Fact: There are more beekeepers in North Carolina than any other state. So when it comes to local honey, there’s no shortage of jars to choose from at the farmers market in any given region, especially in the summertime. But have you ever heard of Arbol pepper-infused honey, or bourbon-infused honey? What about whipped honey with pumpkin spice? At Cloister Honey in Charlotte, you can find all these flavors — and more.
Cloister Honey is taking the Charlotte area, and beyond, by swarm, err, storm. Not only do they offer uniquely flavored spreads (their salted honey won first place in the Food & Drink category of the Made in NC Awards), they are also working with commercial properties throughout the city to grow their hives and increase honey production, including the roof of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in downtown Charlotte.
To learn a little bit about the brains of the operation, continue on for Our State’s interview with Cloister Honey’s co-founder Joanne de la Rionda. Discover for yourself what all of the buzz is about.
OS: What inspired you to start Cloister Honey?
De la Rionda: About eight years ago, my husband and I both had traditional jobs, and for Christmas I bought him a hive to keep bees. To be honest, I had run out of things to buy him, and he needed a good hobby because he worked so hard and he loves to be outdoors. And we didn’t know anything about bees. We thought that if we had a hive, bees would come — but it doesn’t work that way. Luckily, Mecklenburg County has a beekeeping class every January, so it was perfect timing. He learned how to raise and manage honeybees, and he became pretty good at it, so we started growing the hives. We went from one to three to seven to nine, and at that point we were just giving honey away to neighbors and friends. Then we had a neighbor ask if she could buy 42 jars over Christmas one year, and we thought to ourselves, Wow! We could sell this. So we got our business license to sell at the local farmers market in January 2010, and shortly after we created our website.
OS: You have beehives all over Charlotte. Is there a reason why they are spread out as opposed to all being in the same place?
De la Rionda: When we first started, all of our hives were at our house, and we live in a traditional neighborhood in Charlotte. At that point we had up to 10 hives, and they were manageable, and our neighbors didn’t mind it at all. But we knew that we were running out of space, so we had a conversation with the Ritz Carlton in Charlotte, which is how it all started. We had to think about how we could manage the hives in a different location, and especially at the Ritz. How do you do [maintain hives] from 19 floor above? It’s not so much about whether the bees can find something to eat, because bees can travel up to 10 miles in any direction; the issue was more about the wind speed and velocity on top of the roof, which tends to be much greater. So we started managing those, and then we had other folks come to us asking if we could put a hive in their backyards. Now we have them in different locations, but they are more commercial than residential.
OS: When it comes to your different products, what inspired you to start making flavored honey, such as your award-winning Salted Honey?
De la Rionda: When we first started, we were doing farmers markets, and while the wildflower honey from our backyard was delicious, really every beekeeper in Mecklenburg County raises really good honey. Competition-wise, come harvest time in June, there was a lot of honey on the market. So we started to think about how we could set ourselves apart from [those who produce] regular, wildflower honey. We came up with cinnamon-whipped honey, and then I had the idea to do Arbol pepper honey. I wanted to find a pepper that you could taste the spiciness, but it didn’t overpower the deliciousness of the wildflower. I’m in no way a chef, but I really like to try different flavors and come up with something unusual.
OS: In addition to the actual honey itself, do you try to use other local ingredients in your flavored honey?
De la Rionda: They are not always “local,” but we do get them from reputable sources. For example, I purchase some of my spices from Savory Spice Shop, which is a national chain but we buy only from their Charlotte shop. Although we can’t source everything completely locally, such as our peppers and lavender, all of our ingredients are natural, and there’s no artificial flavoring.
OS: What hopes do you have for Cloister Honey’s future?
De la Rionda: We believe in a grassroots effort. We don’t spend a lot of money on advertising; we really try to get our name out there and have people enjoy it because of the great flavors. Because of that, we might be on a slower trajectory than other companies with big investors. We’re doing this slowly, so we have a great foundation that can survive. Every year we have increased our sales and beat our sales goal, so I see us continuing this way for the next two to three years, bringing out more product, and then just trying to continue to expand past the Southeast. Right now we’re moving toward Middle America, but we’re not doing any exporting. We’re focusing on keeping it regional and then moving it across the United States.
OS: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about your or your company?
De la Rionda: There’s a feeling, especially when it comes to honey, that you have to buy local. I think we should try to move past [the refrain that] “It’s got to be local” [and focus on] buying from small businesses. So, buy honey. Don’t worry if it’s local; just buy delicious honey. If you like sourwood from the mountains or Palmetto from the beach, but you live in the Piedmont, don’t worry about it. It’s delicious, and it’s good for you.