Key business takeaways
- Branding can create a feeling that sets your company apart, beyond your product or service
- Take cues from consumers: “Your people will literally give you the playbook”
- Make sure your messaging is consistent and cohesive across platforms—from your website to your packaging to the way you show up for your community
Many small businesses look to customers for feedback. Brent Wesley takes it a step further and welcomes them into his home. The owner and founder of Akron Honey, a honey company based in Akron, Ohio, has built a brand on being a good neighbor. When he’s trying something new, Wesley invites his most fervent supporters—who call themselves “honeyloves”—over to his backyard in West Akron, just a few blocks from the vacant lot he and his family transformed into a bee farm. Together, the Wesleys and the honeyloves snack on chicken and waffles and other foods showcasing Akron Honey. “Everyone just has a party and eats our stuff, and they’re able to tell us, face to face: ‘Yo, I love this. Or yo, you got to change this, or, hey, the time you posted this thing online, I want to see more of that,’” he said.
Still, Wesley cautions, this is something Akron Honey can do because of the special connection he’s fostered with his consumers, many of whom are also neighbors: “We have this bond with our audience that allows us to say, ‘Come on over and give us some feedback.’”
From founding a farmers’ market in West Akron to transforming vacant lots into micro farms, Wesley has always been focused on building community through his work. His love of storytelling has helped him cultivate this bond beyond Ohio, sharing Akron Honey’s message over social media and in subscription boxes sold as far as Los Angeles. But the brand remains rooted in the Highland Square neighborhood, where Wesley’s family started their first apiary, or bee field. Initially a source of fascination, it became a meeting place for local vendors and neighbors. “Our honey is so local you can walk by it,” Wesley said.
A lot of beekeepers are just beekeepers. And we say, ‘Screw it—we’re breaking the mold.’ Everything we do is just different.
Now a full-time venture, Akron Honey is carried in seven grocery stores (soon to be 25). The brand’s online presence, which includes cooking demos, honeybee education, and behind-the-scenes looks at its operation, has earned a passionate following. “A lot of beekeepers are just beekeepers,” Wesley said. “They’re safe. They’ve done things the same way for years. And we say, ‘Screw it—we’re breaking the mold.’ Everything we do is just different.”
When most people think of honey, they think of the bear. (You know the one.) “It doesn’t tell a story,” Wesley said. “You don’t know where it’s from. It’s just some liquid that kind of tastes good.” Akron Honey seeks to upend this expectation—starting with its story, which Wesley has made central to the brand’s success. When someone buys a jar of Akron Honey, they know exactly where it’s from and who harvested it. It’s a taste of the neighborhood in its raw, unfiltered form. And Wesley is adding to this story every day as he dreams of buying another abandoned property in Highland Square and turning it into a production facility where people can come taste his honey in person. “It’s what we do,” he said. “We get a hold of blighted stuff, and we turn it into magic.”
From passion project to flavor scientist
Akron Honey’s story begins with a vacant lot, sandwiched between two-story homes on a cobblestone street. “It wasn’t even supposed to be a business—it was a passion project,” Wesley said. In 2013, he and his wife Rebecca bought the small plot of land near their home for $2,200. Although neither had beekeeping experience, they decided to invest in a few hives with the simple goal of never buying honey again. Wesley learned beekeeping by watching YouTube videos and chatting with other beekeepers—and soon, the neighbors wanted a say too. “Akron citizens, we have a lot of pride, so if they see something improving, they take to it, and they support it,” he said. “That curiosity manifests itself in conversations with different people, so they just walked right up, and we started talking.”
One question came up again and again: When could they buy Wesley’s honey? In Akron, people were hungry for solutions that would strengthen their community. When Akron Honey opened up the apiary gates in August 2014, customers lined up down the block—and Market Day was born, now an annual event with live music, food trucks, and other local vendors who routinely sell out.
As the side hustle grew, Wesley faced a host of challenges, like when the bee population dwindled that first spring or suppliers upsold him for packaging. But no matter how hard it got, the brand was a welcome respite from his corporate job as a general manager at a major wireless network company, where Wesley routinely faced racist abuse from his white coworkers and people managers. Even so, he said he planned to work there until retirement. “It allowed us to make our mistakes and experiment and not have to be really strapped for cash,” he said.
In 2015, Wesley bought another abandoned lot, this time in an industrial area of East Akron near the Cuyahoga River—once so polluted it lit on fire in the 1960s. Japanese knotweed and white Dutch clover grew between stray pipes and old tires, catching Wesley’s eye. To his delight, the flora produced honey with a robust taste and crimson color, now known to the honeyloves as Middlebury Red. “It turned me into a mad scientist when it came to flavor,” he said.
The next year, Wesley struck gold again, winning LeBron James’ reality show Cleveland Hustles, where entrepreneurs compete for investment capital. “I’m here for the opportunity to make another neighborhood better,” he told the judges. But to their surprise, he turned down the $100,000 investment that would have been used to develop a storefront location and skincare line. He said he declined partly because he wasn’t ready to go full time, and reflecting now, he adds that the move wasn’t true to his brand. “I was running away from our culinary tradition so I could get better margins,” he said.
I depended on [my corporate job] for organization, structure, and planning. When that disappeared, I had to literally become a new and improved version of myself in order to begin a path of success.
Then, in September 2020, Wesley chose to leave his job after a round of corporate restructuring. A year at home during the pandemic had shown him what really mattered—spending time with his family—and he decided to go all in on Akron Honey. Still, he said the adjustment was destabilizing: “I depended on [my corporate job] for organization, structure, and planning. When that disappeared, I had to literally become a new and improved version of myself in order to begin a path of success.”
In other ways, the change was freeing. Wesley recalls the burnout he felt working a job that he wasn’t passionate about, facing constant systemic racism in the workplace. “I will absolutely take the freedom that I have right now over that any day, like not having to worry about tiptoeing around employees who aren’t used to having a Black manager.”
These are issues he hopes to address in his own workplace now that Akron Honey has several employees. Wesley wants to foster a culture of respect, where people know their work has purpose and management cares about their wellbeing. “It’s a normal thing to take care of ourselves,” he said.
“Your people will give you the playbook”
Wesley’s brand has always had what he calls a bigger purpose. “As we climb higher and higher as a brand, we are obligated to lift those people around us—in our neighborhood, in our community—we’re required to lift them up as well,” he said.
Within the first year of production, Wesley started making classroom visits and giving tours. In Akron public schools, which are becoming increasingly segregated, he said he noticed that a lot of Black and brown students didn’t know where their food came from. It was a stark contrast to the more affluent suburbs, where students were already well-versed in honeybee culture.
This disparity is a major motivator for Wesley, one of several Black beekeepers revolutionizing a predominately white and often exclusionary industry. “People will not take shots in life that they don’t see are possible,” he said. “When you look at my situation, I’m a Black beekeeper from the inner city who started a brand from nothing and now is on a national stage. Most of these kids who live within a block or two from where I live—they have no clue that’s possible. When they engage with us, we can not only show them what’s possible but encourage them to take those shots.”
Telling his story is something that comes easily to Wesley, who honed his retail management skills for decades and also performed across the country as the frontman for soul band Wesley Bright and the Honeytones. “I’m always on stage,” he said. “I know how to entertain. I’ve done that on the stage in front of hundreds of people, and then I also do it on the stage of a classroom.” His Akron Honey persona, Wesley The Keeper—whom he describes as “energetic, easy to talk to, a lot of positive vibes”—shines through in tweets such as this one encouraging other business owners: “Have fun with your supporters. Don’t be so uptight.”
Over the years, he’s perfected how to communicate the Akron Honey experience through a clean and unified website design, packaging, and social media presence, all centered around his consumers’ needs. Recently, he and his team have focused on creating recipes and how-tos to help consumers make the most of their honey purchase. “It hasn’t been me sitting in a room after getting a degree at a business school to figure out how to market and stuff. That’s not what it is. Your people will literally give you the playbook,” he said.
Today, Akron Honey has two product lines: urban honey, which is not filtered or strained, (“It has that flavor of the community,” Wesley said) and its flavored stock, which is infused with habanero peppers and cubes of bourbon barrels sourced from local distillery Cleveland Whiskey. There’s much more to come, including a tasting room and new flavors and experiences—but true to form, Wesley is taking cues from his customers, who often leave feedback in the form of reviews or comments.
One of the things we constantly do is make our consumers the heroes of our story. We don’t move unless our consumers tell us to move.
Recently, several honeyloves responded to an Instagram poll asking for a fruit-based flavor. Although Wesley was planning to unveil vanilla bean-infused honey, he slated hibiscus next. “One of the things we constantly do is make our consumers the heroes of our story,” he said. “We don’t move unless our consumers tell us to move.”
Photos from Akron Honey
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