he says. “As badly as I’d love to throw Honeygrow into California tomorrow, we’re not going to do that. Smart and steady is the way.”
In the meantime, the Radnor location is welcoming a new employee: Rosenberg’s daughter, Emma. “She’s going to work for Minerva,” Rosenberg says. “No questions asked.”
Summer flash sale ... subscribe and save 50%
Limited time offer. New subscribers only.