Urban Seattle Beekeeper Develops a Successful Business Niche
by Dave Schiefelbein
The Puget Sound region of Washington state has a reputation for drizzle and gray days. But in the mind of bee entrepreneur Corky Luster it’s raining bees and there are nothing but bright days ahead. Luster is the founder of Seattle’s Ballard Bee Company. His ability to “think outside of the (bee) box” combined with living in a region open to innovative individuals of all types (think Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, Chihuly, Pearl Jam) has helped Corky craft a distinctive small-business model for beekeeping. The account of how it all came about and continues to evolve is equally unique. Corky Luster’s story is one of humble beginnings based in a simple desire to help honey bees. The ability to recognize needs that were not being addressed led him to see opportunity. But it is his creative approach to filling those needs that truly sets his business apart and allows it to grow and thrive.
Corky has spent most of his life in Seattle, born and raised there. He’s seen the city develop and transform from a sleepy place tucked quietly away on the upper west coast to the center for technology, aerospace and the arts that it is known as today. As an adult he began to notice another, more subtle way in which the city was changing. He was no longer seeing honey bees in the neighborhoods the way he had when he was a child. About the same time he was also taking note of news reports on the increasingly dire circumstances of pollinators, particularly honey bees due to something called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). It’s a widely know axiom that it is tough to effect change when a problem is as big and far-reaching as CCD is. Rather than change the world, the best most of us can do is change our little part of it. That’s exactly what Corky decided to do. He vowed that rather than just being an observer, he would be part of the solution. Corky had a little bit of beekeeping experience learned from a friend when they both were in college. So, he knew that he could take on a couple of hives in his own backyard. What quickly followed was a realization that this small step would be a huge bonus, not only to his yard but to the whole neighborhood. A big “aha” moment occurred when Corky was visiting the vast farming region of Eastern Washington state. He noticed, next to a large field of blooming yellow canola, a small apiary placed there specifically for pollination of that crop. He reasoned that if pollination could be encouraged in large agricultural regions in the country, why couldn’t the same thing be done in the city? In rural areas commercial beekeepers move their hives from place to place to spread pollination services around as necessary. Didn’t a “city-wide apiary” make just as much sense? Corky thought so, “I wanted to challenge the presumption that farming is only done in a rural setting.” And while there were backyard beekeepers in Seattle, he soon discovered that no one in Seattle was doing anything remotely close to what he wanted to do. At the most other beekeepers might have been setting up several hives, then selling the honey at the occasional farmer’s market to fund their beekeeping hobby. Corky envisioned something far beyond that. He wanted a full time, sustainable and profitable business. Since no one had yet set the guidelines, Luster was free to do whatever it took to create an unbounded apiary within the city. Restricted by City of Seattle ordinances (a limit of four hives per yard) he needed to start thinking creatively about how to have hives in the city outside of his own back yard. One thing that had always made an impression on Luster is that a beehive is not much more than a wooden box possessing about the same spatial footprint as a file cabinet. Yet it can have an impact that far surpasses its physical dimensions. A hive can fit in anyone’s yard. It can fit on any building rooftop or balcony. Anyone can find a space for an object of that mass. Yet the effect of something so small is much stronger and larger than its size. It occurred to Luster that by letting other people host his hives...other backyards, hotels, restaurant roofs...he could create his large apiary inside of Seattle. Corky spent at least a season in “dress rehearsal” mode. In 2009 he made it official by obtaining a city business license for his new endeavor. He called his company the Ballard Bee Company, appropriately named after the local Seattle neighborhood in which he lives. He referred to it as “an urban pollination company”. And its mission was to expand the apiary.
It turned out that Seattle was a ripe environment for this type of untested business model. Seattle is one of those places that seems to attract progressive, forward thinking people. New ideas are encouraged and welcomed. Seattle also has an extremely active culture of unique food, exceptional restaurants with a heavy emphasis on eating locally produced seasonal fare, urban agriculture, urban livestock, and a love of all things “green”. For a business to succeed it needs the right product at the right time for the right consumer. Corky’s mission fit in precisely with a strong “local-vore” movement already present there, so the people of Seattle saw value in it. His backyard Hive Hosting Program is not entirely different in its makeup than other garden, pool or yard care services performed for a fee. The Ballard Bee Company takes applications from interested host families, a yard inspection follows, yards are either accepted or rejected based on the suitability for the bees and the hosts. Host families sign a contract, and are charged monthly for service. The Ballard Bee Company tends and maintains the hives throughout the year. While pollination is the most obvious benefit for a host yard and their neighborhood, program participants also receive other perks. Those include two jars of honey each month, special discounts and pricing, a monthly newsletter, a “bee education” resulting from watching the bees work every day, and of course the satisfaction that comes from knowing that they are helping to grow the number of honey bees in the city. Since a business is only as good as its customers, Corky knew he had a market based on the response of the people of Seattle. They hosted his hives in their back yards and they gobbled up his urban honey by-product. Businesses jumped in with their support as well. His hives complemented existing restaurant’s roof-top or patio gardens. And Corky’s bees thrived in these unusual locations. Chefs used to cooking with local, seasonal ingredients began featuring Ballard Bee honey from their own rooftop in their recipes. A craft micro-brewery made a small batch of beer with his local honey. Specialty food stores, artisan bakeries, even a florist began to stock Ballard Bee honey to sell to their customers. One truly ambitious experiment in beekeeping began when the Executive Chef at the elegant Fairmont Olympic Hotel contacted the Ballard Bee Company requesting help in establishing an apiary on its roof, twelve stories up in downtown Seattle. No one knew whether honey bees could thrive in the midst of concrete and high rise buildings. But the hotel bees flourished and are now entering their third season on the roof. The story of the downtown bees even made it to the pages of the Wall Street Journal.
In fact many of the projects of the Ballard Bee Company have gained the attention and awareness of the media all over. The Ballard Bee Company, its unique business or Ballard Bee Honey have been chronicled in print and electronic media across the nation including Virtuoso Life, Sunset, Men’s Journal, Wallpaper, Women’s Health, Epicurious and Monocle. Last autumn a minor media frenzy erupted around the Ballard Bee Company when Corky posted a quick Facebook update and photo mentioning an afterhours visit by a black bear to one of his apiaries which took out a couple of his hives. Corky’s phone rang nonstop as local television and radio stations called wanting details. As the story traveled around the planet, the offending bear somehow morphed from black to grizzly by the time it reached London. Celebrity blogger Perez Hilton even felt compelled to write about the incident. While bears may spawn fifteen minutes of fame, more lasting attention has been paid to Ballard Bee Honey. With his background in art and design Corky devises the packaging for each of his honey products himself. Corky describes the presentation of his honey in this way: “I wanted an important story to be packaged in a beautiful way.” Retailers frequently are willing to carry his product based on its looks, even before they have sampled the sweetness of the multi-floral honey contained within the jar. Labels are usually minimalist black and white. Containers are glass and unique in shape, particularly as honey containers...no plastic honey bears here! Through a juried procedure, Ballard Bee Company honey jars were recently included in Boxed and Labelled Two!: New Approaches to Packaging Design, a large format book coffee table book highlighting some of the world’s most innovative and beautiful packaging.
Corky has become a bit of a “go-to” guy when it comes to all things bees in the Seattle area. His hives were used by the local zoo on family day for a live demonstration on the topic of “living safely with wildlife”. A crowd was delighted as they watched the zoo’s resident grizzly bears dismantle one of his beehives. One local talk radio personality, a beekeeper himself who had never been stung by a bee, enlisted Corky’s help for a call-in broadcast on beekeeping. He even had Corky orchestrate his first ever bee sting, broadcast live and on the air!
Next month we’ll discuss other aspects of Corky Luster’s bee business, including educational outreach, managing and marketing to the growing number of urban beekeepers, staying focused on his business’ original mission while looking to the steps Ballard Bee Company will take in the future.