WEST CAPE MAY, N.J. — Three generations of honey bee farmers swarm around Andi Marandino in the middle of their honey store.
Her husband, her mother, and her two young sons, orbiting Andi like she’s a queen bee.
“This is our heart,” said Andi, 39. She spread her arms, her minivan keys dangling from her left hand, gesturing to her family and their industrial-style shop. “This is what a small family business looks like."
Jersey Shore towns are built on family businesses: the fudge peddlers, the surf shops, the breakfast spots.
But what about the truly small family businesses? Everyday people who don’t own a piece of a pizza empire. The smaller spots that offer an alternative to typical Shore-town fare and depend on tourists and the locals to survive.
Cape May Honey Farm is a third-generation small family business. The first two forged in Bulgaria, the third expanded to the Jersey Shore, where it will ideally stretch into a fourth.
Andi’s grandfather, Dimitar Kirov, opened 50 hives about 40 years ago in the small village of Novachene in northern Bulgaria. Andi spent her summers there, but didn’t immediately develop a taste for the sweet nectar, even after her mother and father continued the tradition.
Now, Andi and her husband, Doug, run an all-honey store on Sunset Boulevard in West Cape May, and the family’s 80 beehives are spread out across four spots in local farms and meadows, including right along the Cape May Canal.
“It was always part of my life," Andi said, “but I never expected this."
Andi always had her eyes set on the United States, but marrying a guy who would embrace the family tradition was not part of the plan. She moved stateside in the early 2000s, a college exchange student sending out applications to any business in the wingspan of New York City that would hire her. She eventually zeroed-in on Cape May and found a job as a hostess with the Washington Inn, a historic and historically family-operated restaurant.
Doug, who grew up in Vineland, moved to Cape May after high school. For 22 years, he worked as a cook at the inn, rising to sous chef. In 2007, he took an interest in the new exchange student working in the front of the house, and they were married a year later.
Andi brought her new husband to her homeland shortly after they were married and showed him the hives. He returned to Cape May inspired and started his first.
In 2013, after their first son was born, they decided to turn their hobby into a business. Unable to secure a loan, they maxed out their credit cards and emptied their savings to open the honey shop, and to continue the family business in their adopted hometown.
“Everything came in full-circle,” Andi said, “and everybody is involved.”
Andi’s mother, Anelia Naydenova, visits every summer to help with the honey-extraction process, despite having a bee-sting allergy. She also babysits the couple’s youngest son, Lucas, 5.
“Doug and her actually shuck the honey because she’s so much faster than me," Andi said.
During the week, Andi and Doug take turns. One drops off their oldest, 8-year-old Marcus, at surf or lifeguard camps at the beach, and the other opens the store. Doug is the only one who works directly with the bees, but they split most of the other duties, including bottling and labeling. When Marcus comes back to the store, he’ll help work the register. Recently he started recommending products to customers and became a hit with the locals.
“The bees are still a little too scary,” Doug said, “but we’ll get him out there this fall.”
They have their honey products in a few stores and produce booths in town, but the majority of their business is through the storefront. There they offer tastes, squeezing a few drops of honey on thumb-size plastic spoons, offering samples of various flavors in their all-natural honey arsenal.
The variety is in the texture. Some offer a consistency similar to jelly, others taste as smooth as maple syrup, subtle differences born out of the diversity of the flowers: blueberry and cranberry and orange blossoms. They also carry naturally infused honey, including the popular summer-wildflower honey spiked with Madagascar vanilla beans, and another stuffed with Bhut jolokia, or ghost peppers.
They also make candles from excess beeswax, and carry other products from locally owned businesses, including aftershave made from royal jelly, a substance the worker bees produce and feed to the larvae and the queen bee.
“Everything the bees make can be used,” Doug said.
They’re open 11 months a year, and besides a lull for a few weeks before Thanksgiving, they benefit from the year-round resort town.
“I love the fact that we’re all in a small town and we’re family businesses and we’re all trying to make a living,” she said. “We’ve had the same customer base since we started and they continue to support us, and we wouldn’t be in business without them.
“They’re loyal,” she added, "and they appreciate everything we do while running a family.”