Josh Zeldner with his honey bear “spirit animal” on the playa at Burning Man 2014
Josh Zeldner with his honey bear “spirit animal” on the playa at Burning Man 2014

He’s taking the reins of the family honey company — and honoring his father

When Josh Zeldner was growing up in Woodland, 15 miles outside Sacramento, he used to help out in his parents’ honey business. It was a family affair, and always a part of his life, but he never planned on making it his career.

“I saw how hard my parents worked, and it didn’t seem like they were getting a lot of return out of it,” said Josh, 33.

A few years after finishing college in Boulder, that perspective started to shift. About eight years ago, he returned home ready to engage fully in the family business started 30 years ago by his father, Ishai Zeldner: Moon Shine Trading Company and Z Specialty Food, its varietal-honey parent company.

Then, three months ago, Ishai died — putting Josh in charge of the family operation. As it so happens, he is continuing his father’s legacy at a time of high interest in new varietals of honey. And, of course, honey is central to Rosh Hashanah, representing hopes for a sweet new year. Z Specialty is certified kosher and offers holiday packages (as does kosher-certified Marshall’s Farm Honey, based in American Canyon).

While selections such as clover and orange blossom are well known, Z Specialty features 30 varieties sourced from around the country, including lesser-known varieties like Northwestern Fireweed, Florida White Tupelo and Southwestern Mesquite. It also offers honeycomb, a few non-honey products such as nut butters, and products derived from the handiwork of bees, like royal jelly.

Z Specialty’s honey is barely processed, said Josh (also known as the company’s “Nectar Director”). “All of the honeys we carry can be considered raw, although the only true form of honey is the one that’s still in the comb. If it’s liquefied, it’s been processed to some degree.”

While straining is necessary to get dirt and dead bees out of the final product, Z Specialty uses a “very gentle warming and straining process,” compared with the ultra-pasteurization typical in large-scale production.

“They’re cooking their honey up to 180 degrees and adding water so that they can pass it through a paper filter that takes out the pollens and enzymes,” Josh said of his major competitors. “Then they can evaporate that extra water and package it and call it honey. The benefit is they have a product that won’t crystallize on the shelf, but it’s not actually honey anymore.”

That’s the kind of knowledge Ishai passed down as a fourth-generation food merchant (his parents ran an exotic game business in Buffalo, N.Y.). His entry into the field started when he learned about beekeeping while living on Kibbutz Beit HaShita in Northern Israel. He fell in love with the work “and the rest is history,” he told J. in 2014.

After returning to the U.S., Ishai came out West to attend grad school at UC Davis. He and his wife, Amina Harris, launched their own honey business in Winters, later moving it to Davis and then in 1998 to Woodland, where it has since more than doubled in size to 9,000 square feet.

Amina Harris, director of the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center, checks her backyard bees while holding a dripping queen extruder.
Amina Harris, director of the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center, checks her backyard bees while holding a dripping queen extruder.

Ishai was always the driving force behind the business. Amina helped out as time permitted, though for the past six years she’s been especially busy as the director of the Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute at UC Davis, where she runs an annual honey festival, as well as the center’s mead-making and honey evaluating courses.

She also ran the religious school at Davis’ Congregation Bet Haverim for 10 years.

Her degree was in special education, but “what happens to any educator in small towns is that sooner or later you end up becoming a Jewish educator, because they figure out you’re Jewish and you’re a school teacher,” she said. “I knew how I had been bored by Sunday school, yet I liked summer camp, so that’s how it started.”

Josh’s sister, Shoshana Zeldner, lives in Reno and works for the Nevada Arts Council, but she stays involved with the family business and helps out where she can. While the siblings said their parents did not pressure them to join the family business, they know that Ishai especially was overjoyed when Josh came to the decision on his own.

“My dad was forced to work in his family business, so he really gave us the space not to have to work in his business, and I’m grateful for that,” said Shoshana. “I think it made it more appealing, when you’re not forced into it.”

For Amina’s part, she loves that the business is a family affair, and she recognizes that her son has strengths in areas she doesn’t.

“A new home will be the next chapter for us,” said Josh about plans to build out on a newly purchased 3-acre parcel. “Our new facility will be 25,000 feet, of which we’ll occupy about 18,000, leaving the rest for other tenants. We’ll have a proper tasting room, with a window onto the production facility. There will be tours, and we’ll have a brewery on-site. We’ll also have almost an acre of space for pollinator gardens. We want to create a destination for people to stop while on the I-5.”

With the expansion, the family is confident about sustaining the work that Ishai felt so passionately about — a passion they’ve all come to share.

“It’s our responsibility to carry out the vision of this company now that he’s no longer here,” said Zeldner. “Of course we disagreed over things the whole way through, but his mark is here in a big way and I feel really proud to have the opportunity to take us to the next level.”

A scholarship has been established at UC Davis in Ishai’s name to study varietal honeys. To contribute, visit give.ucdavis.edu.


Amina Harris’ Yummy Rosh Hashanah Honey Cake

Harris often uses orange blossom honey for Rosh Hashanah baking because of its fragrance; it will make the whole house smell of orange blossoms while the honey cake is in the oven.

On her holiday table, Harris likes to offer various kinds of apples along with several varietals of honey, to see which dipping combinations people like best. She favors Pink Lady, Granny Smith and Rome, three East Coast varieties that also grow in the West. The East Coast boasts the nation’s most flavorful apples, she says, because “they have this thing called winter, and the deep freeze improves the quality and crunch.”

For this recipe, Harris recommends sweet clover honey for both the cake and the topping. She says it’s a bit spicy with a hint of cinnamon.

For the cake:

  • ½ cup honey
  • 1/3 cup melted butter
  • 2 eggs
  • ¼ cup sour cream or plain yogurt
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1½ cups unbleached flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ½ cup chopped walnuts or pecans

Cream butter and honey together. Add eggs one at a time. Stir in vanilla and sour cream or yogurt.

Sift all dry ingredients together. Add the flour mixture to the honey mixture in about three parts. Stir the batter after each addition until silky smooth.

Fold nuts into batter and pour into a 9-inch greased cake pan. Bake for about ½ hour at 350 degrees.

For the topping:

  • 2 cups sliced apples
  • 2 Tbs. butter
  • 1 Tb. lemon juice
  • Cinnamon
  • 1 Tbs. honey

Sauté the apples in the butter. Add lemon juice and cinnamon to taste. Cook until the apples are soft. Remove from heat and add the honey. Stir well. Spoon over slices of honey cake when serving.

Headshot of Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."