The idea began as a casual family conversation between my husband, brother-in-law, sister-in law and me. My brother-in-law, a neurologist and psychiatrist, began talking to us about exciting cutting-edge neuroscience related to food and the brain. And how frustrated he was that this information was not widely available to the public.
If the best way to good brain health was through food, it occurred to us that opening a restaurant could be a good way to make this cutting-edge information readily accessible. We started discussing the possibility and decided on a fast casual restaurant because we wanted people to make Honeybrains a part of their daily lives. Fine dining restaurants do not become a part of your daily life. It is a place you go to once in a while. That is why we serve breakfast, lunch and dinner.
We opened our first fast casual restaurant and café in Noho, NYC in December of 2016. We designed Honeybrains to be a community-driven place where people could go any time of day to eat, drink, socially engage with others, and discover something that could be beneficial for their brain and body health. We make everything from scratch because nothing previously existed that was built from the ground up based on the best brain nutrition science. This includes our food, our Brainbar featuring raw honey-infused coffees and teas (no processed sugars here), our juices, and our nutrient-based supplements. We also created a brain health curriculum for those wishing to learn more about the neuroscience behind Honeybrains, which we have started to animate and communicate beginning with a series of self‐published articles.
Was it a lightbulb moment or gradual process?
It was a gradual process. It took us three years from the initial conversation to opening our first restaurant. Because the foundation of Honeybrains is based on science, we are very careful and exacting in everything we do. We spent a lot of time analyzing and reviewing every aspect of the business to ensure that it stayed true to the mission.
MENU ITEMS: Our menu is based on five food groups: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and omegas 3… plus herbs, spices, fermented foods and natural sweeteners, such as honey. To learn about the science behind our food click here.
We aim to include at least three of the five food groups in all our menu items. In addition to multiple tastings, every menu item is reviewed by our team which includes my brother-in-law, the neurologist and a nutritionist, who is also a dietician.
JUICES: Each house made juice contains one or more active, natural ingredients that have scientifically-proven benefits for brain and body health function. An explanation of the health benefits of our juices can be found here.
We also balance each juice with just the right amount of fiber (which is lost in the juicing process) so the ratio of sugar to fiber is similar to that found in a whole apple. This prevents a sugar spike in the blood, which can be detrimental to the metabolic functions in our body.
LIGHTING & DÉCOR: A key pillar of brain health is socialization and community. We decided to invest in the lighting and décor of our locations. We installed a circadian lighting system that mirrors the behavior of the sun and thus the natural internal clock in the human body. Lighting can affect one’s mood, alertness and productivity.
Also, unlike other fast casual spaces with hard benches, we have cushioned banquets and chairs to encourage people to stay, relax and socialize with others.
Why honey and how did you validate the idea?
Switching from sugar to raw honey has scientifically-‐proven brain health benefits. Fructose, a major sugar component of honey also found in natural fruit, is more gradually absorbed in the body than processed sugars. The brain functions best when sugars are gradually absorbed. Special sugars within raw honey also can act as “prebiotics,” promoting growth of beneficial gut bacteria.
Having healthy gut bacteria positively impacts our brain’s ability to use the energy we eat. A very easy way to start improving brain health is to stop using processed sugars in coffee and tea. Every Honeybrains location is anchored by what we refer to as the “Brain Bar,” a place where you can find delicious coffee and tea drinks that are made with raw sustainably-sourced honeys. You can also purchase raw honeys that we have sourced and vetted from sustainably-sourced apiaries.
Sustainable beekeeping practices are also important because they assist local farming practices by keeping bees happy and close to home, where they perform their essential pollinating function. Such practices help protect our food sources. Honeybees are a necessary element of a significant portion of our food supply, and modern industrial farming practices are threatening the health and existence of our bee populations through, among other things, the use of heavy pesticides. An increase in consumer preferences for sustainably produced raw honeys results in better health, and a healthier environment.
Did you have any experience/expertise in the area?
None of us had had any experience in the restaurant space. However, each family member had a different set of talents which were directly applicable to the business. I am a lawyer, my husband is in finance, my brother-in-law is a neurologist and psychiatrist and my sister-in-law has an art degree and is a yogi and a teacher. I believe not having experience in the restaurant space has allowed us to view everything through a new and refreshing lens.
For example, other restaurateurs advised that I give employees discounted or family meals during their shifts. I decided to go in a different direction. At Honeybrains, each employee is entitled to choose one complimentary menu item with no limitations whatsoever. Employees can choose to eat the most expensive items on the menu including salmon, grass-fed steak or free-range chicken. Not only has this led to greater employee menu knowledge, but it has also led to healthier and happier employees.
As a result, one employee used to leave Honeybrains to purchase fast food during her breaks because the food served at Honeybrains was unfamiliar to her. Over time, she stopped going to fast food restaurants and slowly began eating Honeybrains food. She recently visited her doctor and reported that she has lost a lot of weight and is no longer pre-diabetic for the first time in 7 years. She no longer consumes processed sugar and she has stopped feeding her young son fast food as well.
Who is your target demographic?
Any health conscious person who cares about their brain and overall well-being. Anyone who cares about their body because the health of both your body and brain are intimately connected to each other.
What is the funniest/most strange customer request you’ve had?
The model Gigi Hadid has been photographed holding our bright yellow coffee cup. Vogue once did an article about how Hadid matched her outfit to our yellow coffee cup.
On one occasion, Justin Bieber and his now wife Hailey Baldwin showed up which caused utter chaos in the restaurant. They tried to sit down and order food but people kept asking them for photos. Justin’s bodyguard tried to only allow so called “customers” inside our restaurant but that did not prevent swarms of people from coming inside to get a glimpse of them.
Being in the restaurant industry requires you to problem solve on a daily basis. We have had the typical issues restaurants routinely deal with including, pipes bursting, floods and broken air conditioners on a 90 degree day.
One Sunday, we could not get the front door open. A screw became loose and the only way to fix it was from the inside. We had to scramble to find a locksmith to figure out what was wrong and get the door open. This delayed our opening by several hours. Not being able to open the front door was definitely an issue we had never anticipated.
On two occasions, we had guests pass out in our bathroom because of diabetic conditions. Our general manager noticed that these customers had been in the bathroom for a really long time. She peeked under the door and saw the customers lying down on the floor. She opened the bathroom door with a key and performed first aid and called the paramedics.
One day, I noticed that one of our employees was holding a piece of paper very close to her face. I also observed her constantly bending over to look at things on the counter and often did not greet guests at the door which was one of her key job responsibilities. After speaking with her, I learned that she had broken her glasses several weeks back and could not afford to buy a new pair. I bought her new glasses and immediately saw a transformation in her work performance. I anticipated her needs by paying close attention and that increased her loyalty to the company.
Does third party commissions affect profitability of third-party orders?
Yes, very much. We have partnered with third party delivery companies and office catering platforms. Many third party vendors are demanding higher and higher commissions every year which are eating into our profits.
The commissions range from 10% to 25%. We do not increase our prices as a result of it, but many other restaurants do. Most of our third party partners assist us in getting more catering. I believe the delivery partners helped us increase traffic to stores, because they offer a pick up option.
Where did you meet your co-founder / founding team?
The co-founding team consists of only family members and our dietician is the wife of my husband’s best friend.
Any tips for finding first employees?
Use your personal network. Ask family, friends and current and old work colleagues for recommendations. Because start-ups typically cannot pay as well as more established companies, look for people who are interested in higher growth opportunities. It is also important to hire people who express a strong belief in your mission.
At times it is just being at the right place at the right time. One of our first general managers worked for a company that delivered drinks to my husband’s office on a weekly basis and mentioned the desire to work at a health conscious restaurant.
What sells best?
The best sellers are the Chicken & Rice Bowl, Chicken Tikka Bowl and our version of avocado toast, the Avocado Smash
Did you run any companies prior?
No. I was a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York, where my roles included being Chief of General Crimes and Deputy Chief of Public Integrity. Although delivering justice to victims and criminals held deep importance to me, I decided that there is nothing more important than our individual and collective health. The health industry has always been a part of my life, given my parents’ professions as an emergency room doctor and a hospital administrator.
What motivated you to start your own business?
The mission. I am passionate about educating as many people as possible about how to live a brain-healthy lifestyle. I really want Honeybrains to be a force for good in the world by empowering individuals with knowledge and products that can improve their quality of life, as well as reduce their risk of long-term brain degeneration or disease (e.g., dementia and Alzheimer’s).
What were your family and friends first thoughts on your company?
“Are you crazy?”, “You want to leave the law to open a restaurant in NYC?”, “What do you want that headache for?”, “Aren’t there enough restaurants in NYC?”. It was especially hard for my mother who is an immigrant from the Philippines. To her, being a doctor or lawyer is the American dream. She was very nervous for me to leave my prestigious government job and no longer practice law to do something extremely risky.
What motivates you when things go wrong?
I remind myself that there is a lesson to be learned every time something goes wrong. For example, early on we had an allergy scare after a customer did not tell us she was allergic to sesame. My sister is deathly allergic to nuts, so I have always been focused on allergies and taken extra precautions in the restaurant. After this incident, I completely revamped how we handle allergies. Now we proactively ask each guest whether they have any allergies. We do not wait for them to raise the issue with us.
Employees can no longer place an order without acknowledging in the POS system that they have asked the guest about any allergies. We also created bright yellow signs that are posted at each register alerting people to the fact that we care about allergies and to please tell us if they have any. All allergies are printed in English and Spanish in red writing on order tickets. These open conversations and new processes and procedures have virtually eliminated all issues relating to allergies. People really appreciate that we ask about allergies. It is something that also differentiates us from our competitors.
Do you have any advice for someone just starting out?
You don’t have to know everything about running a business, but you should definitely seek out and hire people who fill your blind spots.
What has driven the most sales?
Instagram has driven the most sales compared to other forms of social media. The first thing people do when they want to research your restaurant is visit the website and check out your Instagram page. One interesting thing we did for social media was to create a custom bee stencil for our coffee and tea-based drinks. We use these stencils with cinnamon, cocoa powder and matcha for eye-catching appeal. The addition of the bee stencils to our drinks definitely drove business to the restaurant. Indeed, we were just cited as having one of the best hot chocolates in New York City by PureWow and one of the things mentioned was the matcha stencil on our hot chocolate.
Instagram stories also allow you to talk directly to your customers in a direct and personal way. We recently started a segment that has become popular called Marisa Mondays. Every Monday, I pick one topic to discuss that relates to improving your brain health.
What is stopping you being 3x the size you are now?
We are not ready to be 3X the size we are now. All in due time. We are currently growing at a pace that we are comfortable with. We opened a restaurant in October 2019 and will be opening another one in April 2020. Our pace allows us to perfect all our systems and procedures and build the best team possible.
How do you protect yourself from competition?
By continuing to innovate and create. For example, we recently developed our own nutrient-based supplements which are natural and contribute to better brain health and performance. We are always developing new educational materials based on the latest science.
For example, we have a section on our website entitled LEARN where we post various articles about brain health. Our latest one is entitled, “The 10 Key Biomarkers of a Healthy Brain.” We are always developing new menu items and assessing the nutritional content of our food and how we can best communicate it to our customers. We are about to release a new nutritional label called “Essential Brain Nutrients,” which will educate people about what essential brain nutrients, and how much of them, you need every day. You will also be able to see how much of the daily target amounts you are getting from each of our dishes.
What are the top 3-5 apps your business could not run without?
We use the Square app every day. Square is our POS provider. We monitor sales very closely. I check the app multiple times a day to see where the sales are at and also what items are selling the most on a particular day.
Looking at data is extremely important in running a business. For example, waste is an issue that every restaurant grapples with. Our salads are made every morning. We do not simply make a set number of salads every day. We look to the previous week’s sales on that particular day and also consider the weather in deciding salad quantities. This data has helped us reduce waste to very minimal levels on a daily basis.
What are your favourite books?
At Honeybrains, we believe in constantly empowering our employees with education and knowledge. We recently started a lending library where employees can borrow books from Honeybrains. The books contained in the library are ones that I have read and enjoyed and believe can inspire and motivate our employees. The first two books in the library were Grit by Angela Duckworth and Mindset by Carol Dweck.
What are the next products you’re working on?
We are working on releasing our seasonal menu as well as opening our third location at 55th Street.
Where do you see the company in 5 years?
I see Honeybrains in multiple states. Also, Honeybrains is the first healthcare hospitality brand, 100% based on neuroscience. Thus, I also hope to partner with major insurance companies so that Honeybrains meals will be partially subsidized to incentivize more people to eat healthier. Healthier eating leads to lower healthcare costs.