A honeybee colony must work together in coordinated interactions and engagements – the survival of the entire group is dependent on every bee playing its part.
Ted Dennard, owner and founder of Savannah Bee Company, views his business the exact same way.
“The honeybee can’t live on its own; it has to go back in the hive, it has to be a part of it,” he said. “It’s kind of like our overall vision. We can’t do without anybody. Everybody on our team is integral to keeping this thing going.”
There’s no question of Dennard being a savvy businessman – from selling honey in a few different stores across the country in 1999 to now having multiple brick-and-mortar retail locations and an expanding wholesale business, a company does not grow by the leaps and bounds Savannah Bee Company has over the course of two decades without a competent leader at the helm. But while Dennard of course recognizes the importance of the business side of things, for him, it all comes back to the bee.
“I think the reason we won Best Gift Store and have been able to grow so much is the experience you get in our stores,” he said. “You get an education when you walk inside. You learn about the different types of honey, about the mead, the body products – ‘Wow, that royal jelly is what the queen bee eats that turns her from a worker into the queen, and it also helps your skin have more elasticity and produce more collagen’ – you get that whole education. Our people are passionate and charismatic and that carries over to the customer who then walks out, and even if they’re not carrying a bag, hopefully they’re walking out with the inspiration and knowledge about honeybees.”
Savannah Bee Company was named Best Gift Store of 2020 by Connect Savannah readers – along with crediting the stellar customer service and team he’s put in place over the years, Dennard points to the popularity of the stores’ mead selections (mead is fermented honey and the world’s oldest alcoholic drink), the royal jelly body butter and – for 2020 – the honey hand soaps, which have enjoyed a boost in sales during the COVID-19 pandemic. (The honey formula also doesn’t dry out your hands – an added bonus during these days of frequent handwashing!)
The stores collaborate with artists local to their areas, so you’re likely to find some variations of items in each different store. For example, in Savannah, they’ve teamed up with local chocolatier Adam Turoni to produce deliciously sweet treats that are almost too pretty to eat.
Dennard shared his excitement over new product Tupelo Honey Hot Sauce, which won the 2020 Bronze SOFI award for the best and most innovative product in the barbeque and hot sauce category from the Specialty Food Association. It’s a combination of his favorites –Tupelo Honey and Jamaican scotch bonnet peppers. (Dennard spent time in Jamaica during a stint with the Peace Corps.)
“I put our hot sauce on everything,” he raved, promising when all is said and done, it’s not THAT hot. “It is pretty spicy, but when you put it on sandwiches, pizzas, even salad and eggs, whatever ... it’s just yummy, and you get this perfumey, salty heat with the sweet, soft Tupelo Honey. They just compliment each other really well.”
And of course, the honey itself is the star of the show, with Tupelo being the most popular variety. The stores offer multiple flavors of honey, including their signature whipped honeys which feature cacao, cinnamon and lemon flavors.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a challenge to the business, but Dennard sees many reasons to be hopeful and optimistic about the future. The newest brick-and-mortar store opens by early November in Greenville, SC. While retail has faltered throughout the year, he said that the wholesale side of the business continues to grow, and as might be expected their online business has doubled.
It could also be noted that Savannah Bee Company is no stranger to tough times – while Dennard officially started the business in 2002 in wholesale, the first store opened on Broughton Street in 2008, which most can probably recall as not a particularly good year for the economy.
“It’s not always successful,” he said, frankly. “There’s a financial side of success, and there’s a mission success goal post, and we love it the most when both of those are high.”
The mission of Savannah Bee Company seems like it can best be summed up in just two words: Bee Love.
For Dennard, who has been beekeeping for more than 40 years by this point, he’s focused on a legacy of creating beekeepers and bee fans to carry the survival of the insect into the future. When opening the Charleston store in 2011, in trying to create awareness in the community, Dennard and his team connected with a local elementary school and ended up placing an educational glass beehive in the school library.
“The kids loved it, the teachers loved it ... the media specialist did not want it there at all,” he said, laughing. “But then she ended up loving it, too! And it was exactly what we wanted, which was to raise awareness about how important and amazing honeybees are.”
After installing hives in two other schools, the nonprofit Bee Cause was born with a goal of putting hives in 1,000 schools “so we can raise a whole generation who will love and protect honeybees.” As of today, more than 600 schools across all 50 states and into Canada, Haiti, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas have hives.
“It’s so fun and cool,” Dennard said. “Again, trying to raise awareness is our mission. And the bigger we can grow, the more profitable we can become, and then the more awareness we can raise.”
And awareness is important to the ultimate fate of bees, as they face quite a few different adversities – other invasive species, pesticides and climate change to name some of their threats. According to a National Geographic February 2020 article, North Americans are 50 percent less likely to see a bumblebee in any given area today than prior to 1974. The bee is essential for many flowering plants, including much of what makes our food supply hum along.
“Bees are kind of that canary in a coal mine,” Dennard said. “I feel like the bees are always under a threat. There’s always something coming. That’s the bad news.
“The good news is beekeepers love their bees, and they’re going to keep them going. They’re interwoven into the fabric of our world. You gotta have bees.”
After 40 years of beekeeping, Dennard is a testament to beekeepers loving their bees ... even if it seems like they might not always love him back. He estimates he’s been stung “thousands” of times in his career, including one incident during his time in Jamaica where he walked away with around 200 welts.
But even then, Dennard sees a long future between him and the bumblebee.
“I always will have bees. I can’t not.”
And there’s also a long future for Savannah Bee Company.
“My vision for the company is to continue what we’re doing ... using that beehive as a business role model,” Dennard said. “We do want to grow the company; I’m sure we’ll grow our product offerings. We want everything to be good for the consumer – whether they eat it, drink it, put it on their skin, we want them to be benefited just like a bee benefits that flower. And then our customers support us and the beekeepers, who support the bees and the whole planet! It’s a big win-win circle where everybody’s benefited.
“That’s an ambiguous vision of the future,” he said with a laugh. “But the goal is to continue growing!”
Savannah Bee Company’s flagship store is at 104 W. Broughton St. and is open 10 a.m.-9 p.m. every day. There’s also a location at 1 West River St., and the Wilmington Island Showroom at 211 Johnny Mercer Blvd. (Check their website at savannahbee.com for varying open times.)