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The Challenge Honey maker didn’t win contest but found its own sweet reward

Edward Okun is co-owner of Nude Bee Honey Co., based in Toronto.

Warren Hrycun

As a semi-finalist in the first Small Business Challenge contest in 2011, Toronto-based Nude Bee Honey Co. had formulated a definitive plan for using the $100,000 first prize – it would build its own packaging facility.

The judges of the contest, which is sponsored by The Globe and Mail and Telus Corp., did not pick Nude Bee as the winner. But at the same time, they may have done the company a favour.

"I'm reticent to admit that that was a good decision," says Nude Bee co-owner Edward Okun. "I think we were at the time too immature to really capitalize on that opportunity."

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A judge had advised Nude Bee not to grow too fast. That resonated with Mr. Okun, who began to think in new directions.

One was his love of cycling. He came up with a prototype for better, more fashionable handlebar grips, which he called OOQI Grips. And though he still uses them on his own bike, they didn't catch on.

"After all the success I had with Nude Bee I had an inflated sense of, not ego, but that I was right," he explains. "In spite of people saying, 'Well, you know the product could be better in these ways,' I just went to market. I thought I knew better.

"It turns out I didn't on that one, so I'm 1-for-2."

Mr. Okun put the lessons he learned with OOQI Grips into practice with his honey business: He refocused on what Nude Bee does well. The company, which markets just four varieties of honey – currently blueberry, buckwheat, wildflower and pumpkin – has carved out its own niche by producing a raw, unpasteurized product. Nude Bee can be found in about 60 specialty food stores, mostly in Ontario.

In addition, Indigo Books & Music Inc. will begin selling Nude Bee this year, and Roots Canada carried it in its past two Christmas promotional campaigns.

A passionate foodie, new co-owner Ryan Thomas says that educating customers about what he calls conscious consumerism has been one of the company's biggest challenges.

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"For us, an educated consumer is the most valuable champion of the brand," says Mr. Thomas, who came on board in January. "One who understands how raw, single-sourced honey adds to their food and drink experience, and understands that as a brand we've made choices to support a better world for everyone."

One of those choices was not to build a packaging facility, which Mr. Okun decided was not in keeping with Nude Bee's philosophy.

"In order for us to be as nimble as possible and for us to be able to distribute our honey as quickly as possible, we needed not to be tied to a brick-and-mortar building," he says.

The company has drawn interest from food distributors in Europe and North Africa, though Mr. Okun and Mr. Thomas are focusing domestically, particularly on Eastern Canada, where the honey market isn't as crowded as it is in Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia.

"Our research suggests that our product will do very well in Quebec and the Maritimes," Mr. Okun says.

To that end, Nude Bee is also switching from 330-millilitre jars to smaller, 250-millilitre jars to comply with federal laws on exporting out of province. The company expects to sell 10,000 jars this year.

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After the high of being a semi-finalist four years ago, Nude Bee has come back to Earth and focused on championing local producers and reminding consumers that they do not pasteurize the product as their larger competitors do.

"When you do something like The Globe and Mail challenge, it's like a rush, there's this huge opportunity. You get this big boom of media exposure and then you've really got to get back to work."

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