the organic epicure | Smitten by bees in Israel, entrepreneur builds buzzing business in Californiaby alix wall
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Ishai Zeldner was a 20-something college graduate doing an ulpan on Kibbutz Beit HaShita in northern Israel when he was assigned to work with Yusuf Gidron, the kibbutz beekeeper.
“I had no clue about bees,” Zeldner recalled recently. “One night I was working with him moving the bees and I got stung on the top of my head, and I didn’t collapse or run away. He was looking for a strapping young guy to help him, and that’s all it took. It was total serendipity; the rest is history.”
What Zeldner means by “the rest” is the 9,000-square-foot operation he heads near Sacramento, the Woodland-based Z Specialty Foods. It sells many gourmet products, but the largest by far is different kinds of honey. And he traces his love of honey and bees back to that fateful night in Israel over 40 years ago.
Zeldner, 67, worked with the bees at Beit HaShita for four seasons between 1970 and 1977, and he considered making aliyah. But when his father had a heart attack back in Buffalo, N.Y., he came home to run the family business, a grocery store and specialty-food operation.
Once the business was sold, Zeldner returned to Israel, even working with the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture and inspecting beehives throughout the country. Although the elderly Kidron at Beit HaShita was hoping Zeldner might take over his bee operation, he decided instead to return to the United States and study bees at the university level.
“No one was marketing gourmet honey in those days,” he said. “Most supermarket honey has been overheated and filtered at 160 degrees or more, and then is pasteurized. Then they put it through a microfilter, which takes out the pollen. They do this so it doesn’t look different from the other products in the store, and honey often crystallizes, which is inconvenient for people. I understood this even as a kid; you didn’t want a product that looked different than anything else.”
Today’s supermarket brands are usually a blend, with much of it imported, according to Zeldner. In most cases, it is stripped of all pollen, which he said is beneficial for fighting allergies.
Coincidentally or not, Zeldner’s wife, Amina Harris, is now director of the Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science at U.C. Davis. She also helps out in the business, as does son Josh, who decided to join his parents a few years after graduating from college. “Josh is a fifth-generation food merchant,” said Zeldner. (They also have a few more employees, including one Israeli, so Hebrew is often heard around the warehouse — somehow fitting, since Zeldner calls himself an Israeli-trained beekeeper.)
When Zeldner started developing his honey enterprise, he gave away the product to friends, until he realized he was giving away more than he could afford. So he started selling to some businesses around town, while Harris began attending the Fancy Food shows to market the products. At first, they sold to department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy’s, as “this was before gourmet food started showing up in every supermarket,” Zeldner said.
Z Specialty Food began in Davis and later moved to a room the size of a one-car garage in Winters, and then to a 4,000-square-foot facility in Woodland, which was expanded into the 9,000-square-foot facility it inhabits now. Zeldner holds periodic warehouse events and markets online at http://www.zspecialtyfood.com.
In addition to honey and its related products, such as royal jelly, honeycomb and bee propolis (a resinous mixture that has medicinal properties), he also sells various nut butters, fruit and jam spreads and even some savory vegetable spreads, like roasted red pepper.
Zeldner still keeps bees himself, though the honey he sells from his own bees is less than 1 percent of his business.
“Beekeeping is addicting,” he said, noting that he’s been doing it for 45 years, so why quit now. “Every year, it’s amazing watching them increase in population. They’ve been doing their thing for 50 million years, and they’re still doing it in my backyard.”
He continued, “There’s something calming about working with them; it puts you in separate world. Trained beekeepers can just sniff to know if [the bees are] healthy or not. And, it’s a certain challenge to work with them and not get stung.”
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