A Growing Market

Andréa Miller

Honeygrow, with its fresh and local flavor, opened on Concord Pike last month. Another location is scheduled for Newark by year’s end.

We all need to eat to survive.

But we also eat for other reasons. For instance, pleasure: we hunger for tasty, savory food. And health: for many, that means fresh, unprocessed ingredients; for some, it means organic or non-GMO foods; for others, it also means vegan. How about eating to support the local economy? That can mean purchasing from local farmers or patronizing non-corporate restaurants owned by neighbors. When we eat out, we usually hope to have a good experience, which could mean fast service, a good atmosphere, or both.

Attempting to meet all of these requirements is a tall order for a restaurant, maybe an impossible one.

But Honeygrow, a young, Philadelphia-based “anti-chain” restaurant, aims to do just that. And now it’s bringing the concept to Delaware. In October, Honeygrow opened its fifth storefront on Concord Pike’s Market Square Shopping Center next to Trader Joe’s.

The Honeygrow concept defies existing categorization, says CEO and founder Justin Rosenberg.

“We are not fine dining or fast food,” Rosenberg says. “We want to serve the quality of fine dining, as quickly as fast food”—and to do it with as many locally-sourced ingredients as possible. Everything is house made with no additives, from the signature egg white noodles to the sauces, dressings and pumpernickel croutons. And if that weren’t enough of a challenge, the menu includes vegan and gluten-free options as well.

The restaurant aims to "serve the quality of fine dining, as quickly as fast food.”

The restaurant aims to “serve the quality of fine dining, as quickly as fast food.”

To deliver on that long grocery list of priorities, the ultra-fresh menu has been honed to the simple and straightforward. It includes six stir-fry and six salad options, a “build your own” option for each, a few smoothies, and a “honeybar” of fruits, nuts, and healthy sweet toppings for dessert.

But don’t mistake simple for plain, Rosenberg says. He and his team have spent a lot of time in the kitchen perfecting recipes. And the team now includes Culinary Director David Katz (of Philadelphia’s much-awarded Mémé restaurant), who came on board to deepen the sophistication of the menu and ensure consistency at all locations.

“David’s talent for making incredible dishes while focusing on simplicity in execution is uncanny. That is critical for us, as we’re not just tossing things into a bowl, cafeteria style,” says Rosenberg. “There’s precision involved, from making our stir-frys to producing our sauces and dressings. I’m excited to be working alongside someone who has such a passion for product, creativity and taste.”

How’s this for interesting food to intrigue a curious palate: the stir fry offerings include a sour cherry barbeque sauce with pork, a lemon miso tahini sauce with free range chicken, a coconut red curry sauce with roasted organic tofu, a smoked oyster sauce with pork, a spicy garlic sauce with pineapples and roasted broccoli, and more. The salad menu includes ingredients like crushed candied cashews, citrus basil caesar dressing, roasted garlic balsamic vinaigrette, baked tempura chicken, honey ginger scallion vinaigrette, white truffle corn succotash and more.

FYI: the ultra fresh menu is affordable, at about $6 to $10 per plate. The honeybar is under $6.

There will be eight Honeygrow restaurants up and running by the end of 2015 (including another northern Delaware location on Main Street, Newark), and more coming in 2016, according to chief brand officer and University of Delaware grad Jen Denis.

Despite that fact, the entire leadership team recoils at calling Honeygrow a chain. Combined with a well-polished and carefully casual set of messages (“Honest eating + growing local,” “we think different about culture, cooking and people,” and “people coming together over wholesome foods since 2012”), one might begin to wonder how much of the company messaging is slick PR and how much is authentic.

I believe it’s real, and here’s the primary reason: Honeygrow’s Concord Pike kitchen has no freezer, none at all. That is irrefutable evidence of full-time, no-holds-barred commitment to fresh ingredients.

Try it and decide for yourself: the Concord Pike location is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.

Here’s another reason: these passionate-about-quality entrepreneurs are willing to say they are doing fresh, local and non-GMO “as much as possible.”

For some, that sounds like a cop-out. But to this reporter and fresh food enthusiast, it’s truth in advertising. After all, Rosenberg, Katz and Denis are rolling out a new business concept under market conditions that don’t support a food purist standard, at least not on this scale.

Spicy garlic stir fry with chicken is a popular Honeygrow dish.

Spicy garlic stir fry with chicken is a popular Honeygrow dish.

Americans fully expect a stable menu, but in the mid-Atlantic in February, you simply can’t get many fresh fruits and vegetable staples at any price—even when you work with producers that use greenhouses and aquaponics, which Honeygrow does. Guests also expect to see certain tried and true ingredients on the menu, but you can’t get local bananas or avocados, not ever. Local honey is harvested only a few times a year, and when it runs out, you can’t close the dessert bar. And who can predict the next poultry blight?

For obvious reasons, the Honeygrow leadership is hesitant to pin itself to promising a certain ratio of local food (when pressed, they estimated 70 percent overall—more in season, less in winter). And to be clear: when Katz and Rosenberg talk about local food, they don’t mean the 10-mile hyper-local model, they mean that 100-mile version that gives them access to high quality authentic products, like a New York City-based Japanese outlet they use for rice vinegar, miso, soy and other products.

“Their buying power is great, and they can get us really nice stuff,” Rosenberg says. “We aren’t an Asian restaurant, but it’s important because we draw from that tradition as a stir fry noodle based concept.”

The team is proud of its local food sourcing. There’s a chalkboard in every location broadcasting where ingredients were produced. The list includes numerous farms in New Jersey and Green Meadow Farms nearby Gap, Pa.

Still, to Rosenberg, a restaurant guy for 23 years, local does not always mean better—especially when it comes to animal products. Honeygrow buys beef and pork from Creekstone Farms in Kansas, he says, because it has a strong history of producing all natural and antibiotic-free meats. The chicken is from North Carolina for the same reason.

That kind of attention to detail is what the Honeygrow leadership team is about, Denis says. And they aim to instill it in all of their employees, from the store general mangers to the cooks to the front line workers, with a robust three-month training program that includes an emphasis on company values and even specific instructions for making noodles.

“We don’t see ourselves as a chain. We are not massive. We take a lot of time and care,” Rosenberg says. “Just a few years ago we were developing a concept that has turned into a true Philly startup story. My office was my bedroom, and the kids were coloring on the back of invoices. Now we’re opening in another state. We are super proud of that.”

So, what do you think? Please comment below.