Like the inventors of Play-Doh, penicillin, and the microwave oven, Katie Sanchez, owner of Bee Free Honee, happened upon her miracle product almost entirely by accident.
"Honestly, what I was trying to do was make apple jelly," Sanchez explains candidly. "But I had never really done jellies or jams and wasn't paying close enough attention to the recipe. It looked all wrong when I was done, but I don't like to waste stuff, so I canned it anyway."
The next morning, she checked up on her jelly-gone-wrong and realized it reminded her of something altogether different, yet familiar.
"I grew up on Halstead's Bay before it was really well developed, and my father kept bees there. Right after I tasted and tested this substance I'd made, I called him and said, 'I made honey! Without bees!' We had an apple orchard too, so all of this is really full circle for me."
Around the time of her discovery, Sanchez was working as a pastry chef at Whole Foods and immediately saw the potential for her bee-free product to replace traditional honey in recipes, thus making everything from bread to baklava both delicious and vegan-friendly.
"It just had all these unexpected properties and benefits," says Sanchez. "Compared to other vegan sweeteners it was much easier to bake with. Molasses is very strong-tasting, date sugar doesn't dissolve, and maple syrup is expensive," Sanchez reasons. "If you are offering vegan items and non-vegan items from the same kitchen, you can use Honee in something like barbecue sauce or vinaigrette. You'll make it easier on yourself, and non-vegans won't know the difference."
It's true. When drizzled straight from the bottle, the only thing noticeable about Honee is that it has a little more tang to it than traditional honey. Everything from the color to the viscosity to the level of sweetness is remarkably similar. Plus, there's no need to mess around with adjusting recipes or converting ratios like you do with brown rice syrup or agave syrup. One tablespoon of Honee equals one tablespoon of honey. It makes a great topping on vanilla or cinnamon ice cream, it's amazing on or in cornbread, and it costs 30 to 60 cents less per ounce than traditional honey. So what all goes into it?
"It's made from organic Midwest apples. That's about 80 percent of the whole product. Lemon juice is added as a preservative and then we put in just enough non-GMO vegan-friendly sugar to make the product tacky."
There was a lot of serendipity involved in Honee's humble beginnings, but as Sanchez realized the long-term impact a product like hers could have on the whole agricultural landscape, she started to get serious about marketing and distribution.
"It was very important to me to keep everything about how I run my business local, and that includes supporting other local businesses," says Sanchez. Though she is currently working out of a shared kitchen space in River Falls, Wisconsin, that is about as far east as her footprint extends. "The bottles I use are from Stillwater, our labels come from Golden Valley, and even the boxes I use to store and ship are from St. Louis Park," says Sanchez. "It's not always the cheapest way to go about doing things, but if we don't we won't ever create the kind of infrastructure that allows small businesses to thrive."
Since putting her full effort into her side business in 2009, Sanchez has expanded Honee's reach from here in the Twin Cities, where you can buy it at places like the Golden Fig; the Wedge, Linden Hills, and Seward Co-Ops; Lunds; and Whole Foods, to the online marketplace. It's now in stores on both coasts and recently became available in Hawaii. In March she'll be growing her line to include four new Honee varieties designed with cooking, cocktail-mixing, and medicinal applications in mind.
The first variation is an ancho chili-infused Honee. "That one is awesome with bourbon, and in the summertime I experimented with just adding it to water with a squeeze of lime. It was so refreshing, I got a little addicted," says Sanchez. Then there's a mint version. "I make a mint Honee vinaigrette with that and use it to dress a sugar snap pea salad with almonds," she says. The third in the new line is a chocolate Honee, which Sanchez suggests mixing with the ancho one and drizzling on plain Greek yogurt for a unique, guilt-free dessert. Finally there's the Slippery Elm Honee, made with a powdered tree bark indigenous to North America that's used to calm an upset stomach or soothe a tender throat.
Beyond the flavors and the fun, the introduction of a product like Honee is particularly timely, given the current concern over the declining bee population and the effect that could have on all the crops they pollinate. Sanchez speaks passionately about her motivating factors.
"I do see this product as being helpful to honeybees. I grew up with honeybees. I love honeybees. I want to protect that population," says Sanchez. "The direction society has taken with how we treat the bees and consume the commodity has changed so much. Honey should be thought of as a seasonal product, but now we have come to assume that we should be able to get it whenever. But bees hibernate. It's not natural for them to be producing at this rate, year-round."
Sanchez explains that what's happening now to accommodate the honey demand is that honeybees are being transported in their hives on flatbed trucks, rented out, and forced to pollinate crops far beyond their normal output or pollination radius. As a result, the bees themselves are exposed to all kinds of unfamiliar parasites and pesticides and in much greater quantities than they would normally encounter.
"Even when a label says 'single source honey,' it doesn't mean the bees have been treated respectfully and responsibly," says Sanchez. "There are other ways and there are other bees. The Mason bee is a more effective pollinator. The Blue Orchard bee is not as susceptible to disease. But these populations don't get the consideration or the publicity because they don't produce a commodity."
As much as Sanchez wants to protect this threatened population, she says the driving force behind her business is her son, who was born with special needs. This factor has shaped her vision for her company's future too.
"My goal is to create a delicious, fun product that creates jobs, and is part of the overall solution. Eventually I want a solar- and wind-powered facility and I want to hire people with special needs. There are so many ways companies can do good, and I want to be a company that realizes and lives up to its full potential and keeps its promise to be open and clean and honest and give back."