Katie Sanchez wanted to turn apples into jelly, but instead, in 1999, she created liquid gold — Bee Free Honee — a natural, organic, fruit-based sweetener.
Just this past year, thanks to an appearance on ABC’s “Shark Tank” TV show, Sanchez and her business partner, Melissa Elms, attracted more than $200,000 in investment from three of the show's wealthy backers: Mark Cuban, Barbara Corcoran and Chris Sacca. They expect to increase production by about 400 percent and expand their national distribution into more stores, bakeries, restaurants and institutions.
The secret to such sweet success? Sanchez credits the bees.
“We need to give our pollinators a break. Let them keep their honey; it’s their food,” said Sanchez, the daughter of a beekeeper.
“It takes over 60,000 bees to gather enough nectar for a mere 1 pound of honey,” she said. “By sourcing organic apples, we’re supporting farmers who are planting more pollinating trees. That’s food for the bees.”
Bee Free Honee, made of reduced apple juice with a little sugar, provides an alternative to those who opt for a vegan diet. It’s used like honey would be, in baking or for sweetening coffee or tea.
Her sticky journey from her home kitchen in Plymouth to grocery store shelves started with several years of market research and analysis. Then she connected with the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI), a nonprofit arm of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture that supports development of entrepreneurial agricultural products.
“AURI helped me with product formulation and packaging,” Sanchez said. “They introduced me to a co-packer in McGregor, Minn., that works with start-ups so I could stay involved and learn about manufacturing, pricing, distributing and ordering.
“I didn’t want to just hand over my product to someone and end my involvement. I wanted to stay hands-on.”
By 2011, Bee Free Honee relocated to a larger facility in River Falls, Wis., to keep up with demand.
Sanchez noted that Bee Free Honee is building more than a business.
“As we expand, we’ll hire disabled and special-needs people,” she said, a response to the needs of her autistic son, who helps out with the business, as does his younger sister.
Bee Free Honee is widely available in grocery stores and local food co-ops, and retails for about $6 per 12-ounce jar; beefreehonee.com.