Despite the name, “lazy” isn’t part of the culture at the Lazy Bee Honey Co., the multi-faceted, farm-based business owned by Christi and Nathan Wade of Burton.
“This [interview] is the first time, I’ve been still today,” said Christi who, in addition to being a hands-on partner and lead jam maker for Lazy Bee, works as a realtor and oversees, with the help of a tutor, homeschooling the Wades’ four children, ages 5 to 15.
“I’m a person of routine, but the only routine in my life is dealing with the unexpected,” she said laughingly, recognizing the humor in the understatement as only a seasoned farmer, entrepreneur and mother would.
Launched in 2012, the company transformed Nathan’s part-time hobby into a full-time business that specializes in all things honey.
“We started out selling honey in Round Top on occasional weekends,” Christi said.
Through the local grapevine, the Wades heard the owner of Scotty & Friends, a Round Top restaurant that has since closed, wanted to establish a farmers’ market in the tiny town.
“Most of the time we were the only ones sitting under that big oak tree [that now shades the deck of Feed & Firewater],” Christi said. “We’d sit at our card table until we sold out.”
Today the product mix includes not only honey—raw, creamed, liquid and in the comb—but honey-sweetened jams made from original recipes, and condiments such as honey peanut butter, honey mustard and honey barbecue sauce. At the request of their customers, they have just released a line of fruit and pumpkin butters. Products can be purchased online or at select independent retailers such as Silver Barn and Espressions Coffee & Art in Round Top, Burton Sausage in Burton, Home Sweet Farm in Brenham, at farmers markets and festivals including the Round Top Antiques Show and at HEB in Brenham and nearby College Station.
“We are currently finalizing an agreement with a co-packer to help produce our jams, which will increase our capacity and allow us to move onto a larger retail stage,” Christi said. “Right now, though, it’s us—in our commercial kitchen—located on the farm.”
Through the years the couple has learned how to deliver flavor that garners attention.
Earlier in the year Lazy Bee Honey Co. was a finalist in HEB’s “Quest for Texas’ Best” contest that attracted 2,000 entries. The Texas-based grocery giant looked across the state to identify its next big thing.
“We developed a honey butter that held its own against some excellent products, but it required some specialized expertise, which ended up being its downfall,” Christi said.
No co-packers in Texas handle butter-based preparations. The only processor with the necessary capability is in Colorado, which prevents the product from holding the title of “Texas Made” and making it ineligible for the chain’s “Primo Pick” marketing promotion.
“The contest’s prize money would’ve allowed us to invest in the storage and delivery infrastructure we need for a refrigerated product,” Christi said. “Honey butter is still on our radar, but it isn’t going to materialize as quickly as we’d hoped.”
While the Wades were developing new products, they also created a bee services division. Residents in a 60-mile radius of Washington County can lease bee hives for their properties. (With an increasing interest in honey bees, this option has proven very popular with a waiting list for the hives.)
“Our bees can help pollinate family crops—we don’t lease to pollinate commercial properties— gardens and orchards,” Christi said. “And because beekeeping is a recognized and necessary agricultural practice, leased hives can help landowners maintain their agricultural tax valuation.”
In addition to putting bees where landowners want them, the Lazy Bee team can remove them from places the insects are unwelcome.
“Bees show up in all sorts of places—utility meters, walls, attics, chimneys and vehicles that people prefer to be bee-free,” Christi said. “Nathan and his team will travel to the site, capture and re-home them.”
To be clear, bee removal is a paid service not a trade. Most of the wild bees don’t settle down and set up housekeeping in the domestic hives when they are introduced to their new homes. In fact, about 75 percent of the re-homed colonies return to the wild to re-establish their hives.
“We rescue the bees,” Christi said. “If they stay on the farm–great; if they don’t that’s okay too because at least we, unlike an exterminator, saved them.”
In a world that relies on bees and other insects to pollinate at least 30 percent of its major food-producing crops and 95 percent of native plants, it’s an important distinction.
“Even though people don’t always realize it, we need bees,” Christi said. “Of course, our family needs bees more directly than most.”
Bees, Burton and Birthing a Business
When the Wades met during a high school geography class in their hometown of Abilene, Texas, they were sweet on one another, but neither was abuzz to become an entrepreneurial beekeeper.
“At the time, we didn’t imagine a life like we live,” Christi said noting they got married when they were 20 and 21 respectively and started their family soon after.
Nathan entered the workforce as an entrepreneur early and was operating his own successful business by age 17. He continued to grow his business while he attended school and through his early professional years; his career path eventually led to the communications industry. As Christi pursued her business administration degree, she was also in the workforce and over time landed a position at Blue Cross/Blue Shield.
Within the communications industry, Nathan quickly climbed the corporate ladder to the executive level where moving up meant moving around. The journey took the family from Abilene to Flower Mound to Corpus Christi and finally to Brenham.
“I fell in love with Brenham,” said Christi, whose career allowed her to work from Blue Cross/Blue Shield’s corporate offices, satellite offices and to telecommute. “It was everything West Texas wasn’t—green, hilly and tree-filled.”
Nathan’s father was reared in Walhalla and attended school at Round Top/Carmine and La Grange, so Nathan, who attended family gatherings in the area as he was growing up, was familiar with the Roundtopolis™. The couple found a rental property in Burton and put down temporary roots, which became permanent a year later when they purchased property near Burton.
“We liked Burton, so we stayed there,” Christi said.
On the day they closed on their farmstead, Christi got an ultimatum from Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Either return to the Metroplex or lose her job.
“I told them we had just closed on our property, and I would be staying put,” Christi said. “We’d budgeted based on Nathan’s salary alone, so the layoff wasn’t pleasant, but it was manageable.”
As they got settled into their new home, Nathan was intrigued by the two bee boxes on the property. Bees were buzzing in and out. The couple assumed they owned productive hives until Nathan began attending meetings of the local bee club about six months later and learned what was supposed to be happening.
“We were the proud owners of abandoned hives and scavenger bees—bees that were looking for honey,” Christi said.
Nathan bought bees and a beekeeping suit. He pursued beekeeping as a hobby while he worked full time. Baby number four arrived. The Wades began selling honey on the weekends in Round Top and encountered strong demand.
Then corporate America called again with another ultimatum, Nathan would have to once again move the family or take a severance package.
“Farming—bees and cows—was our only income outside of Nathan’s job,” Christi said. “We had a choice. We could either move back to the city or we could take leap of faith.”
They leapt full of faith. Their combined severance packages gave them one year to build a business.
In a Jam
As part of the homeschool curriculum, Christi often made jam to reinforce math and science lessons. Soon after the couple launched the business, Nathan walked into the kitchen just as Christi was adding eight cups of sugar to the fruit mixture that would become jam.
“His eyes got big and he said, ‘We produce honey. Why in the world are you using all that sugar?’” Christi said.
Her response? “It’s what the recipe calls for.”
She accepted the challenge of developing a recipe for honey-sweetened jam quickly discovering honey has a much lower boiling point than sugar.
“I burned a lot of honey in pots with fruit,” Christi said. “Some of it was so bad that when I scraped it outside the bees wouldn’t even eat it.”
She persisted and eventually perfected her formula. By the end of the first year, they sold 4,000 jars of jam.
The company’s top sellers are traditional blackberry and strawberry jams, but strawberry jalapeno and peach habanero, which is Christi’s personal favorite, fly off the shelves as well.
“I fought making the spicy jams for a long time because everyone else was making them, and I’ve never been one to do what everyone else does,” Christi said. “Plus, I just didn’t think it would taste good, but people just kept asking for them, so I gave in—and wow, just wow, they’re good.”
The Business of Family
The business is part of the family’s life, and the family’s life is part of the business.
“Our kids think it’s odd that other families don’t have bees, a commercial kitchen and a life where everyone is together most of the time,” Christi said. “Our oldest son was in the second grade when we moved to Burton, but he took to the country and will never lose his farmer’s tan. For the rest of them, this is the only life they’ve known.”
No one has assigned roles, but they gravitate to the jobs that need to be done. The older boys help Nathan with the bees, but the younger ones are still growing into those tasks. Everyone puts on their “special shoes and stylish hairnets” when they come to help in the kitchen.
“Our daughter, who is five, thinks wearing her kitchen shoes and a hairnet is as a fun as wearing a princess dress,” Christi said. “In fact, I’m sure there are times she’s worn all three in the kitchen.”
Because they work alongside their parents, the children understand the relationship between their work and their lifestyle.
“They see the benefits of our collective labor,” Christi said. “The kids know there’s not money in the checking account unless we all work for it. Out here work isn’t sitting in a chair; it’s taking initiative, making things happen and taking care of the things that generate money.”
Working on the farm has also taught them to adapt, adjust and value the power of family.
“When you have a land-based business, you have to expect everything you can’t expect—and deal with it,” Christi said. “And you have to be partners because when everything else works against you, as it sometimes seems it does, you have to work together.”
The Buzz on the Lazy Bee Honey Co.
by Lorie A. Woodward
photos by Rachel Alphonso-Smith, Shutterbunny Photography