We’re taking that moment in time that Mother Nature gave us and we’re putting it in a bottle.
Heavenly Honey Company | Ojai, CA
When I was a little girl there was a place over by where we lived in Canyon Country, up Sierra Highway, it was called Warmuth Honey Company. They were a beekeeping family, kind of like we ended up being, and their spot where they extracted their honey also had a little honey room where they sold the honey that they extracted. I remember going with my dad and we would buy honey in these jugs – they looked like moonshine jugs with the little handle and the tiny little opening at the top. Which is ridiculous for honey, but that’s what they did. They had a window behind the cash register area where you could look through to where they extracted the honey. And it felt like they were always extracting honey whenever we went. My dad was a deputy sheriff in Santa Clarita so it was almost like all of Santa Clarita and the Antelope Valley was his playground. He had this way of always getting the backstage pass to everywhere. He could go in the back; he’d be like, “Show me how that works,” and they’d be like, “Sure!” and take him back there. And so that was my life, following my dad around into the back of all these places. We would go in when we would go buy honey and he would be like, “Can you show me how that works?” and so we would go into the extracting room. And I hated it because there’s inevitably some bees that come back with the boxes of honey and those bees are very upset, obviously, because they’ve been through a lot and they’re not near their home anymore. We would go in there and they would fly at your face. I always had long hair and they would hit my hair and it was just traumatic and I hated it. I still remember the feeling of: keep my head down and don’t let the bees get me. So that was literally where it started.
My mom had a corporate job so she was always off working, doing the professional person thing. Dad retired early when he got injured; it wasn’t a traumatic injury but he could retire a few years early. He had gotten into it right before he had gotten injured and then retired, so he decided that in his retirement, this was going to be his next phase of life. He had watched a lot of his friends retire and sit around and do nothing and die, and he was like, “That’s not going to be me.”
I grew up doing this with him; as an only child, I was a kid that was available to help with the family business. He took me out with him to do the bees, always. It was never like I had to wait until I was a certain age, it was like, “Put a bee suit on and let’s go.” As I got older, I became able to help more. We were a team, we really were. And he never went out without me because he needed help at a certain point. We got to where we had enough hives that he needed help, and I was the help. I keep looking at that picture of the two of us building our boxes – we built everything. He would buy the components and we would assemble them all. People don’t do that anymore. They just buy it made, the consumer mentality that we have these days. My dad used to be a welder, too, and he welded this contraption – the hive bodies, you can see that they have the finger joints at the corners. So we would loosely fit them together and put them down in this thing that had all these clamps and it would clamp them together really tight and then you put the staples through. He was also a wood worker, he really could do everything. He wanted to build everything to last… these boxes are 40 years old. We would maintain our equipment and it lasted.
I went off to Cal Poly and studied agriculture. I have a degree in crop science and a concentration in ornamental horticulture. So basically I can grow all the vegetables and all the flowers. When I graduated, the business was not profitable at that time so it couldn’t support me being an independent living person, I’d have to move back home and live at home and work with dad. That wasn’t what any 20-year-old wants to do. I got a job out of college and ended up working in the cut flower industry doing sales for big cut flower growers. Ultimately, I think there were six different growers that I worked for and at the end I was working for the largest cut flower grower in the country doing probably $4 million a year in sales. Sitting on the phone all day talking to wholesalers across the country; I had my group that I dealt with selling them flowers… it was not an easy job. They compare that to working on the stock exchange floor because it’s so stressful. They were messing with the pay and all that stuff and my mom was in my ear, “You know, maybe it’s time that you come to the family business.”
By that time, my dad had passed away; he passed away right before our daughter was born. He was having little strokes and not taking care of himself because he was superman, and he just kept recovering. And finally he had the set of strokes that he couldn’t recover from. But he’s here all the time, it’s the craziest thing. He has his ways of showing us that he’s around. People walk in and they say this room has a really good feeling and I think it’s a lot of the love that has always been behind this business. He is still very involved; he helps us find honey sometimes, but I’ll get to that.
We kind of have this perfect team, because my mom handles all the finances and I’m more on the creative side of things. My mom has ideas and throws them out at me and I make them happen. The tea line: for 20 years she always wanted to have a line of teas to go with the honeys and she was like, “Now’s the time, so make it happen,” and I did. We have a friend that has a tea company in Camarillo, All Things Tea, and she’s a master tea blender, and so we went and sat down with her and tasted a bunch of teas and figured out what would go really nicely with the honeys that we have and we put that line together. We worked on three blends that are custom to ourselves. And they’re really good teas. That’s kind of how everything is in here. Literally, everything that’s in here, it’s only here because I like it and I would use it myself in my own home.
Technically, my mom is the owner of Heavenly Honey Company, and she doesn’t ever like to say that because she’s like, “It’s you, you’re the owner,” and I’m like, “But I’m not, because you write all the checks, mom.” It’s like the hot potato of ownership. She’s kind of a mastermind. She’s taught me a lot of things, and I’ve learned a lot of things from the places I’ve worked. That last job I had, I learned a lot of what not to do. I think that’s really important for anybody that’s going into business. I think that the reason a lot of businesses fail is that people don’t spend the time working for other people first. You learn a lot about how not to run your business; you let other people make the mistakes on their dime.
We pour all of our honey one drum at a time by hand from a gravity-fed tank. It’s an elevated tank with a warming jacket on the outside; it’s just water in a double jacketed tank that’s warmed to keep the honey warm so that it’ll flow out. If you’ve ever tried to pour cold honey, there’s no way that will work. We don’t want to use a bottling line for a lot of reasons: a bottling line requires a lot of honey to keep it fed, and when you need a lot of honey, inevitably you’re going to have to put more than one drum of honey in your feeding vat and keep it fed. There’s no way you can have a bottling line without mixing honey on some level. There’s a bottling machine you can use to pour honey into one jar at a time, but it’s not any faster than doing it the way we do it, and that thing incorporates air into the honey. Air’s not a bad thing but it doesn’t look nice. We let the honey sit in the tank for many days to let the air come up out of it because there is a little air that gets involved into the honey as it goes through the pump and out of the drum and into the tank. So we let it sit and let that air go up to the top, so when it goes into the jar it looks really pretty.
Pouring it one drum at a time allows for us to isolate the flavor profile that’s unique to that batch of honey. So my clover honey… clover comes from the Midwest for the most part. Montana makes a natural growing clover and in the Dakotas clover is planted as in intercrop and I call that cultivated clover, and there’s nothing wrong with it but it’s a different animal than what we’ve got here. The clover out of the Midwest is always a higher moisture and the flavor is not as intense as the natural clover. This is California clover that happened out by out by Lake Isabella and it’s something that we’ve never had access to in 42 years. It doesn’t happen very often; the weather has to be just right. We’re taking that little moment in time that Mother Nature gave us and we’re literally putting it in a bottle. We feel that that makes our honey different from most of the other honey that’s out there, like 99% of the other honeys that are available, because most bottlers don’t take the time to do that. There are a few other little guys that do that but they don’t bottle on the level that we bottle.
When my dad passed away, we were bottling all of our own honey when we had our bees, but we had to source from beekeeper friends to fill gaps in our inventory. A lot of those guys taught my dad how to keep bees. Some of them, the ones we didn’t buy honey from, they taught my dad how to not keep bees. Again, back to learning on other people’s dime. But the guys that did a good job, we would purchase honey from them. When my dad passed away, we made the decision to sell the bees because I was pregnant and I wasn’t working in the business, so for me to quit my job and come in and run the bees… it wasn’t going to happen. We decided to sell the bees to a friend of the family, Ross Honey Company – they’re out of Valyermo, just below Mountain High. We sold him the bees and kept the bottling side and really leaned on those beekeepers that had been supporting us. If they didn’t have something we needed, they helped us find what we needed. I call them my little honey mafia, because they’re like, “I got a guy. Let me call him first and vouch for you, though; let me tell him you pay your bills.” Seriously, that’s literally how it goes. So we have this little group of beekeepers that we work with. Some are based down south, some are based in Bakersfield, they all bring their bees into Ojai or around Ojai.
I had a really cool thing happen and I think this goes to my dad having a part in this. We are going to start making mead. We were just licensed, we just got our ABC license, so that’s a big, big hurdle. I joined some mead pages on Facebook so I could just hear what other people are doing and try to learn. And there was a guy… well, first, we ran out of pomegranate honey and we haven’t been able to get any more. It’s frustrating, but it’s one of those honeys that’s hard to get because the pomegranate trees don’t always give you honey reliably every year. They’re weird and temperamental in that way. This year was especially difficult because we had so much rain that there was honey to be made everywhere off of the wild growing plants, it was a sure thing. So to get somebody who was actually willing to put their bees into the pomegranates for a maybe… that was a little difficult. We did get a sample from somebody who did take that gamble but it wasn’t up to our standards taste-wise. Pomegranate honey, when it’s really nice and pure, you can taste pomegranate. There was barely a hint of pomegranate and he wanted a lot of money for it. I told my husband, “Nope, I’d rather not have it.” So I’m on this forum and every now and then someone will randomly say, “I have some honey for sale,” and it’s usually a little beekeeper and it’s like 40 pounds to sell… this guy had a list of honeys and how much he was selling them for. He had honey from outside of California and honey from California… this is kind of a weird list. It didn’t make sense for somebody that might be in the middle of America, why would they have pomegranate honey? Or if somebody’s in California, why would they have this other stuff that I know is from middle America? So I messaged him and asked, “Where are you located?” and he said, “I’m in Tulsa, Oklahoma.” Ok, I know you’re not buying local pomegranate honey! I told him who we are and what we do and he said, “I have pomegranate honey, it’s literally the best pomegranate I’ve ever had.” I said, “I don’t want to pay the freight back from Oklahoma.” It was shipped from California to Oklahoma, I didn’t want to pay for it to be shipped right back to California. I said, “I’d rather buy from the beekeeper, that’s how we operate here.” And he said, “I can put you in touch with my supplier.” These are words you never hear in the honey world. You never divulge your sources, unless you’re super close with somebody. We’re super close with some people who are connected in this industry and they have helped guide us. So for some random person to say, “I can put you in contact with my person in California and you can do the deal with him, I just want 10 cents a pound for the connection,” I’m like, wow, that doesn’t ever happen. Now we’re buying the best pomegranate honey we’ve literally ever had. This guy’s up in northern California and he only runs about 600 hives, which is small… I wouldn’t quite call him commercial but he’s on the big side of a small beekeeper. But what’s nice about somebody that runs that number of hives is that they can be nimble. They can gather up a nice chunk of hives pretty quickly and get them over to a crop that’s happening. That’s what he did with this pomegranate. We’re excited to get it. It was a little pricy but it’s worth it and our customers are going to be very happy to have pomegranate back. It was a bummer when we ran out. It’s one of those things where we’re like, “Thank you dad!” because I’m sure that that’s how that all happened.
There are many ways to get the bees off [of the honeycomb], but the best way is to use… I don’t like to use the word “chemical.” But there’s a spray you can spray on a board that has a material on it that will hold the spray and you just set the board on top of the hive. It smells bad. It smells like a cross between vomit and a very bad baby diaper. The bees don’t like it either, so they go down out of the super, which is the top level if you look at the boxes. The top one is the “honey super.” So you set that board on top and the bees run out, and they run out best if all the honeycomb cells are capped. When it’s not totally capped, they’ll start sipping honey out of there, like, “Oh, we’ve got to get this before we leave the house.”
So they run out and you take the whole box back to the extracting plant and there there’s a machine that the frame drops through and it has these knives that are heated and they go back and forth. And the frame, as it’s dropping down, it’s shaving off that cap. And then the frame goes into a machine called an extractor. That was my job, to run the extractor and my dad was the uncapper. Because I wasn’t stupid – you have to lift the heavy boxes down on the uncapper side, so I’ll be down here at the extractor lifting the empty boxes. My job was to feed the extractor. You put the frames in and they hang in this circular – almost like a drum that’s been turned on its side. It spins around and by centrifugal force it blows the honey out of the frame but it doesn’t ruin the comb. It spins until they’re empty and then you take them out. Ideally, you’re making more honey still, so you take that box and put it back out on the hive. The bees love, love getting those frames back when they’ve been freshly extracted because they’re really clean and ready for honey again. They’re sticky, so the bees will clean them up and they’ll fill them right back up again. We try to use those frames until they get destroyed in the process, is usually what happens. We’ll get many years out of those frames, ideally.
We don’t like to put foundation out, which is just that sheet – you’ve probably seen those candles that are rolled, that’s actually foundation. The beekeeper will put that foundation in – it has the cell shape pressed into it and the bee builds out from that. The wax is only made when honey is being produced en masse. If you were to put a frame that had that sheet in there at this time of year, they wouldn’t do anything with it because their bodies are not making the wax. The wax comes out of their body as a result of a honey flow. It’s pretty cool. I’ll never forget the first time I saw that. You don’t put it all together until you see that. The wax literally comes out of in between – you know how their little bodies are in sections? It comes out from in between the sections. It’s like extruded out of their bodies. I think there’s probably a gland or something in there that makes the wax. I have a feeling as soon as that starts coming out of the bee, the bee gets it off and puts it where it needs to be. They’re cool little builders.
So it goes into an extractor, spins, the honey goes down and out the bottom of the extractor usually into a sump that will separate everything out. Wax inevitable will come off, bees will get in there, propolis – which is that stuff that they glue their hives together with that has a lot of medicinal value – that will all get in there so this sump will separate all that out. The wax that comes out of the process of uncapping goes into another machine that we didn’t have initially, but when you’re getting up there in the beekeeping world you get to have more machinery. This machine is a wax spinner, so wax gets sent over to the spinner via an auger and the wax drops into this drum that’s perforated metal and it spins it again and spins the honey out of the wax. The goal is to get as much honey out of the wax as you can and then you scrape it out of the drum and it goes into a wax melter which melts the wax and puts it into blocks. People come in here and they buy it and make all kinds of things out of it: furniture polish, lip balms, body butter, you can put it on your zippers… I need to put it on the bottom of my drawers down here because they’re making terrible noises. Wax is kind of cool stuff. It’s a humectant so it’s great to put into body products because it holds the moisture in.
All honey is healing. Oxygen is not in honey and microbial things need oxygen to live so those kinds of things can’t live in honey. Honey will kill bacteria wherever you put it. If you put it on your face, it’s going to kill the bacteria that’s living in your pores and it’s moisturizing. It’ll remove dead skin cells gently because it’s by nature sticky, so it’s like a soft scrub. It’s really good if you have blemishes that are being stubborn about healing. My daughter’s 15 and she’s going through the hormonal breakout stage of life so she uses honey on her breakouts. Buckwheat honey in particular has really high polyphenol levels. All the honeys have healing polyphenol, but the buckwheat is particularly healthy in the level of polyphenols. There’s been a study done comparing cultivated buckwheat to manuka honey. It’s a very expensive honey that comes from New Zealand that’s reported to be very healing. The problem with that is that there’s more pounds for sale in the United States than can possibly be made in New Zealand. And that’s just the U.S.; there’s all the other countries in the world that have it as well, so do that math. It doesn’t work out. So what is happening here in America, and I don’t know about the other countries, is there’s lawsuits to back up the statement that there’s been a lot of adulteration of manuka honey happening. They’re mixing it with wildflower honey and selling it as if it’s purely manuka. And for like crazy money. Next time you’re at Whole Foods or someplace like that, go look for it. You’ll faint in the aisle when you see how much it costs. I’ve always used buckwheat as my healing honey. So cough or sore throat, I will eat buckwheat honey. My theory is that this is from the wild buckwheat that grows here, it’s the California native buckwheat plant. It’s the parent plant genetically to the cultivated buckwheat. So I feel like anything that they say about cultivated buckwheat will apply to the wild buckwheat. And I have a feeling that wild buckwheat’s even better because it hasn’t been messed around with and bred out for this or bred in for that. I am a firm believer in the buckwheat honey.
The word “organic” I think needs to be a big thing for people to pay attention to because there is no USDA certification for organic honey in America. And I think that is for good reason because you can’t know where all the bees go. They’ll fly two miles, they’ll fly up to four miles – this weather is the worst because there’s nothing blooming for the bees but they’ll fly looking for it because it’s not cold. So they’ll burn up all the stores in the hive while they go out looking for something that doesn’t exist. The rule I believe is a seven mile radius from where you stand, there can be no chemicals, agrochemicals like weed sprays or miticides or pesticides or any of that. Can you think of anywhere that you’ve ever been that you’re seven miles away in all directions from a county maintained road? Because you know that all the counties spray the roadsides to keep the weeds down. And so there’s nowhere – I’ve been all over this country and there’s nowhere I’ve ever been where you could put the bees, make honey, and be away from a county maintained road. We have to accept that there is always going to be a possibility that that stuff, the bee may come in contact with it. The volume that would make it back into the honey is less than minute. It’s not even to be considered as far as I’m concerned. Because the beekeeper is going to great lengths to keep their bees away from these things so I don’t worry that there’s an amount of anything in the honey that’s going to hurt anybody. Obviously, or I wouldn’t sell it. But if you go to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, probably, you’ll see honey that has “organic” on the label. If you flip it around and look at the “honey made in…” you’ll see a list of countries. It’s never just one country. It’s many countries because the packer is buying all the honey from these different countries. Our USDA defers to the other country’s certification for organic. So we don’t even know who made the honey, what their extracting conditions were like… was it a dirt floor? I’ve seen all kinds of things here in America, I can only imagine what it might be like in a third world country. What are the bathroom situations at the places where they’re extracting? These are like basic things that we have no idea about, and our government food oversight group – they don’t, either. They’re just like, “Oh, ok, Belize, whatever you say. We’ll just go with what you say, it’s cool.” And that honey is cheap, that’s why packers like to buy it, because it’s cheap. And then they blend it in with domestic honey because it brings the cost per pound down and it brings their profits up. That’s all it’s about. So that’s why I tell people I don’t get excited about the word “organic” on honey; in fact, in my opinion, all I see when I see when I see the word organic is “foreign”. And why do you need to buy foreign honey? Especially now that you know that I’m here? By spending literally a couple dollars more, you get so much more health benefit from the product. I know who made it and I know right where the bees were sitting. That’s as close as you can get to making it yourself.
We need to keep our domestic beekeepers supported financially or they’re not going to continue to do this. When we go to he beekeeper conventions, we see fewer and fewer young people, fewer and fewer next generations keeping bees. It concerns me a little bit because if we don’t have our beekeepers, we’re not going to have our bees. If we don’t have our bees, we’re not going to have our produce. Or our beautiful honeys! They’re not getting rich to do it, it’s a love thing. There’s no way to become rich keeping bees, like zero ways. And we aren’t here to get rich either, that’s also not happening. But we make a living and we’re comfortable and we’re happy doing what we do every day. I don’t know what more we could ask for in life, honestly. We just want to be happy and comfortable. My husband used to want to have a semi that said “Heavenly Honey Company” on the side. I’m like, “You do realize what is involved in filling the semi with honey to deliver, right? You do know there are headaches behind all of that!”
We opened on Ojai Day in 2016. The year we opened, I joined Chamber of Commerce because at that time I felt like it was something we needed to do. I wanted to be more involved in the community and I knew that the Chamber helped other businesses in Ojai and I wanted to be a part of that. We don’t live in the city limits, so we don’t get to vote and it was really frustrating to me that we don’t get to have any say in a lot of the things that they do that affect us here as a business, because we are in the city with the business. My mom’s like, “Why don’t you see if you can get on the Board of Directors of the Chamber of Commerce? Because then you would be in a position to maybe affect some kind of change.” I was like, “Ok, I’ll see if I can get someone to nominate me to be a Board member.” I was working with a seamstress here in town and I asked her about it and she was like, “I was going to talk to you about that because I want to nominate you to be on the Board with us.” They voted and I was brought on to be a Board member. Last year, we had to vote for president and vice president and stuff like that and they wanted me to be the president. So I am the president of the Board of Directors of our Chamber of Commerce. I am just a supporting role to our CEO; he does everything. He is the Chamber as far as I’m concerned. It’s kind of neat to be part of the internal workings of the Ojai government side of things and maybe one day I’ll get someone to hear what we have to say about stuff and we can make some adjustments for how we handle things. I didn’t win on Ojai Day, they closed the street again. I don’t like it when they close the street, it kind of kills business. I didn’t win though. Another battle.
I’m figuring out how I’m going to be able to facilitate the mead thing because I feel like it’s going to mostly fall on me. I feel like that’s it, I’ve reached my max. I physically can’t do more. So I don’t see us adding anything else to the business after the mead. We might even try to move away from the wholesale side of it so we can focus on the tasting room and the mead side of things. The tasting room has caught up with our wholesale side and it might surpass it this year. From a business perspective, we’re trying to make more money with less honey. Honey is very expensive. I hate to use the word “commodity,” but it’s one of the most expensive commodities to be selling. And the margins are not big because we have to keep the price palatable for people. So wherever we can recover the most dollars to put into the coffers, that’s the direction we want to go. That was one of the benefits to mead – making more money with less honey. Because we put the honey in at a good price that we’re getting from our beekeeper, and this is the problem that most meaderies have is that they’re not buying direct from the beekeepers, they don’t have those relationships. There’s always all his talk about how expensive honey is and that mead is one of those alcoholic beverages that has one of the most expensive ingredients used in it. The recipe is 3:1. Three gallons of honey to one gallon of water. So it’s a lot of honey that you have to put in there. So those meaderies are struggling of they don’t have a good source and most meaderies don’t have the variety of sources available like we have. So it’ll be interesting to see how we can make that whole thing roll.
My dad brought home that first hive in the back of a ‘65 Volkswagen. It was literally a box of bees. He had ordered it through the Sears catalog. Things you could do in the 70s that you can’t do now! That was his entry level beehive. And then we made a divide off of that and we had two hives and over the years he bought out other beekeepers that were wanting to retire. The biggest purchase my parents made was a beekeeper out of Lancaster and he had some wholesale accounts that he sold honey to. All of them – well, one of them is nearly out of business but the rest of them are out of business except for one: Charlie Brown Farms. A lot of people when they drive out to Vegas will drive up to Palmdale and get off on Pearblossom Highway and it goes around and cuts out across the desert to the 15. And they drive right by Charlie Brown Farms. It’s also on the way to Mammoth so during snow season it’s a popular spot. Everybody stops there because they’ve been driving across the desert and you need to go to the bathroom and you’re hungry.
We have been selling honey to them… I think I was in high school and I graduated in ’91. So let’s just say basically since 1990. I would go out with my parents and help them deliver and then I started making the deliveries myself. Now I’m the one that handles that delivery. Every now and then I take our daughter with me. She’s 15 now, and I just kind of marvel when I see her walking through there and going and fetching honey and I’m putting it on the shelf… I would have never thought when I was 15 and I was here with my parents that I would be here with my child. That was the furthest thing from my mind. And here we are. It’s really cool.
I don’t expect her to take over this business; I almost don’t want her to. I want her to go do her own thing. Not that I regret doing this, I just feel that this was the path for me. I don’t feel like it’s the path for her. I just feel like she has so many talents that need to be explored and I almost don’t want her to take over this business. But I want her to learn things from being involved with it that she can carry with her into her life. It’s really important and I feel fortunate to be able to give her this opportunity.