Couple discovered successful honey business on a road trip
Musky, sweet, waxy ... unmistakably, a smell of honey hangs in the air. Occasionally a whiff of fresh paint joins it, adding an interesting note.
This freshly refurbished building opposite the wrecked old Lancaster Park in Waltham is the latest expansion of J Friend and Co's artisan honey empire. It's a distribution centre with a tiny outlet shop at the entrance.
Around us, new shelves of pale wood hold dozens of jars of honey. They have plain labels with tiny writing and no images – not a flowery mountain pasture or smiling bee caricature to be seen.
But what an amazing range of colours the honeys have. In one sweeping glance, you can glimpse a world of honey you never knew existed in New Zealand. You can't help but want to know how different they taste. Right there is the key to this story.
J Friend and Co is owned by Christchurch couple Jeremy Friend and Sharyn Woodnorth. Empire might be a bit strong. This distribution centre is leased, there's a factory across town in Sydenham and perhaps you could count the growing number of hives they are setting up around Christchurch as assets, but the business is big compared with what it was.
Jeremy's here, but Sharyn is running late, caught up in that complex world of aligning young children and music lessons across town.
The J Friend and Co website has a short, marketing-friendly version of their story and it has that satisfying "eureka" moment everyone loves – when something everyone else has missed is spotted.
It goes like this: on a road trip south from Auckland to start a new life in Christchurch about nine years ago, they tried honey at roadside stalls along the way. Suddenly (think cartoon lightbulb over their heads), they realised these amazing, distinctive honeys should have a life beyond the roadside stalls. When they got to Christchurch, they made it happen and now they sell artisan honey throughout New Zealand and export it overseas.
It's a great tale, but the longer, more detailed and less tidy version is even more interesting. It's an example of how hard work and self-belief is essential to success and also how some false turns still contribute.
Jeremy and Sharyn met 25 years ago while studying at Waikato University. He earned a degree in industrial psychology and she had one in philosophy. They haven't spent a second working in either field.
"You know how it was [back then], you just went through university without really knowing what you wanted to do," Jeremy says. "I really loved my degree, but the thought of working in a big company scared me. It's not where I wanted to end up."
Instead, the couple worked for his parents' business in Rotorua "distributing products into the tourist market". That taught them they wanted to work for themselves.
The next step was to buy a cafe in Rotorua, which they ran for a year starting when their first child was only six months old.
"That was probably the hardest thing I have ever done," Jeremy says. "I was working 18 hours a day for no money. But it was probably a huge learning experience, too."
One lesson learnt was sheer hard work wasn't enough; they needed a life as well as work.
Next came launching a business that sold food to tourists. Ticking as many marketing boxes as they could, they called it New Zealand Alpine Gourmet Foods and sold things such as kiwifruit-flavoured cookies, candles, skin-care products and yes, manuka honey, for six years. But, again, they stopped because it still didn't give them back what they wanted.
"The tourist market is a funny market," Jeremy says. Funny?
"It's all about, 'it has to have kiwifruit in it', or 'it has to have manuka honey in it'. It doesn't have to be good quality. It's all about what the packaging looks like.
"We tried to move into organic chocolate, because everyone said they wanted it, but it didn't sell well, because it was too pricey. When it came to it, they were just buying gifts to take home."
So, Jeremy and Sharyn sold up and came to Christchurch for Christmas in 2007 to live in a two-bedroom apartment near the Botanic Gardens they had kept as a South Island base for the tourist business. That was the trip when they stopped at roadside honey stalls.
"I didn't know these honeys existed," Jeremy says. "Some was blended. I was never a big honey fan before, and it just changed my way of thinking. It was just really wonderful honey."
However, the new Christchurch plan was actually to launch a skin-care product business. That's where they poured their energy, and selling artisan honey was merely an interesting weekend sideline.
They got a few buckets of beechwood honeydew from Oxford and wild thyme honey from Central Otago and put it into little jars under the brand name The Beekeeper's Apprentice. These were sold, along with baking made with honey, at the fledgling Christchurch Farmers' Market at Riccarton Bush. A key decision was to identify the type of honey, where it came from and the beekeeper on the label. That information was exactly what foodies wanted.
"People were coming up with this amazed look on their faces, saying it was just like they remembered from their youth," Jeremy says.
The beechwood honeydew was particularly fascinating, because this dark amber, naturally runny honey only comes from this part of the world. If you have ever wondered what Canterbury truly tastes like, this is one answer.
"It's an earthy sort of flavour," Sharyn says.
Jeremy says: "It's like if you walked through those beech trees and you can smell that yeasty smell on a damp day, you almost get that in the honey."
That kind of talk and passion made their honeys exciting.
Meanwhile, the skin-care product was going nowhere and, after some months (how do you draw a very slow lightbulb?), it was shelved and they put all their efforts into artisan honey.
And they went after it with the no-compromise passion of the newly converted. They wanted high-quality, organic honey from just-as-passionate boutique beekeepers. They wanted a carbon-zero operation. They wanted to sell honey that was raw and undamaged from the high-heat treatment big commercial operators use to smooth out production.
Now the story becomes one of huge learning curves, red tape, meeting standards, setting up networks – all those heavy-lifting things that lie behind making a business idea come to life.
"We went to a guy in Christchurch [for a quote on processing the honey] and he gave us a price and we thought 'oh my god, we could set up a factory for that price' and then thought 'why not set up a factory'," Jeremy says. "That's the way we think. In hindsight, we probably shouldn't have, but I'm glad we did."
Their first factory was a leased former butcher's shop in Worcester St, which they thought would last them forever. There were just the two of them. Later, they moved to a bigger Coleridge St factory in Sydenham and now have a staff of five.
More and more outlets took up the honeys. National artisan and green business awards flowed. Export markets opened up in Australia and Britain.
When New Zealand supermarkets showed interest, they developed a squeezie bottle line that made their high-quality honey available in a family-friendly way, but which didn't undermine the much broader deli jar range. "That's gone nuts," Jeremy says.
There's been some compromise. Poor conditions for bees and varroa mite attacks mean the supply of organic honey has dwindled, so many suppliers have moved to conventional ways. But the factory processes are still registered organic.
One odd business evolution has been a jump backwards for Jeremy and Sharyn, who now have four children. They are now producing their own honey.
It began a couple of years ago when they kept getting offers of urban sites for beehives. There was an understandable misconception that J Friend and Co managed bees, not beekeepers. People imagined them puffing smoke into hives and lugging around multi-coloured boxes in white overalls.
But why not do that, the couple thought.
Honey bees are disappearing from city gardens. By becoming beekeepers, they could join the fight to help bee populations, learn even more about the business they were in, and gain a lot of personal satisfaction all at the same time.
They have about 40 hives and plan to build that to 200 hives within a couple of years. The honey from those hives is called Christchurch Botanicals and the label on it will name them as the beekeepers, an exciting thought. It is quite bland compared with many of the other honeys, but it's produced to the same high standards and is a genuine local product.
"We put the bee suits on and go out and get the stings," Jeremy says. "We get a lot of questions at food shows about bees and honey and it's important to be authentic and not to pretend we know about bees and hives. And it's fun; it's a lot of hard work."
Have you got time for this? "No," he says so quickly and so resignedly we laugh. But there are those upsides.
"When you are in a hive and bees are buzzing around, it's just fascinating. Sometimes, you'll struggle, because there is not enough nectar around, then when you turn up a week later there will be a box full of honey when there shouldn't be. They are incredible, incredible insects. They will surprise you. They are just so rewarding."
Where to next? The couple smile and say they have plenty more ideas to develop with their artisan honey business. The story is still unfolding.
Interestingly, their honey buyers are also evolving and becoming more attuned to a natural product. Sometimes honey changes colour from year to year, and flavours can vary. Last year, they ran out of pohutukawa. Like wine, honey has its vintages.
Initially, regular customers didn't get this, but now they are realising they should celebrate the differences, rather than bemoan the lack of sameness.
You get what the honey bees give you. In Sharyn and Jeremy's case, they've been given a business they love.
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