For Zeke Freeman, growing a company is about a lot more than buzz.
Influenced by his rural upbringing, French culinary training and time in the specialty food industry, the onetime chef became deeply interested in single-source honey. That passion inspired him to found, Bee Raw, with products endorsed by everyone from Oprah to The New York Times.
Today, the company offers unprocessed honey, of course, as well as high-quality beeswax home and body products, but it also celebrates a more nature-connected lifestyle. Freeman is a spokesperson and supporter of American family-owned apiaries and helps educate the public about the agricultural importance of beekeeping. (Honeybees help create up to one third of the nation’s food supply through pollination!) That’s where the Save The Bees Fund comes in, with a mission to help save endangered bees and promote sustainability.
Here, Freeman explains why what tastes good can also be good for you and the planet:
Live The Process: How did your upbringing inform your interest in artisanal food production?
Zeke Freeman: I grew up on my family’s farm in rural Pennsylvania, where first my grandfather, then my mom and now my kids are growing up. Out there, I was able to experience the true freshness of ingredients. I would be in the field at 6am to harvest, and I didn’t know if I was covered in sweat or dew. But, when I took a bite of corn right from the stalk or ate green beans that would snap in my hand, there was nothing else like it. I feel really fortunate to have that experience as a foundation—to understand concretely where food comes from, how it’s grown and how much labor goes into making it all happen. It made me conscious of the origin and environmental impact of each ingredient.
LTP: How did your culinary industry experiences impact your perspective and prepare you for starting Bee Raw?
ZF: I always had restaurant jobs growing up—bussing tables, doing food prep, as a waiter, you name it. So, I knew and liked the restaurant vibe. In college, I started off in business and quickly transitioned to the “Food Service Management” school. I felt that, if I went into business, it would probably be the restaurant business and having that specialization would be ideal. Once there, I quickly fell for the kitchen and cooking. I really like the creativity and love feeding people.
While I was exploring my next step, I visited a family friend who was a French chef. When I told him my plan, he said, “I think you’re f—ing crazy. But, if you want to be a chef, you need to go to France. My brother is the director of the Hotel School of Grenoble. Go there, stay in my house, learn French, eat wonderful foie gras and truffles and learn to cook.” So, that’s exactly what I did. I traveled to France and studied the culinary arts at the Hotel School of Grenoble.
I spent the next two years traveling around France, working in kitchens and meeting farmers, artisans, winemakers and beekeepers—really taking in a whole different level of connection with the earth and with cuisine. I eventually had the chance to work with Alain Ducasse at Louis XV in Monaco. It was there that I really began to connect my rural Pennsylvania family farm background—and the fresh vegetables I tasted during those 6am harvests—with cuisine and what is on our plates. But it was also the smaller things I hadn’t thought about: four different types of olive oil pressed by local farms, half a dozen types of regional vinegars, wild greens foraged from the Mediterranean coast—the list goes on. I realized how disconnected most of us are from ingredients. We spend our lives eating food, but we don’t spend time understanding where it comes from.
LTP: How and when were you inspired to start Bee Raw?
ZF: After a while, I left cooking and started working at Dean & Deluca. My passion for raw, specialty ingredients grew there. I spent time choosing olive oils and vinegars for the store, but really fell in love with raw honey—specifically single floral sourced honey. The unique qualities of raw, single varietal honey can be compared to wine or coffee in its vast array of flavors, scents and colors. I knew I had to pursue this fascination with the product, so, 15 years ago, I left and started Bee Raw. One of the first things I did was travel throughout the country to meet the beekeepers who I had connected with during my time at D&D. I listened to their stories, wants and needs and, as a result, became a part of this really close-knit community.
LTP: Why are bees so important and so vulnerable? What is the least understood element of this?
ZF: Bees are responsible for one in every three bites of food that we eat, so they are very important to our food system. Imagine a world without broccoli, strawberries or avocados!
There are massive declines in the bee population year after year. In 2005, we saw one of the biggest die-off events and that is when the term “Colony Collapse Disorder” was termed. CCD was a perfect storm caused by a variety of circumstances. Pesticides and mites are the more commonly known causes, but the mono-crop agricultural industry played a large part too.
The honey market in the US is flooded with imported honey from China, Brazil and India. Because of this, the price of honey is artificially low, which puts a financial strain on beekeepers who have spent their lives in the honey business. Beekeepers are then forced to find other means of income. They rent their hives to mono-crop producers (like almond farmers), who are only interested in pollination and max yield and will pay a high price for rented bees. Hives are driven across the country to these mono-crop fields and, along the way, the bees are fed sugar water to sustain the hives. The fields that they are brought to are tilled of any natural flora because these mono-crop producers don’t want anything to compete with what they are growing. The bees often have to wait for the flowers of the mono-crops to bloom, so they are fed sugar water again since there is no natural food source. Once the flowers bloom, the bees are released into the field, but there are usually three to four times as many bees as there are mono-crop flowers to ensure that every flower is pollinated for the highest yield possible. The bees are again fed sugar water to supplement the lack of natural nectar; and they are used like this repeatedly, causing them to be malnourished, immunosuppressed and susceptible to illness.
Beekeepers get swept up in this vicious cycle. Bee Raw is working to remove them from this cycle entirely, so that they can be a part of the honey business—not the pollination business. While working closely with farmers to support heritage beekeeping, we also created the Bee Raw Save the Bees Fund, which supports organizations that are doing important research on pollinator health and Colony Collapse Disorder.
LTP: What does happiness look like to you?
ZF: Happiness is me, barefoot in the garden, hands covered in soil, and a garden full of growth and potential. Really, nurturing growth is what makes me happy—whether it’s my garden, business children, or relationship with my wife.
LTP: What does it mean to you to “Live The Process” and how can we all do that more each day?
ZF: Bee Raw isn’t just a name, it’s a statement, a mantra, a credo. I work very hard at being raw. I keep a clean diet and am constantly working towards a healthier mind, body and environment. It’s funny—I see people covering their grass with chemicals to get rid of weeds, so that their lawn is bright and green with no imperfections. And I wonder, who doesn’t want wildflowers at their feet?
To live the Bee Raw process, it’s important that we all start to appreciate the imperfections of nature and each other. I am working to share a lifestyle rooted in nature with small, self-care moments that can positively nourish the planet and its inhabitants.
Photo by Simon Kaempfer.