What’s the difference between Sourwood and Dark Wildflower honey?
Standing behind an artfully arranged display of honey jars, she cheerfully explains the flavors to a customer, offering a quick lesson on natural beekeeping in the process.
When she’s not there, she’s picking up raw honey in East Tennessee, whipping up a batch of flavor-infused creamed honey at Tinwings, or meeting with a chef who’s heard raves about her products and want to see what the fuss is all about.
Always moving, always busy, always thinking of the next step, Hagen is both queen bee and worker bee at her company. Her calm but authoritative presence is key to making the business grow, her industriousness the reason she has a viable product in the first place.
“In the last year, the business has really taken off,” she says proudly.
Yet, just five years ago she was nearly homeless.
Learning about bees
Long before she knew anything about bees and the finer points of honey production, Hagen lived the kind of life that others envy with her husband in a beautiful home in West Nashville.
She had a solid reputation as a high-end jewelry designer, and also ran a small software firm. She was active in local politics and community gatherings. And then, suddenly, it was all gone.
“I didn’t just fall,” she says. “I plummeted.”
The economy hit her business hard. An abrupt end to her marriage and then the death of her mother left Hagen alone, broke and wondering how to remake her life.
“I did what I always do when things are not quite right,” she recalls. “I did yoga. I worked out. I walked my dog. And I studied.”
“The starting point for what I do now was a weekend spent watching Netflix films about bees.”
“I hadn’t realized before that bees were so endangered, but I knew that I was capable. Growing up with horses had taught me the calmness needed for working with bees.”
The bigger question was whether she could find a way to make a living while working to save them.
There were some false starts. Her original plan involved leasing bee hives to city residents for their back yards; that was short-lived. And then she began selling honey at the farmers’ market. Realizing she needed something more, she tried to find a niche to fill. Nobody was selling creamed honey, so she began experimenting.
Hagen debuted her creamed honey at a bee conservation presentation for the Nashville Association of Women Business Owners, and they invited her back to their holiday event.
“I sold $400 of creamed honey in 40 minutes,” she recalls triumphantly, “and I knew I had a product.”
Creamed honey, popular in Europe, is not seen as often in the states. It’s a process of controlling crystallization so that the honey transforms into a smooth spread.
Hagen infuses hers with flavors like ginger or cinnamon. She knew that she had to produce a good product consistently if she wanted her business to succeed, and it took about six months to get the process down pat before she added the creamed honeys to her table at the Richland Park Farmers Market.
Then somebody introduced her to raw Sourwood honey from the Strange Honey Farm in Del Rio, Tennessee. Hagen knew she’d found the perfect base for her product, and a partnership was born.
“I’d been using clover honey, but the Sourwood nailed it,” she says. “It took the flavors best and creamed best. It was just the right match.”
The Strange family are natural beekeepers, meaning they don’t use any chemicals in their hives and they don’t feed their bees sugar water. They also crossbreed their queens for disease resistances and they’re located in a pristine area where they have spring-to-fall nectar and pollen.
She began selling their honey at the market along with her creamed honey. Their natural beekeeping aligned with her dedication to bee conservation education, and fit in with the Nashville Farmers Market new mission to promote local foods.
Hagen was proud of the creamed honey. It was made and packaged in an eco-friendly way, and it tasted amazingly good. She was ready to grow the company.
Chefs discover a new ingredient
Hagen had run businesses before and knew how to market and sell a product. The Farmers Market gave her a solid foothold to spring from, and she was building a loyal customer base, but she needed a catalyst to make the next leap.
With the restaurant boom in Nashville and the farm-to-table movement, Hagen started becoming a go-to for creative kitchens in town. In October, she spoke to the Nashville Chefs Association and she hired Shelby Lowrie, who used to cook at Marché Artisan Foods, to create dishes with different types of honey, demonstrating the unique flavor of each.
Now, Hagen’s products add depth and deliciousness to all sorts of dishes at numerous local eateries, including Table 3 and Kitchen Notes at the Omni.
They also shows up in some small batch beers from Corsair Distillery and Tennessee Brew Works.
“I was never a foodie before,” Hagen says. “I was an artist who would just grab something to eat on my way to the studio. But I’m now fascinated by all the things you can do with honey and the creative dishes that can be made with it.”
Still here, with friends
The remarkable journey of the past five years reflects Hagen’s determination, talents and persistence. But she’s quick to point out the importance of the warm embrace she received from her fellow vendors and customers at the Farmers Market.
Hagen is quick to return that positivity to the market and the world, often stopping to listen to a customer who needs a friendly ear as they chat about their day. After all, that personal connection is why they’re both there.
“The Farmers Market can often be a stepping stone for people who are starting out, before going on to the next business model,” she says, “but I intend to stay there, connecting with people and the community.”