How Sweet It Is: Bee Businesses Respond to Demand for Natural Products
Hive & Honeybee
Timothy Shirey still remembers his introduction to the busy world of bees. An older gentleman, a veteran beekeeper, offered to show Shirey his bee yard via a golf cart. “I was a little worried, since I was in shorts and a t-shirt,” Shirey said.
The honeybees surprised him. “They were not at all interested in me,” he said. “The sky around me was full of them, but none of them was mean.” This was in South Carolina, the former home of Shirey and his wife, Leah.
“I was hooked,” Shirey said. He’s a former Marine, a specialist in security technology, and Leah is a nurse practitioner. Turns out, the bees were “an uncontrollable addiction,” he said, and the Shireys quickly added more and more hives to their mom-and-pop operation. They marketed excess honey to family and friends, then expanded to local markets until the pandemic shut the retail outlets down.
The couple realized there were other beekeepers and artisans with bee-related products who were all in the same situation, and they started to make connections in that community and market selected products from their online store, “Hive and Honeybee.” An appearance on QVC helped with their marketing and resulted in an invitation for Timothy to appear before the House Committee on Small Businesses looking at the problems facing small and veteran-owned businesses
A job offer for Leah from Sentara prompted their move to Virginia, and they chose Crozet as the place they wanted to live. “We loved the slower pace and the small-town feel,” Timothy said. “Everyone we’ve met has been friendly and welcoming.” The bees, temporarily under the care of family at a Kentucky farm, will join their owners in Crozet in the spring.
Meanwhile, “Hive and Honeybee” is aggregating products from their own and other small operations and analyzing the challenges facing people like them as glass prices go up and shipping charges increase.
It’s been an education for the new entrepreneurs, and Shirey said they’ve had to teach themselves as they grow. “There’s no book describing how to start a business like ours, and certainly nothing about how to move it,” he said.
Find more at hiveandhoney bee.com.
Mountain House Trading Company
A love of bees and a desire to educate the public about their important place in our world inspires Mountain House Trading Company, which opened in Afton in October 2020. It was in the midst of the pandemic, “but it all worked out,” said co-owner Dakota Rhodes.
The Afton Store is one of a handful of retailers working with 26 Central Virginia apiaries managed by Mountain House Honey, a team of experienced beekeepers who oversee hives they’ve placed in areas free from toxins that threaten the bees or the quality of the honey they make. The bees are carefully monitored for diseases and parasites throughout their lives.
Rhodes identified glyphosate, the world’s most popular herbicide, as one of the toxins experienced beekeepers avoid because of its negative effect on the honeybee’s ability to resist bacteria. Since many fields and orchards are regularly sprayed, it’s a painstaking process to find the right hosts for the honeybees.
There are dozens of ways we benefit from the busy efforts of our Virginia bees, not only from their work as pollinators, but from the sweet fruits of their labors. Honey stars in many of the products on the shelves at Mountain House Trading Company. It’s fermented into mead and beer, whipped into a creamy spread, infused with peppers or cocoa or peanut butter, or just bottled as it is for a sweet addition to tea and baked goods. There are also plenty of beeswax items, including chunks for crafters, Christmas ornaments and sweet-smelling candles. Pollen is also available, and beekeepers can find supplies for their hobby.
Customers visiting the wineries and breweries in the Afton corridor are delighted to find many varieties of mead and beer using honey from the Mountain House apiaries. Rhodes has also sought out and included products made or grown locally, and he estimates that about 90 percent of his inventory fits that description. Local cheeses, including Caramont and Our Lady of the Angels Gouda, hand-made chocolates, and the careful work of Amish artisans fill the shelves. Lunch is served every day that Mountain House Trading Company is open: Thursday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Mountain House Trading Company is at 7852 Rockfish Valley Highway in Afton.
Artisan Cookware Company Fires up in Waynesboro
It’s hard to improve on a humble, indestructible product that’s done just fine for centuries, but Corry Blanc has built a business around a significant upgrade to the cast-iron skillet. Blanc’s company, Blanc Creatives, moved from Charlottesville to Waynesboro in September, and the small manufacturing outfit is working to fill the demand for its one-of-a-kind products, said General Manager Vu Nguyen.
Blanc had dabbled in several artisanal enterprises in Georgia, most often with ceramics or iron. He furnished custom metal goods for high-end residences, forging latches, hinges and decorative fencing until the housing market crashed in 2008.
The market forced him to seek outside work in restaurant kitchens, but this was the very stroke of luck that enabled him to understand the needs of hardworking chefs and kitchen staff. Anyone who’s ever flipped pancakes in a cast-iron skillet has discovered that the straight, steep sides don’t allow the best angle for a spatula to get under the pancakes. And anyone who’s ever tipped an omelet out of the pan has learned––often painfully––that the heavy iron handle is every bit as hot as the skillet’s cooking surface.
Blanc forged a pan of carbon steel, a material possessing the good points of cast iron, but also better suited to specific shaping by the hydraulic press that forms the initial shape and the hand-hammering that allows artisans to further angle the sides. The steel is also more flexible than cast iron, so the Blanc Creative blacksmiths can attach a handle with rivets. The handle is forked at its intersection with the pan, allowing space for some of the heat to dissipate.
At one point, Blanc Creatives—then located in Charlottesville’s Belmont neighborhood––was able to turn out 12 pans a week, with two employees. Blanc hauled the pans to markets and craft shows and filled the orders of local chefs. All that changed in 2015, when Garden and Gun magazine featured them.
“That catapulted us into the international market,” Nguyen said. At the Waynesboro facility, a 15-person team, including office staff, completes about 100 pans every week. Production shrunk again during the pandemic, but the small plant is fully staffed again. It’s a lengthy, painstaking process that requires a healthy respect for high heat and hot metal, as well as an eye for detail and a certain perfectionist instinct. Finding employees isn’t difficult: The Virginia Institute for Blacksmithing, specializing in artistic blacksmithing, is a few blocks away in downtown Waynesboro.
Nguyen is interested in the attitude as well as the experience of his small work force. “We can provide training,” he said. “I look for people who are enthusiastic and who have some experience with demanding manual labor.”
Quality skillets are not the only products made by hand at the Waynesboro workshop. Blanc Creatives also fashions other quality cookware from wood and steel, including bowls, boards, knives, roasters and spoons, as well as bar ware and even pencils. Nguyen envisions expanding into ceramics and glass in the future, he said.
Products are available online, but for those who want to see the products in person, there’s a small display area.
Find Blanc Creatives handmade cookware at blanccreatives.com.
Secret Gift Cards Lift Spirits
The folks at Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie showed their Christmas spirit and surprised the lucky finders of 50 gift cards they hid in random places in Crozet as well as Charlottesville and North Garden. Locally, cards were found near the Mudhouse, in North Garden, in Mint Springs Park as well as other locations, including in a golf cart up at the Old Trail Golf Club. Proving that Gazette readers are lucky, George Novey found his gift certificate in the newspaper box outside the Mudhouse. Another was found by 7-year-old Colby Lawson at Mint Springs Park. Restoration management was inspired by the idea and they’ve hidden 50 gift cards throughout Crozet, Charlottesville and Waynesboro. The folks at Restoration gave credit to Dr. Ho’s for the idea.