1-on-1 With Liberty Heights Founder Steven Rosenberg

Steven Rosenberg
Illustration by Olivier Balez

Steven Rosenberg is the founder of Liberty Heights Fresh, a specialty grocer featuring “real food” from its Salt Lake City community, around the country and the globe.

Jennifer Strailey: What was the biggest challenge you faced in the past year and how did you overcome it?

Steven Rosenberg: Keeping everyone safe. That encompassed placing markings for social distancing on the floor, adding a protective curtain to the garage door [that’s part of the store that was a former gas station turned “gastronomic station”], mandatory mask wearing for employees and customers, and providing staff with latex gloves and hand sanitizer in accordance with CDC guidelines. We’re still providing hand sanitizer, but we’re a long way from where we were last March. We were generous with paid leave and paid employees who stayed home awaiting a COVID test result. For 50 weeks, we paid hourly bonuses and this March, we made those raises permanent. It made a big difference, as we’re starting to see so many things reopen, and people are looking to return to restaurant jobs. We are a little neighborhood market and everyone was appreciative that we were open throughout the pandemic.

What do you hope your legacy will be?

It’s very simple—that we always sold good food that made people smile on the inside and out. And that we only used ingredients that a great-grandmother would recognize.

Was there anything you rediscovered during the pandemic?

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the pandemic’s impact on emotional health, but perhaps our original purpose. We were just about to become a restaurant/grocer before the pandemic and then we were inundated with customers who were so happy to have access to good food at our store. We experienced significant growth in the last 12 months. As things reopen, will we fade back to pre-pandemic levels? It’s hard to say. It’s hard to write a growth plan right now.

What are the biggest unknowns for you now? What gives you pause, and what gives you hope?

Oh boy. When people can travel and when people can spend their discretionary dollars on all of the things that they spent them on before COVID, from dining out to traveling to going to shows, how will that impact cooking at home? How will all of the work opportunities that women have lost [during the pandemic]—how is that going to impact things in the long run? Those things give me pause.

What gives me hope is this thriving economy that we have. We’re in a city that has one of the best economies in the country. We have an influx of immigrants from other states who are very much accustomed to having a store like ours to shop at. I think we’re seeing a lot more people from elsewhere move here who are going to be our regular customers, which is a good thing. That’s what gives me hope.

Have you ever considered expansion?

I’ll take the Fifth on that.

How has your farming background—growing up on your family’s orchard in Michigan—informed your approach to business since the pandemic?

I would make the analogy that in the early days of the pandemic, it was like doing everything right—you prune your orchards in the winter; you get them ready. [But] you can do everything right, and you can get a really bad freeze, and it’ll freeze all the buds on the trees and you don’t have a crop. Or you can get further into the season, and for a crop like sweet cherries, you can get rain and wind, and the wind will whip the cherries … or you can go even deeper into the season and have a hailstorm. Taking the long view and taking care of your assets, including human assets, goes a long way in helping a farm or a store weather a series of storms. Taking care of your people allows them to take care of your customers.

With a pandemic winter now behind us, how is planting season, so to speak, looking for Liberty Heights Fresh?

We actually have three garden plots in the neighborhood that we’re just preparing to plant, so I’m a farmer again, after a 40-year hiatus.

Lightning Round

One place you’ve never been that you’ve always wanted to go? Buenos Aires.

Favorite summertime dish to prepare? Wild roasted fish from Northwest Alaska with wild arugula from my garden.

Most beautiful site in Utah? Cedar Breaks National Monument.


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