Photo of Justin Rosenberg by Laura Hayes

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Lost in a virtual reality (VR) world that’s trying to teach me food safety, I use a clicker device to stock a refrigerator the right way. Poultry always goes on the bottom, according to the game, so that’s where I awkwardly drop a chicken. It feels like clawing at stuffed animals inside an arcade game.

I’m using honeygrow’s new training tool that founder Justin Rosenberg thinks will engage employees and make lessons like food safety and customer service stick. 

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The fast-casual restaurant specializing in made-to-order salads and stir-fries got its start in Philadelphia in 2012. It now has two D.C.-area locations (Chinatown and Pentagon City) with plans to rapidly expand locally. Leases have already been signed in Tysons Corner and Rockville, and Rosenberg was in town yesterday scoping out just about every neighborhood in D.C.

The fast-casual empire builder comes from a finance background and has always looked to incorporate technology into his restaurants from being early adopters of ordering kiosks to incorporating a video game into their rewards app where customers can earn $2.50 per month to apply to honeygrow food. Using VR simulation is just the latest. 

Initially Rosenberg wasn’t a fan of the headsets that transport you to an imaginary 3-D world. “I wasn’t sold on VR,” Rosenberg says. “It’s very gimmicky. You have to have a true reason to use it.” That reason for Rosenberg is creating a good first impression with staff at a time when competition for workers is fierce, especially in D.C.

When Rosenberg was just starting out, he acted as the general manager at honeygrow restaurants and noticed that his trainees would zone out or check their phones while perusing an on-boarding book. “I know what it takes to train staff,” he says. “This isn’t replacing training, but it’s a cool way to get them engaged. When this thing’s on you, you’re in that.” 

An airline was Rosenberg’s unlikely source of inspiration. “I love Southwest Airlines. They’re huge with the interview process,” he says. “They make people who interview into customers whether or not they get the job.” 

The VR session designed by Philly’s Klip Collective lasts about 20 minutes. It can be a little tricky to navigate, and I’m not convinced certain lessons wouldn’t land with hands-on training in real life, but perhaps strapping on futuristic goggles makes employees feel like they’re working for a company that’s creative and forward-thinking.

Get a sense of it here:

honeygrow, 716 7th St. NW; (202) 804-4282; honeygrow.com