Written by Toni Sherwood | Photos by Anthony Harden
Two entrepreneurs with zero retail experience open up not one, but two stores in Asheville within a four-month stretch. Wonder why? You could say it’s ‘just bee cause.’
Seven years ago, Jillian Kelly had to change her diet for health reasons. She gave up gluten and dairy and started searching for healthier ingredients to replace culprits like refined sugar. A chef pal in Chicago turned Kelly on to a basic formula for replacing refined sugar with honey, which soon became a staple in her diet. “We were buying honey at Whole Foods and that’s expensive,” Kelly says. “Honey is just expensive period.”
Kelly and her partner, Kim Allen, were biding time while their son Cameron finished high school. But the long-term plan was to move to Asheville, North Carolina, where they had good friends and loved the local culture. “It’s such a great foodie town. People ‘get’ nature, organic, local,” Kelly says. “We really wanted to be part of a community. You can get swallowed up in Chicago, it’s so huge.”
They just had one tiny snag to figure out: how to make a living in their new hometown. The idea for a retail store arose when a friend commented on their abundant supply of bee related items.
“We bought a lot of honey, and people would give us candles and t-shirts and stuff, and a friend of ours was like, ‘You have so much bee crap you could start your own business,’” Kelly says. The idea resonated and seemed like a very good fit with Asheville.
Kelly took a beekeeping class at the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago just prior to the couple relocating. In September of 2013, Kelly and Allen made the move to Asheville, coincidentally the same month city councilmen Cecil Bothwell and Gordon Smith unveiled the first Bee City USA street sign in the nation, right in Asheville’s City-County Plaza.
Lately a great deal of media attention has focused on the plight of honeybees and their fragility, much of it blamed on our pesticide-rich farming and agricultural practices. In 2006 honeybee colonies started disappearing, later designated as ‘colony collapse disorder.’ To combat this alarming situation and raise awareness, the Buncombe County chapter of the North Carolina Beekeepers Association established Bee City USA. On June 26, 2012, Asheville City Council voted unanimously to make Asheville the inaugural Bee City USA.
Bee City USA has defined a set of standards for creating sustainable habitats for pollinators, vital to feeding our planet. The cities of Carrboro and Matthews, North Carolina, followed suit as well as Talent and Ashland, Oregon. The hope is that many more cities will apply and adopt these standards.
Asheville is also home to the Center for Honeybee Research, which teaches beekeeping classes, researches honeybees, and holds the annual Black Jar Honey Contest to raise awareness and funds for research.
“The Center for Honeybee Research and Bee City USA are our charitable organizations,” Kelly says. “We opened our store in West Asheville in June, 2014. We asked people for donations to help out Bee City, and we raised money for it that night.”
Both Kelly and Allen were longtime fans of the book, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg, later adapted into the popular film, Fried Green Tomatoes.
The book spent 36 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and the film was nominated for two Academy Awards and received an award from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). One of the main characters, Idgie Threadgoode, is a tomboy who has a crush on her friend Ruth. Although the book does not explicitly label their relationship as lesbian, the town accepts the friendship and love between these two women, who run the Whistle Stop Café together in the 1930s, when such relationships were generally taboo. The Whistle Stop Café was a place for all kinds of folks to stop in to mingle and feel accepted.
[quote float=”left”]Kelly began clerking in the cattle options in 1982. Her boss recommended her to a brokerage group just starting up in the fledgling bond options pit.[/quote] Kelly and Allen envisioned their store to be as welcoming as the Whistle Stop Café, so they searched through the book looking for ideas for store names.
On page 87 of the book, Ruth says, “You’re an old bee charmer, Idgie Threadgoode, that’s what you are.” ‘Bee Charmer’ had the right sound and feel, and the connection to their favorite book and the themes it explored was a perfect match.
The couple negotiated for their West Asheville location at 707 Haywood Road, but it was going to take eight months for the landlord to get permits and hire workers to build it out. It was not easy to wait, but the good news was it gave Kelly and Allen a chance to decompress and transition into their new life.
The Bee Trade
Both Kelly and Allen had long careers at the Chicago Board of Trade; Kelly as a clerk in the bustling bond options pit, and Allen as a trader in the corn options.
Allen started clerking with zero experience on a day that would test any weathered veteran: Black Monday 1987. But the coincidences didn’t end there. She started her trading career in one of the most volatile market periods in the agricultural sector: the drought of 1988. Her long career is notable; most traders only last a few years in the tough trading floor environment saturated with stress, and there are very few women traders.
Allen even timed her exit well. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), who now governs the Board of Trade, just announced the closing of almost all of its futures pits in both New York and Chicago, including the corn futures pit, which is set to close July 2, 2015. It was a devastating decision for many, with over 500 people set to lose jobs in Chicago. Allen sees the options pits following suit in the next three to five years.
Allen is no stranger to managing risk, negotiating prices, and gauging the market, skills she brings to the table in her new role as shop proprietor. “It’s stressful running a store, too,” Allen admits, “but in a completely different way.”
Kelly began clerking in the cattle options in 1982. Her boss recommended her to a brokerage group just starting up in the fledgling bond options pit. “I said I don’t know anything about bond options,” Kelly recalls. “My boss said, ‘No one does.’” Within a couple of years the bond options exploded into one of the busiest pits on the Chicago Board of Trade. Kelly eventually left in 2000. “My nerves were shot,” she admits.
Kelly shifted gears into a completely different career as a massage therapist. She also taught massage techniques at the Chicago School of Massage, now the Cortiva Institute. Kelly went on to become the school outreach manager at the National Certification Board for therapeutic massage and bodywork for three years. Her final years in Chicago were spent restoring their 110-year-old house to get it on the market.
Two bees are better than one
Any good floor trader knows the value of location. If you’re not close to a broker who can see and hear you, you’re not going to make much money. Likewise in retail, location plays a huge component to revenues and overall success. But it’s better to be in the pit trading, even if you have to maneuver yourself over time to the spot you really want.
“When we got this space, we knew we wanted to be downtown but there was nothing available,” Allen says. “Plus rents were going up because of supply and demand.”
Retail space in downtown Asheville is at a premium; rents are high, availability is scarce, and there’s plenty of competition. A good trader knows she may have to pay a premium in a rising market to get in. So when Allen heard about a newly available space downtown, she was tempted. But the fledgling store in West Asheville was just getting on its feet, and a second store would mean a lot of additional work.
One resource she could call on was her mentor, John Woods, teacher and business developer at Mountain BizWorks where she and Kelly had taken classes in preparation for opening their store. “He worked for a Fortune 50 company for 25 or 30 years,” Allen says. “Smart guy.”
“We asked him, ‘Are we crazy for opening up a second store? Here are our numbers,’” Kelly recalls. “He said, ‘You’re kind of crazy if you don’t.’”
They opened the second Bee Charmer store at 38 Battery Park Avenue in downtown Asheville in October 2014. The couple also got officially married at City Hall the same month. “I was wearing a bee charmer t-shirt,” Kelly says.
“One of the things that’s been wonderful about working with your spouse is that we’ve found what we’re each good at,” Kelly says. “Kim has such a great business sense.”
Kelly tends to handle the public relations and marketing, with Allen doing the negotiating, using her innate trading skills. “If I’m on the phone with somebody, I say, ‘Send me fifty, here’s the credit card,’” Kelly admits, “whereas Kim will say, ‘If I buy 100, will you give me a price break?’”
In choosing products the women have strict criteria: it must be something they would (or do) have in their own home, or something they would wear themselves, and they taste any honey or food product they consider carrying. The dedication to quality is evident; the store is tasteful, homey, and inviting.
Kelly’s skills as a teacher are now focused on educating customers. “We have a message about the health of the bees,” Kelly says. “Planting pollen friendly plants to help bees thrive and not using pesticides that would hurt. Responsible beekeeping.” She is continually educating herself about bees and bee products. This past weekend Kelly took a three-day intensive course in apitherapy, which is the practice of using beehive products to treat illnesses and alleviate pain.
[quote float=”right”]We don’t have 75 acres of sourwood trees here in West Asheville,” Kelly explains, “When we say local it may mean Maggie Valley. It may mean Lake Toxaway.[/quote]With pottery coming from local artist Lori Theriault, body products from local beekeepers like Sherrye Perry of Gypsy Bee Natural Soap Company, and t-shirts printed at Image 420, just down the street from the West Asheville location, they aim to keep it as local as possible.
“Only in Asheville would people come in and ask if we have local honey,” Allen quips, “and this really happened, somebody said, ‘How local?’”
West Asheville certainly has beekeepers pulling honey and creating products, but it’s restricted by natural limitations; bees need abundant nectar sources.
“We don’t have 75 acres of sourwood trees here in West Asheville,” Kelly explains, “When we say local it may mean Maggie Valley. It may mean Lake Toxaway.”
One West Asheville beekeeper they know from their local beekeeper’s club brought them 20 jars of honey before Christmas, and within two weeks they had sold them all. But whatever the definition of local, the beekeepers they work with are grateful to have a place to sell their products. Some may also sell their products at the farmer’s markets, but they are seeking an additional outlet for their large supply. Others don’t want to spend their time sitting at a farmer’s market, they’d rather have their products in a store that’s open every day and that attracts walk-in customers who may not shop farmer’s markets, such as tourists.
On a typical day customers might walk into the West Asheville store to find Kelly sitting on the floor sorting through a pile of body products and Allen in the backroom trying to keep up with the mounting paperwork while eating lunch. “We’re CEOs and janitors,” Allen quips. They’re still trying to get the mysterious formula of product ordering down for two stores that appeal to different clientele. “The turnover in products requires lots of ordering,” Kelly says.
But the pace is nothing like it was to get both stores up and running. “We were really tired, working seven days a week,” Kelly admits, “and we’re like, we came here for a simpler life and we’re not having it.”
But with their team now in place they are able to take two days off a week, a luxury they are grateful for. “Most people starting a business don’t see the light of day for two years,” Allen says. “So I think we’re pretty fortunate.”
Not even a year into the business, Bee Charmer is already a profitable endeavor. They’re able to pay employees and their bills out of revenues as they amortize their investment over the long term.
One of the challenges has been selecting employees. “You have to be sure everybody in your hive is getting along,” Kelly says. “The nice thing is a couple of the people we’ve hired have grown up here, others have moved here, and they connect us to other people.”
They have found hiring students is not necessarily the best fit, since at exam time and holidays students fly the coop. Some students leave town for the whole summer. Relying on employees is the only way they can do the behind-the-scenes jobs like ordering products, paperwork, and even monitoring their suppliers for sustainable practices. So if someone doesn’t show up to man the store, the owners have to fill in. “We want to be the face of the business, but when you’re also ordering and managing everything it’s a lot,” Kelly says.
A Taste of Joy
With enticing names like ‘Southern Buzz’ and ‘Italian Rhododendron’, honey has a wide range of flavors, with subtleties determined by the nectar source. “It’s like the difference between a chardonnay and a cabernet, that distinct,” Allen says.
If you’re curious about the variety of flavors, you can take a seat at their honey bar and sample them — for free. “Someone sits here and puts honey on their tongue and I’m like, ‘Are you okay?’ And they’re like, ‘I’m six at my grandmother’s table,’” Kelly says. “I love the stories about how someone in their family was a beekeeper, or a memorable meal, an experience; they share that.”
Kelly and Allen are welcoming proprietors, making the atmosphere peaceful. Strangers shake hands and swap stories while they sample a huge variety of honeys from around the globe. “We have honey sourced from east coast to west coast,” Allen says. “We have honey from France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Scotland, Ireland, Tasmania; so all over the world.”
“Kim and I have found that when people come and sit at the honey bar we get to experience joy,” Kelly says. “It’s such a great feeling to be a part of something joyful and wonderful.”
For these two, joy has become a valuable commodity. “There’s no joy at the Board of Trade,” Allen admits. “It’s a backstabbing, competitive, even openly hostile environment.”
Inside the Hive
Kelly and Allen are excited about finally getting their own beehives delivered to their backyard in East Asheville, but they won’t be harvesting them for honey.
“We are fortunate, our bees are coming from the Center for Honeybee Research in West Asheville,” Kelly says. “Our physical hives are coming from a friend who’s a master beekeeper named Debra Roberts. She loves bees; she doesn’t even pull honey.”
“She’s out there in an authentic way,” Allen agrees.
If you’ve ever wondered about the secret life of bees, you’re in luck. Within the year you’ll be able to observe Kelly and Allen’s bees going about their daily business. Allen had the brilliant idea to wire the West Asheville store for a big screen display, which will broadcast a live video feed directly from inside their hives. Now everyone can get close to bees without a chance of getting stung.
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