–by Dan Lemke

BFH 32Business partners Katie Sanchez and Melissa Elms are generating quite a buzz with their Bee Free Honee products. Originally discovered by accident, the vegan sweeteners made from apples have made their way into retail outlets across the country.

“Two years ago, we were in roughly 350 stores,” Elms confides. “Now we are in over 1,000 retail stores and are supported by several major online retailers, so our products are available worldwide.”

Back in 1999, Sanchez was attempting to make apple jelly, but forgot to add pectin. The former pastry chef bottled her creation anyway and discovered that the thick liquid tasted a lot like honey. Years later, when she heard about the decline in bee populations, she thought there might be a market for her sweetener as a replacement for honey, so she recreated the concoction. Working with AURI scientist Charan Wadhawan on product development, nutritional analysis, labeling and a shelf-life study, Sanchez refined the recipe and brought Bee Free Honee to market in 2010. Elms joined as business partner in 2013, bringing substantial sales and marketing expertise.

Bee Free Honee products are found in some of the nation’s top natural and specialty foods markets, including Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage, Sprouts Farmers Markets, Fresh & Easy, Earth Fare, Whole Foods Market and online at Vitacost.com and Amazon.com. Sanchez and Elms were awarded a Local Producer Loan Program loan from Whole Foods, which “has been absolutely vital to helping us grow in that space,” adds Elms.

Not only has the Bee Free Honee distribution grown, so has the product line, which now includes five flavors. In addition to the original, which most resembles traditional honey, there are varieties flavored with mint, ancho chile, chocolate and slippery elm. Made with ingredients from the slippery elm tree, this flavor has curative properties used by Native Americans to help soothe sore throats and calm upset stomachs.

Sanchez originally worked with a co-packer to produce the Bee Free Honees. They outgrew that setting and now share a facility. The duo hopes to continue growing their business not just for themselves, but for their community. They eventually would like to “pay it forward” by building an incubator to help support other small companies and to provide job opportunities for people with special needs. “I have an autistic son, so I see how important it is for people with special needs to have jobs because it’s an overlooked sector,” Sanchez says. “Autistic people have skill sets, and I would like to give them a place to thrive and succeed.”

Generating BuzzBFH HiRes 2014 comp
Being a part of the Academy Awards will get you noticed. It’s certainly generated attention for Bee Free Honee.

“We were included in the Oscar swag bags in 2014, and that got us some valuable publicity,” Sanchez says. Because of that inclusion and due to their product uniqueness, Bee Free Honee has been featured on numerous television shows
and media outlets including:

• “The Ellen DeGeneres Show”
• CNN
• NBC’s “Today” Show
• ABC
• CBS
• Hallmark Channel Home & Family Show, featured by Supermarket Guru
Cosmopolitan magazine