Bessie Zeller didnt start making her unique honey-based candy with the intent of turning it into a family business. Instead, she was just following a doctors orders.
Zeller began creating the candy in her Lovell, Wyo. (pop. 2,367), home more than 50 years ago after an optometrist advised her that her son Mitchels vision would improve if sugar were eliminated from his diet. Looking for a sugar replacement, she turned to honey, which was in abundant supply because of her husband Clarences occupation as a beekeeper.
“So, I started creating all my own recipes and did all my cooking, canning and baking with honey,” says Bessie, 79. “One year later, he didnt need glasses.”
The doctor never gave the family a diagnosis for Mitchels condition, and Bessie says she has never heard that advice given since.
In 1976, Bessie put her honey-based recipes to use when she and Clarence, 80, started a candy company as a way to employ their sons, Gene, Von and Mitchel.
“We started because our boys wanted to stay here and make a living,” she says. “They wanted to go into the bee business with their dad, but there wasnt enough income.”
Today, Gene and Von still work for Queen Bee Gardens and serve as co-owners along with Clarence. The couple also has three daughters, Sidney, JoAnn and Annella.
“Everybody told us it couldnt be done,” says Bessie of starting the company. “We didnt know anything about shelf life (how long a product can remain in the store) or marketing, but Clarence insisted we could do it.” For example, most sugar-based truffles have a 30-day shelf life, but since honey is a natural preservative, Queen Bee candies and truffles have a 90-day shelf life.
The first candy made for sale was vanilla-flavored honey taffy, but when the Zellers discovered that its shelf life was too short, they developed a praline called Pecan Pearl, which is still their top seller.
“Weve added a lot of candies since we started,” Bessie says. “We have about 10 different varieties of pralines. We also make Honeymoons, which are like Turtles, as well as truffles, English toffee, Bark and Haystacks.”
The low-sugar and no-sugar candies, initially sold only at a handful of health food stores, are now available in more than 800 stores in all 50 states.
Of course, it hasnt always been smooth sailing for the Zellers. In 1993, the company nearly went out of business when a fire destroyed their factory.
“Everything was gone,” Clarence says. Luckily, fellow Lovell residents came to their rescue. They helped haul off debris and pour a concrete floor for a new honey house. Neighbor Scott Caturia, a local Mormon leader, called other congregations throughout the county to enlist aid for the Zellers, who also are Mormons.
“Everybody just kind of pitched in,” Caturia says. “When you put it all together, it got them back on their feet and got them started.”
Queen Bee Gardens moved its base of operation to a former Safeway store in downtown Lovell, and within 30 days of the fire, the business was up and running again.
“It was just thrilling to think that people were so kind and loving and helpful. It was heartwarming,” Bessie says.
Today, the company has fully recovered and become a full-fledged family affair. “A lot of the family is involved,” Bessie says. “Theres my husband and me, Von and Gene, their wives, and our daughter, Sidney, and her husband, Laurence. We also have two grandsons who are working with us, Ben and Jason.”
Outside of family, the company employs four full-time workers and a host of part-time helpers, who help produce more than 200,000 pounds of candy each year.
Looking back over the companys history, Bessie is more than a little surprised at how the company literally sprang from following a doctors orders. “Sometimes,” she says, “it just amazes me.”
For more information on Queen Bee Gardens, call (800) 225-7553 or log on to www.queenbeegardens.com.