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'We can lift up as we climb': Akron Honey expands its business and engagement with community

Brent Wesley, founder and owner of Akron Honey, stands outside the Wesley Family Apiary and Microfarm, where his company sources its urban honey line.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Brent Wesley — known as Wesley the Keeper — is founder and owner of Akron Honey. The company is opening its first production room in Highland Square not far from its original apiary and micro farm.

It doesn’t take a lot of space to have a big impact on your community. That’s the ethos of Akron Honey, a small business started in a vacant lot that’s been producing honey in the city since 2013. Last month, they made a significant investment in their hometown.

“Hibiscus flowers inside filter bags, and we just submerge them," Brent Wesley said, standing over a large container of honey. "You just got to agitate it every day for four days, so it’s a pretty quick turnaround,

Brent is the founder and owner of Akron Honey, but everyone calls him Wesley the Keeper. He moved filter bags around in a large container of honey with a huge potato masher, and the sweet scent of honey filled the room.

“So how we make our flavors, it’s a lot of integrity and quality in how we make our flavors," Wesley said. "We’re not ever like adding flavor. We create flavor by marrying two different things together.”

Akron Honey just opened its first production room in Highland Square. It’s just across the street from the original apiary and micro farm where Wesley keeps bees, which is also down the street from where he and his family live.

“But our old space was about from here to there, like it’s really small, and we made it work," Wesley said. "Since then, a year and a half ago, we got into Market District, Giant Eagle, Heinen’s, all of them. Whole Foods, here and in Louisville, Kentucky, Mustard Seed, all of them from a small space. You don’t need a lot of space.”

Wesley was featured in 2016 on the show "Cleveland Hustles," which is like a local version of the popular show "Shark Tank." He was offered a large investment to open a storefront in Gordon Square, but he turned the money down.

“I feel like Akron’s the city that made us famous," Wesley said. "Akron’s the thing, and one of the stipulations is if we did the investment, took the 200,000, we’d have to go up to Cleveland.”

Six years later, Wesley doesn’t regret that choice at all. And he’s still looking for ways to bring the community up with him as he expands his brand.

“We’re here," Wesley said. "We’re Akronites.”

Being grounded in the community is one of the reasons Wesley thinks the business has been so successful. He centers most of his decisions on his consumers, whom he calls "Honey Loves."

“They’re like, ‘Hey, you’re Akron Honey! And they say, ‘Oh I love that bourbon barrel!'" Wesley said. "Don’t just say, ‘Oh, thank you’ and keep it moving. We say, ‘Thanks! How do you use it?’ ‘Thanks! What else do you want to see us make?’ ‘Thanks! What do you want us to do more on socials? What do you want more of?’”

Wesley went all in on Akron Honey last year. His mindset was to not be concerned about challenges created by the pandemic.

"Although we started with one vacant lot, you don't need a lot in order to make a big impact in your community."

“If our sales aren’t what they should be in my mind, it’s not because of the pandemic," Wesley said. "It’s because I need to do some things differently. We need to do something differently.”

To his surprise, going full time into the business even during the pandemic is what has caused the biggest growth. Last year, Akron Honey made 10 times more than their biggest year when Wesley was part time.

“I didn’t realize that when I did went full time it popped," Wesley said. "It like blew up. It really did.”

The new production room is what Wesley calls phase one of the brand’s expansion. Phase two will be branching out into the food space.

“The outcome I’d like for this space is solidifying the brand locally here, food, aligning it more closely, then coming out with a couple, few food items," Wesley said.

And that goes into what businesses Akron Honey partners with. For example, Wesley said he isn't aiming to get his product on the shelves of Walmart.

"It's a part of the strategy, just really be associated and aligned with really good food experience. Not even just, 'Here's some recipes' but food experience. What's the feeling you get when you see Akron Honey?" Wesley said. "I can control it when it's face to face, but our food partners, they got to have great experiences. And that's kind of what we look for when we look to partner with any food brand."

With the new production space so close, Wesley can harvest the honey from the apiary and walk it a few feet to be produced. On the way, he stopped at the house next door to drop honey samples off and invited them to tour the apiary.

"Doing little stuff like that matters to people," Wesley said. "That's the experience. That's the thing you can't replicate so like lean into that."

At the gate of the apiary, Wesley pointed up to the tree line, where bees flew to and from the hives.

"You know how you look here, and the cars are going down the street. And there's a truck coming up. People are going where they need to go from the road," Wesley said. "If you look up, that's where the honey bee's road is. You see them coming? Coming and going? That's their highway."

The micro farm, the apiary, the production space, the food pairings, they’re all part of a unique experience Wesley is trying to curate in Akron, one that he says won’t be available anywhere else in the country.

“That’s what I’m saying, we can make a multimillion-dollar brand from right here and lift up as we climb," Wesley said.

Wesley envisions his space in Highland Square as not only a hub for food experience but also a way to lift up the community through education and engagement.

He feels responsible not only to educate kids about food and nutrition but also to be a role model for Black children in the community.

“You know when I think of today, it’s important for kids to see other people doing really awesome stuff who look like them, not so that they can just be that thing but so they can shoot their shot," Wesley said. "If you don’t know there’s a shot to take, you’re not going to take it.”

Wesley has partnered with local schools for years to talk to kids about honey.

"Us showing that with them and sharing that with them, it's almost like it's a responsibility of ours," Wesley said, "but it helps them make better decisions."

Wesley also hopes to use his role in the community to bridge racial gaps and tell Black stories, especially to his mostly white customer base.

"By me sharing my experience, since they love who we are, and they love who I am, they're more receptive to it," Wesley said. "Most of our stories aren't told to white folks. It's told to other Black people. I see how a lot of white people shudder when we talk about anything having to do with ourselves. A lot of times they say, 'You're talking about race," and no, I'm just talking about my experience."

With a little bit of space, Wesley the Keeper has big dreams.

"Although we started with one vacant lot, you don't need a lot in order to make a big impact in your community," Wesley said.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.