Everyday for lunch and dinner, Penn students head across the street from Huntsman Hall to honeygrow, where they indulge in signature stir–fry, custom salads, or pick up a meal to-go. Founded in Philadelphia by Justin Rosenberg, this fast–casual stir-fry and salad concept has become a “dorm room name” for Penn students since first opening their doors on Walnut Street in November 2015. Justin is amazed that it has already been eight years since honeygrow made its way to University City. “I've wanted to be on Penn's campus since I wrote the original business plan,” he says.
Justin always had a passion for business and entrepreneurship. After graduating from Penn State University, the New York native moved to Philadelphia, and began working for a company called PREIT, doing asset management and financial analytics. Simultaneously, Justin was pursuing his MBA at Temple University. While he enjoyed working in the finance and real estate industry, Justin, a creative by nature, had dreams of launching his own start–up. Growing up alongside so many great restaurants in both New York and Philly, Justin naturally gravitated towards the food and hospitality industry.
At the same time, while in his mid–twenties, Justin shared that he was “really out of shape and not healthy. My blood sugar was high, my cholesterol was high. It was very scary,” he says. After reading T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study—which opened his eyes to the profound impact food has on livelihood—Justin adopted a vegan and plant–based diet for two years. This new diet drastically improved Justin’s health and made him feel his best. His philosophy on food, Justin shares, was inspired by author Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Living by these seven words, Justin committed himself to maximizing his vegetable intake. For lunch, he made salads. For dinner, he put the leftover vegetables into a wok with noodles to create a stir–fry. “I was eating this every single day and I thought, there's really nobody doing anything like this,” Justin says.
In the early 2010’s, the fast–casual food scene witnessed a surge in salad concepts like Chopt, along with the proliferation of the “bowl” trend pioneered by establishments like Dig. Justin was determined to create a concept that people could enjoy for both lunch and dinner that offered nutrition, taste, and flavor—different from anything else out there. “Salads are good, but they're not something I'm gonna want to go back to for dinner,” he says. Yet salad and stir-fry, Justin’s daily diet, hit all of the marks.
This idea marked Justin’s entrance into the food industry, where honeygrow was born, a fast–casual stir fry and salad concept specializing in wholesome and nourishing foods. After pitching his business plan to 93 investors, but it wasn't until the 94th that he received unanimous support, Justin opened the very first honeygrow location in Center City, Philadelphia in 2012.
The name “honeygrow” is a play–on–words with “honest eating” and “growing local,” a reflection of Justin’s original business plan to source 100% locally. “We’ve realized that this is impossible,” Justin says, acknowledging that it is unrealistic to buy items like romaine lettuce locally in the wintertime. “But we do buy as local as we can because my family and I eat that way. There's a nutrition component, the colors are more beautiful, and it tastes better,” he says.
honeygrow’s Center City location proved to be a great success. Justin says, “When we saw the model working in 2013, suddenly it really clicked. Work was highly profitable, people loved the food, and the team was rockin,” boosting his confidence and determination to scale his business. Now, eleven years later, honeygrow has grown immensely, and by the end of 2023, they will have 40 locations across seven different markets.
Yet, running a restaurant chain certainly has not been without challenges and learning experiences. Back in 2017, Justin created a second concept called minigrow—a smaller offshoot of honeygrow—which he opened in New York City. While minigrow was successful during lunchtime, it failed to maintain a sufficient level of foot–traffic when it came to dinnertime. Up against exorbitant Manhattan rent costs, Justin decided to close each of the minigrow locations. “At this point, minigrow was five years ago, and we've learned a lot about honeygrow,” Justin says. “Every time we open a new restaurant, we learn more, and really, in many ways, evolve them all to be so much better, stronger, and faster.”
Over the years, Justin and his team have formulated the “honeygrow engine,” encapsulating the key variables that embody honeygrow’s top priorities.
“Number one: The food has got to be good,” Justin says, sharing that honeygrow sources fresh ingredients and uses the same noodles as renowned restaurants such as Ivan Ramen and Momofuku. While the quality of the food is essential at honeygrow, Justin says, “We’re not a Michelin–star restaurant, we understand that. But we are really pushing for our hospitality to be great.” Justin has placed a huge emphasis on building great teams who can ensure the accuracy of orders, deliver food quickly and efficiently, and most importantly, maintain impeccable cleanliness at each honeygrow location.
Justin works day in and day out to ensure that the honeygrow engine is operating smoothly. He spends ample time in the office, yet makes it his priority to get out there and visit his locations. “I'm happiest in the restaurants. I get a sense of the pulse of what's going on that way. I can talk to the general managers and I can hear from the customers,” he says.
As a start–up founder and seasoned entrepreneur, Justin offers valuable advice: “For anyone really trying to start out, you just have to get your feet wet. A lot of people have a tendency to plan, plan, plan, and not go.” He continues, “Just go. Get out there, get beat up a little bit, and you'll survive.”
Justin is excited for the future and looks forward to building his team and continuing to improve the operation day by day. As honeygrow continues to expand and find a home in many more cities, Philly will always remain at the heart of the business and mark the beginning of Justin’s start–up success. “We've been at Penn for a long time and I'm proud of the relationship we have with this university. When you screw up, the Penn kids let us know, and when we do great, the Penn kids let us know,” Justin says. “We're really doing our best to make sure everyone is happy and we're very fortunate that the Penn community has embraced us.”