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Brent Wesley stands outside of Middlebury Apiary in November with a Masonite hardboard, a few nails and a hammer. Behind him industry workers and business professionals zoom down Akron’s East Market Street, punching out in praise of the weekend. A few weeks have passed since his last hive inspection, and as beekeeper and owner of the property, Wesley needs to tend to his honeybees and repair maintenance around the yard. 

“When you get inside, nature begins and the city stops,” Wesley says, unlocking the door of a wooden fence. “For me, this is paradise.” 

Inside the gates lay a 40,000-square-foot patch of tall grass and a half-dozen honeybee hives stacked on makeshift cinder blocks and wooden planks. While most of his hives have become vacant over the last few years as bees migrate to new shelters, one remains active with nearly 30,000 bees huddled around a single queen to keep warm. With winter approaching, they’re reaping the benefits after a long year of labor, feasting off the excess nectar stored for the long cold months ahead.

“It’s how they survive during the winter. It’s why you don’t want to take too much [honey],” Wesley says. “It’s going to be quiet, but if there’s anything we can learn from bees it’s that our survival depends on family and that need of nurturing a community.”

A few worker bees rotate shifts, buzzing in and out of the crates to circulate heat. Wesley takes the board and slides it through the bottom of the stack to help limit cold drafts.

“When it’s swarm season, like in the spring and summer, you want to keep an eye on them every several days,” Wesley says, peering into the tower. “I try to condense them all in one [hive] around this time of year since they’re dormant and resting.”

Wesley started beekeeping in 2013 as a way to flesh out his growing curiosity around agriculture and opportunity. He then expanded that hobby into Akron Honey by building three apiaries across Akron over the last seven years and doling out a number of honey-related products at local farmers markets. In total, he’s harvested more than 3,320 pounds of honey and has sold nearly 1,090 pounds of honey to consumers nationwide. 

His dedication to the craft even garnered him a spot on Cleveland Hustles, a reality competition show produced by LeBron James and Maverick Carter in 2016. Even though he won the shot to open his own storefront with the help of an investor, he turned it down to remain close to home. It wasn’t until this past summer at the height of the pandemic that Wesley fully invested everything he had into his beekeeping business. 

Two years ago, Wesley’s paradise was in his music. Since 2015, he had been the frontman for Wesley Bright & the Honeytones, formerly known as Wesley Bright & the Hi-Lites, and he crooned on stages across the East Coast and Midwest. Performing offered moments of temporary respite after working for 14 years as a sales manager for Verizon Wireless and putting in nearly 50 hours of work a week to support his wife and five kids.

“It’s hard for me to look back and think I was going that hard,” Wesley says. “I was beginning to miss a lot at home when I was away.”

After taking a step back from music in 2019, he began pouring more of his energy into Akron Honey. And when confronted with the pandemic, everything slowed down even more when he started working from home in March. That time spent close to his family changed his perception about his dreams for opportunity, and in September, he quit his salary job to expand his honey business full-time. Although the decision puts his financial stability at risk, Wesley is trying to turn Akron Honey into a long-lasting brand with the help of his family and a little bit of faith.

“I want Akron Honey to be the iPhone of honey,” Wesley says. “I want to create a vibe that’s irreplaceable, that you can’t mimic or hack.”

From a young age, Wesley recognized the immediate comfort in food and familial connection. Seated at the kitchen table with his grandmother, Louise Williams, he bore witness to her stories of life in Barnesville, Georgia. Williams’ father, Bill, Wesley’s great-grandfather, once bought an acre of land in the early 1900s and built a farm. That small plot eventually grew to roughly 300 acres where Wesley’s grandmother and her nine sisters worked the fields raising hogs and chickens. Williams shared the delight of growing soybeans, cotton and pecans in the Southern soil. A decade later, her family moved north to Cleveland in 1950 to pursue a better life.

“Every time she told a story, it made you see what she and her siblings saw and what they felt living down there,” Wesley says. “It is fascinating that a Black man was able to do that back then in the Deep South with overt racism and everything.”

Born on the East Side, Wesley grew up near East 93rd Street and Gaylord Avenue with his mother, father and brother. In between his grandmother’s tales, Wesley helped her and the matriarchs of his family cook meals, such as fried chicken and collard greens, and sell them to community groups, churches and neighborhoods across the city. 

“My grandmother and her sisters were Black women in the community who got by using their hands through cooking, not office work,” Wesley says. “It was all blue-collar hustle. Food was a passion for them, that spirit of lifting as you climb.”

Wesley’s grandparents encouraged his father to move to Aurora in the mid-’80s to expose Wesley and his brother to the land and resources of the suburbs. After graduating high school, Wesley majored in business management at Kent State University and graduated in 2004. While working as an aerobics teacher, he met his wife, Rebecca.

Life just swept them up. The two married in 2004 and moved to Akron where Wesley started working as a Target store assistant manager and Rebecca worked as a schoolteacher for Discovery Montessori School in Fairlawn. In 2007, they had their first daughter, Bella, and Wesley began working at Verizon Wireless, climbing up the retail corporate ladder from sales representative to general manager. His second daughter, Caedance, was born in 2011 and Wesley began pursuing other fields he was passionate about, forming Wesley Bright & the Hi-Lites.

“I was just trying to stay busy and be productive,” Wesley says. “I had these jobs and these hustles to make money for us, but music was always the one thing that made my heart and soul tick.”

No matter how hard he worked, though, Wesley was always drawn back to his roots of food, family and community. In 2012, while driving through his neighborhood in West Akron, he caught sight of a blighted, vacant lot on Jefferson Avenue and considered repurposing it as an urban farm or community garden. Months later, while on a trip with his wife to Amish country, the Wesleys got their first taste of homegrown honey, a raw, sweet syrup on tap that opened Wesley’s eyes to what was possible with acquiring land.

“I feel like it was just God’s doing,” Rebecca says. “Turning that land into beehives wasn’t even on his radar. It kind of just occurred to him and things began to snowball from there.”

That spring, Wesley purchased the plot on Jefferson Avenue for $2,200 and began building a fence. The following summer of 2013, Wesley picked up his first two hives from a beekeeper in Brimfield, Ohio, and drove them back to the lot.

“I’ve always had a bug to build and own my own stuff and to create things out of it,” Wesley says. “It was fresh, cool and fun. I didn’t know what I was doing and neither did anyone else.” 

Neighbors were anxious to know what was happening behind the large fence with some unsettled by the potential swarming of bees. Understanding their concern, Wesley assured them of how resourceful and selfless bees could be for their gardens and urban environment. Spending most of his days off in the apiary with daughters in tow, his worldview changed.

“If a bee is sick or too weak, another honeybee will get on top of them and fly them away, so they don’t hurt the other workers in the colony,” says Wesley. “People are afraid of what they don’t know but by watching them, you learn how programmed and dedicated they are to one another.”

Wesley learned that, according to the American Beekeeping Federation, more than 90% of the food Americans eat is directly derived from bee pollination. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. bee colonies travel the country each year pollinating vegetables and fruit such as apples, broccoli, nuts, berries and other flowering plants to keep garden and insect life productive.

Knowing that his first harvest of honey was meant to be left in the hives to sustain the first colonies, Wesley waited until the end of 2013 to pull his first product. Donning a ventilated beekeeping suit and gloves, he grabbed his smoker and walked a block to the apiary to collect a few hive frames. After carrying them back to his garage, he used an extractor tool to sample a small dose of honey.

“It was sweet and salty, a taste I had never imagined,” says Wesley. “I knew if I liked it, others may want in on it too.”

In a matter of weeks, Akron Honey took off as he began selling small micro batches of urban honey from his West Akron apiary, setting up shop at a few local markets in the area. Fixed on the idea of flavor, Wesley started studying the floral imprint around the city. He noted the unique diversity in blossoming flowers as bees foraged and produced different flavors of honey during the seasons. When the bees gravitated toward plants such as goldenrods and black locusts, the honey had a strong smell and tangier flavor between July and September. Mint produced a reddish, amber color during harvest months. Knowing this could make Wesley stand out from other honey competitors, he purchased a second lot in December 2014 on the other side of the city in the Middlebury Neighborhood.

“That moment really started me on this quest for new flavors, almost like you’re a pioneer in the 1600s and you’ve found some land or made a remarkable discovery and you just can’t rest until you prove that right or wrong,” says Wesley.

Located near the Cuyahoga River not far from a large ecosystem of flowers such as Japanese knotweed and white Dutch clovers, those hives produced darker and richer honey flavors, especially in the fall. When extracting honey from the combs, he didn’t strain, filter or mix it with other batches. The result was Middlebury Red, his signature honey known for its natural savory caramel flavor and crimson color.

“I wanted to collect a point in time and allow people to experience that flavor,” Wesley says. “We started with this approach on how our honey could possibly blow the minds of our consumers. It became this pivotal thing for us and how we stood as a company.”

Over the last four years, with the help of creative director Vanessa Michelle and her team, Wesley rebranded Akron Honey with the goal of building a flavor empire.

“Akron Honey is really about possibility and the fullness of life and family and community and how the company is so engaged with all of that,” Michelle says. “Wesley’s journey as an urban beekeeper always goes back to those things.”

Inspired by how customers were utilizing his urban honey in a variety of dishes such as fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, honey sweet potato pie and honey buckwheat pancakes, Wesley’s team started churning out recipes online.

“The goal is to get customers to see more value out of what is possible with his honey,” says Michelle. 

Wesley’s wife and daughters have also chipped in. Bella and Caedance help with production by pouring honey into jars, refilling and restocking shelves and stamping and placing labels on all of the packages. With their three-year old brother Sam, and their newborn twin siblings, Kassian and Loukah, it has been hard for Rebecca to help but she insists whenever possible.

“When I put them down for naps, I try to sneak away and help organize and restock all of his jars on the shelves in the setup he has in the basement,” says Rebecca. “It sounds silly, but it’s really fun and a break for me from the kids.”

The focus on Akron Honey has helped Wesley carve out space for his kids’ involvement. Bella, who dreams of being an actress, helps produce video content for the business. While Caedance has a passion for engineering, both girls are interested in beekeeping.

“In another year or so, that is when things will really be cooking for us,” Wesley says. “It will truly start feeling like a family business. But, right now, for the moment anyway, there’s a lot of building.”

The foundation for Akron Honey’s future was laid last July, when Verizon Wireless announced their company would be restructured and Wesley’s store would close. His job could have been spared if he had chosen to transfer to another location, but after working from home since March, he had gotten a taste of what it was like to be closer to his family. So, after talking with his wife, he decided to leave the corporate world behind in September in pursuit of running Akron Honey full time. The decision had not been made lightly, as they knew groceries, diapers and insurance adds up quickly. Even with Wesley’s severance and their combined savings, money would be tight, but Rebecca caught a noticeable change in Wesley’s energy.

“Seeing him struggle with Verizon over the years, it totally drained the life out of him physically and mentally,” Rebecca says. “I was just really happy he found something he was passionate about and followed his dreams.” 

They’ve since begun to test new recipes such as organic lemonade, replacing sugar with urban honey. With one apiary only a block away, Wesley is soaking in a new, sweet life, working to improve his organization and financial acumen in the hopes investors or new partnerships emerge.

“I sit back from time to time and think about what I can do to continue this,” Wesley says. “I am willing to do anything to make this company successful. I am willing to make any change or adjustment within myself, to make this our new reality forever. I know it can happen. It’s already happening.”

Days before Thanksgiving, Wesley is striving to keep spirits high. Rebecca and Wesley had been discussing their enthusiasm to have a big home-cooked dinner and time away from work. But honey orders are backlogged, packages aren’t shipping on time from the post office and the relaunch of the new website and online sales have preoccupied his time. His expectations are high heading into the fourth quarter of 2020, and he is unsure if he is able to meet them. 

For now, Wesley is in the kitchen at the Spotted Owl bar in Akron checking the temperature on the stove. It’s a few minutes before their scheduled live Leftovers Cooking show, a new collaboration with I Made It Market, Cleveland Bazaar and Crafty Mart to support small businesses, craft artisans and vendors during the holiday season. Just a few minutes into the live show, he goes off script and introduces himself under a new moniker. 

“Hey everybody, my name is Wesley The Keeper with Akron Honey,” Wesley says into the laptop screen. “We make honey with such a mind-blowing flavor that you can use it with anything. And that’s what we’re doing today.”   

Nearly 3,200 viewers tune in for the 30-minute broadcast, in which Wesley uses three new honey flavors to showcase his family’s recipes and illustrate how Akron Honey could enhance holiday dinners. He uses his Habanero Hot Honey for turkey tacos, makes a fried ham sandwich with his Bourbon Barrel Honey created with Cleveland Whiskey and a special, “Akron Honey Sauce,” a mustard dipping sauce mixed with his Raw Ohio Wildflower Honey.

Although Wesley is jovial, he yearns to get to the heart of today’s broadcast.

“This year, 2020 hasn’t hit everyone in the same way,” Wesley says. “A lot of us are small business owners and every time you turn on the news you see another business you love and cherish closing. People are trying to figure out ways to support small businesses and this is the perfect opportunity to do that.”

Wesley sees this as the first entry into a more media-driven enterprise leading into 2021. He envisions creating buzz around a cooking show that merges his love for food and music with the Honeytones making an occasional appearance. He dreams of housing production and distribution in one central location, and even considers expanding to use his great grandfather’s land down South to experiment with new and exciting flavors.

In March, he’ll bring Caedance to the yard to teach her beekeeping. Over the coming months, they’ll even experiment with vanilla beans, an idea from Rebecca and Bella, who considered developing new honey flavors with a simpler profile. With as much uncertainty ahead of them, Wesley holds tight to one truth as he looks to the future.

“My family is bigger than this brand, this honey,” he says. “If there’s anything more relevant right now that we can learn from bees, it’s selflessness. They submit to this idea that a colony is as strong as the weakest honeybee. That together as a unit they thrive. It’s how they shape the planet we live on. The bees do it, so why can’t we?”

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