Tom Ptacek with sons Noah (right) and Luca with two of their four beehives. (Photo: Tom Oder)
Tom Ptacek takes the saying “like father like son” seriously.
Just as his father taught him and his brothers about beekeeping when he was growing up, he’s teaching his sons the same skills. He’s also teaching them something else his dad taught him — how to turn a hobby into a business.
Ptacek grew up in Marshfield, Wis., a little town in the middle of the state. His father kept the hives some miles away in a rural area, and the brothers sold their honey at grocery near their home. The business came to an abrupt end when bee rustlers made off with the hives.
A much brighter future seems to be in store for the business that Ptacek, a single dad who is a senior compliance manager at Georgia-Pacific, is helping his sons, Noah, 14, and Luca, 11, set up. Their four hives are behind their house in the intown Atlanta neighborhood of Sherwood Forest, which sits in the shadow of the city’s Midtown skyscrapers.
It would be no easy matter to maneuver the four hives with more than 100,000 honey bees out of the grove of fig trees where they are nestled, up a curving slate-step walk, around the house, past the neighbors and then speed off with their heist on Atlanta’s nearby and famous Peachtree Street.
The father-sons team is among the growing legion of America’s urban beekeepers. Bee rustlers are not the sort of thing city folks worry about. Ptacek has more important things on his mind. “I want to give Noah and Luca a chance to earn some money and learn how to run a business,” he said.
They are learning quickly.
They named their venture Ptacek Brothers Honey, which just happens to be the same name their dad and his brothers called their business. With their dad taking the lead on heavy lifting and tasks the boys aren’t old enough to do yet, such as driving, he’s helping them develop the business into a venture that goes way past lemonade stand sales at the end of the driveway.
He is teaching them about managing supplies, bottling, labeling, pricing, competition, accounting, product lines, creating partnerships, distribution, business development, market penetration, time management, advertising and marketing. “These are skills that will benefit them the rest of their lives,” Ptacek said.
They are also learning another valuable life lesson. Hard work.
Even though only half the hives are productive now, the two active hives produced 15 gallons of honey during the spring harvest. At 11 pounds a gallon, that translates into 165 pounds of honey. It takes a lot of time, effort and dedication to pour that much honey into half-pound, three-quarter pound, one-pound and five-pound jars.
That’s fine with Noah and Luca. It gave Noah a chance to begin developing his negotiating skills. Under his dad’s watchful eye, he worked out a deal with a well-known Atlanta chef to sell their honey in his restaurant.
They are branding their product Nottingham Nectar after the street they live on, Nottingham Way, in their Sherwood Forest neighborhood. Interestingly, there are four more beekeepers in the 200-home neighborhood and even one father-kids team around the corner.
“But there’s no competition from a business standpoint,” stressed Ptacek. The closest thing to that, he said, is from Scott Thompson, the dad in the father-kid team. Thompson, who says he does everything in his enterprise except what the bees do, and his son and daughter call their product 3 Dog Honey.
“Look at the back of their label,” Ptacek said with a chuckle as he pointed to a jar of honey that Thompson gave the Ptaceks. In the product description, Thompson includes a good-natured poke at his friend: “Our honey is better than everybody else’s, especially Tom Ptacek’s.”
Thompson, a business owner, often gives away 3 Dog Honey and a lip balm he is making from the beeswax as business gifts, Ptacek said. But, Ptacek added, Thompson is thinking about working out an agreement with Noah and Luca to sell the lip balm through their business.
If that happens it would be the start of a product line, something the boys are already considering. They have been saving wax from their hives in their basement workroom since they started their business in 2007. They haven’t yet decided what to do with it, but making candles is one option, said Ptacek.
Another task on their to-do list is branding. A neighbor who designs logos is interested in helping the boys create a new logo and establish their brand. Ptacek also said that a blog the boys started fell along the wayside several years ago, and he needs to encourage them to get back to it “now that they are getting serious and getting some energy behind this.”
Asked what advice he would give other kids thinking about getting into beekeeping, Noah said that if they want to start a business to “start small and then work your way into a larger venture. If you want to do it as a hobby,” he said, “just enjoy it as much as you can because having bees has so many benefits.”
Father and sons said one of the biggest of those benefits is the health properties of honey. It’s good for allergies and has antibiotic properties, they agreed. “It also makes a healthy snack that’s much better for you than candy,” added Noah.
Ptacek emphasized that anyone new to bees should join a local beekeeper club and meet other bee lovers. Perhaps most importantly, though, he said to let your neighbors know what you are doing.
His neighbors, he discovered, love the boys’ beekeeping business. Since they set up the hives, people in the area tell him their fruit trees have never been so productive.
“‘I saw some of your bees in my yard today!’” Ptacek said one neighbor excitedly told him recently. That’s music to the ears of father and sons.
It’s also putting money in the boys’ pockets. Noah says he’s saving some of his earnings and admits he spends a little, too. Experiencing success, which he measures by not having any debt, has given him the drive to be even more successful.
Acquiring discipline through business will serve Noah well in a few years when he’s ready to apply to college. He hopes to go to Georgia Tech and study automotive design.
First, though, Dad has a few more lessons he wants to teach the boys. One of those is the cost of running a business.
“Right now, whatever they make is pure profit,” said Ptacek, who said he’s been paying for the jars and the gasoline to go pick them up. There’s also the little matter of donating his labor to the business.
He’s about to have a talk with the boys about changing that arrangement, he said.
That doesn’t seem to bother Noah. It was his father, after all, who’s been helping him hone his negotiating skills.
Related bee stories on MNN:
- 5 ways to help children help bees
- What a grocery store without bees looks like
- 5 things that probably aren't killing honeybees – and 1 thing that definitely is