Liberty Heights Fresh in Salt Lake City is a 2021 Winsight Grocery Business Remarkable Independents honoree, recognized for excellence in fresh and prepared foods. You can read more about Liberty Heights Fresh and meet all of this year's honorees online and in our January/February issue.
With one calendar quarter of 2021 now under retailers' belts and COVID-19-related restrictions being relaxed to a small or large extent across the country, WGB wanted to check in with members of the Remarkable Independents Class of 2021 to see how the year is shaping up. How have their expectations, such as they were, aligned or differed from reality? What are the greatest opportunities and challenges on the horizon?
We caught up recently with Steven Rosenberg, Liberty Heights Fresh’s founder and proprietor.
Christine LaFave Grace: When we last talked, you discussed how your experiences growing up on your family's orchard in Michigan helped instill an appreciation for attention to detail—as well as for, from a business perspective, taking the long view. With a pandemic winter now behind us, how is planting season, so to speak, looking for Liberty Heights Fresh?
Steven Rosenberg: 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.
Business has been steady. We’re now beyond one year into the pandemic, and our growth rate—we're starting to lap the significant growth we experienced in the last 12 months, but we’re still growing at a nice double-digit percentage rate.
What has changed for you since we last spoke? How do things look different now than they did at the end of 2020?
I think what’s different now is our county is vaccinating people very efficiently, and for intelligent people, they’re getting vaccinated.
Here in Utah—our legislature passed a veto-proof bill that said [as of April 10] you can go without a mask in Utah. Our county, they too basically said, "We're going to let the state law rule." But our city mayor—she's awesome—she said, "You’re going to continue to have to wear masks in public in Salt Lake City."
I think it's going to attract a whole bunch of [anti-mask folks] from elsewhere, and all I can say is, "You better not come in my store." I'll ask you twice nicely to put on a mask. And if you don't after that, I'm calling the police. I'm not messing around.
Do you think you might also get some business from surrounding communities because people feel more comfortable shopping in Salt Lake City because of the continued mask mandate?
I hope so. We have adopted CDC guidelines form the get-go. We were going above and beyond from the get-go. I think a lot of our customers said that they felt comfortable shopping with us because we [did that]. I'm expecting that to benefit us further. People in Salt Lake City get it, for the most part, and they're getting vaccinated. As a matter of fact, I just got my second shot less than an hour ago.
I think the hardest part for us right now operationally is, how do you plan for the unknown? Are we going to continue to grow? I mean, people are going back to restaurants; people are going back to normal here.
How were Easter and Passover this year, especially given that those were two of the first holidays affected by lockdown last year?
We had significant revenue growth 2021 over 2020. It's difficult to project or plan based on a holiday week, but we're cautiously optimistic about the future. People are buying more prepared foods now than they were a year ago. I think there was a hesitancy to eat something that was touched by someone recently, and I think a lot of those fears are gone. We're just trying to get a little bit better every day.
What are the biggest unknowns for you right now? What give you pause, and what gives you hope?
Oh boy. When people can travel and 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.