If everything had gone according to plan, Plymouth resident Katie Sanchez would be an occupational therapist with a knack for baking. Instead, she’s the founder and co-owner of her own company, Bee Free Honee, with a product poised for exponential growth after an appearance on ABC’s Shark Tank earlier this year and a vision for making our food system more sustainable.
“If there is one word that sums up our whole experience, it’s ‘serendipitous,’” says Bee Free Honee co-owner Melissa Elms.
Sanchez, who grew up in Mound, Minn. with an apple orchard in her front yard and a beekeeper father, was a pre-med student at the University of Minnesota when she experienced the first of a few well-timed turns of fate that would lead to the creation of Bee Free Honee.
While struggling to feel passionate about her classes, a friend suggested to Sanchez that she turn her long-time hobby of cooking into a career as a chef. Sanchez had never considered that she could make a living with her culinary skills, but after completing a two-year culinary program in Louisiana, she returned to Minneapolis and started working as a line cook.
“I weaseled my way into the pastry department,” she says, eventually working her way up to assistant pastry chef at the esteemed D’Amico Cucina, working alongside luminaries of the Twin Cities dining scene such as Tim McKee, Leah Henderson and Jay Sparks.
In 1998, while Sanchez was working as a pastry chef at Whole Foods Bakehouse, she gave birth to her son, who weighed only 1 pound, 3 ounces. He would stay in the hospital for more than eight months, and required nearly round-the-clock care once he was able to go home.
“Every year as a family we’d go apple-picking, but that year I stayed home with my son,” says Sanchez. “I hadn’t been in the kitchen for six months, but my husband surprised me with a bushel of apples and a babysitter.”
Sanchez decided to try her hand at making apple jelly for the first time, but the result was “all wrong,” she says. “I don’t like to waste anything, so I thought, ‘I’ll can it and see what happens.’”
The resulting syrupy substance was similar to honey in taste and texture, making it a great substitute for the increasingly expensive real thing. In addition to being a perfect alternative sweetener for vegans and people with allergies to raw honey, Sanchez saw the potential for Bee Free Honee to take some of the market pressure off commercial honeybees. “Honey isn’t a necessity, but the pollinators are,” she says. “We can help the bees gain in health, strength and numbers by allowing them to have their natural food source.”
With increasing awareness about Colony Collapse Disorder and the necessity of bees to our food system, a plant-based alternative to honey seemed an easy sell, but getting the product on shelves was no easy task.
“I had never started a business, so the first several years [involved] a lot of research,” says Sanchez. By 2011, three local stores carried Bee Free Honee, and it may have stayed that way if not for another bit of serendipity at the 2013 Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, Calif.
Elms, a veteran brand-builder in the natural and specialty foods industry, was helping a large juice company launch a new organic beverage at the Expo. Her company’s booth was positioned across the aisle from Sanchez’s on the show floor.
“It was her first time ever attending an event of that size,” Elms says of Sanchez. Elms walked over to try Bee Free Honee and “it took my breath away,” she says. “It was so simple yet so innovative and different. I told her, ‘Girl, you got yourself a tiger by the tail. Good luck!’”
The two kept in contact after the show, and Sanchez offered Elms the job of co-CEO soon after. Over the next three years, they grew from three stores to having Bee Free Honee in 1,400 locations nationwide, including some local Whole Foods locations and Wegmans.
Their big break came earlier this year, when they appeared on ABC’s popular show, Shark Tank, to pitch Bee Free Honee to a panel of investors. “It was the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever been through in my life,” says Elms. “My feet were sweating so bad I thought I’d slip out of my shoes.”
“It was our first investor pitch, and anything we said had the potential to be aired to the entire nation,” says Sanchez. “It was a gamble, but we believe in the product and our message, and we honestly believed that they would be able to see it.”
The gamble paid off, with investors Mark Cuban, Barbara Corcoran and Chris Sacca each investing $70,000 for 10 percent equity stakes in the company.
Though they were only on television for 11 minutes, Sanchez and Elms spent nearly two hours discussing the ins-and-outs of their business with the sharks.
“They are all very warm, and they got what we are doing,” says Elms. “It’s not just money: You get their connections, advice, access to teams and resources.”
In the eight months since the episode aired, Bee Free Honee has expanded into e-commerce and moved production to a co-packer in Houston, Texas that has boosted their production capacity by 700 percent. In addition to having the product sold at larger grocery store chains, Sanchez and Elms are planning to expand to wholesale distribution, with Bee Free Honee being used as an ingredient in restaurants and hotels nationwide.
“We are a very values-driven company, and we try never to lose sight of the big picture. It’s easy for people to say ‘you’ll save money if you use artificial flavors’ or ‘you’ll cut your time in half if you thicken it with gum,’ but the purpose of this product is not to pump out something sweet; it’s to be part of the overall solution of things not going well in the world.”
Rather than replacing honey completely, Sanchez says her long-term goal is to be an example that smaller-scale beekeeping is the answer to sustaining the pollinators upon which our food system depends.
“We can’t continue the status quo and expect things to get better,” she says. “My dream is to get to the point where we have our own apple orchard and hives, proving that you can be a responsible company not just financially, but also environmentally and socially.”