UPDATE: Akron Honey Company will be competing on the LeBron James reality show, Cleveland Hustles, premiering August 24 at 10 pm.
The Most Interesting Person I Know: Brent Ian Wesley
“It’s going to get sticky,” he said, walking into his house ahead of me. Pausing, he turned around, smiled and added, “I’m just warning you.”
Someone had told me his name is Ian but then Gmail labeled his emails from “Brent” and by the time we’d arranged to meet, I’d heard most folks know him as Wesley. When I asked for clarity, he responded, “Wesley is fine.”
Yeah, okay. It’s fine, but is it your name?
That was going to be my first question when we met. Then I found myself in the cold with tens of thousands of bees between us, and only one question came to mind so that’s what I asked instead: “How in the world did you get into this?”
The “you” is Brent Ian Wesley and he wears as many hats as he has names. Maybe more, father and husband among his many roles.
Without a hat, but decked-out in a razor-sharp, perfectly tailored suit with a throwback edge, he’s the eponymous wiggling singer and leader of soulful six-piece Wesley Bright & the Hi-Lites. If you’ve seen them live—or watched their energetic performances online—it’s hard to believe that guy is the same one explaining the brilliance of bees in his hidden-in-plain-sight apiary.
It’s as stunning that these are his avocations, side passions instead of jobs. He is, by day, a manager for Verizon, where he applies the same philosophy of life that led him to open Akron Honey Company. That is, he’s motivated by other people’s welfare. He wants people—and places—to be better off than when he met them.
“People are my thing. Always have been,” he says. “We have to take care of each other. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
This makes sense in context of his day job—he has to be good with people—but the rest? From the outside, maybe it just looks like music and honey and bees, which is fun stuff but might hardly seem like it’s making anything better. More fun, sure, but better?
Well, a few months ago, the apiary was just an empty lot Brent passed on his way to work. He’d noticed the house that was there, noted its decline and then its demolition. The vacant lot made him wonder. He didn’t daydream about what it could be as much as what he could do with it. He wasn’t trying to start a honey company when he brought those first hives to the property on the outer edge of Highland Square. It just seemed like a neat thing to try.
Hey, bees. Why not?
He refers to this process as “activating spaces” now after accompanying a group of community leaders assembled by the Knight Foundation to explore some of Detroit’s most promising revitalization projects. There he met people who were reclaiming the empty and forgotten, ignored and neglected places around the once-thriving Motor City. This gave him more focus. What he once did practically by accident, he would soon start repeating intentionally.
Thus, the Kickstarter expansion plan.
“Life is the flower for which love is the honey.” – Victor Hugo
Brent labels all his honey according to where it was produced and gathered. Each batch has a flavor distinct from the other, and each of Akron’s neighborhoods provides a different variety of plants and flowers that impact the character.
His honey is like nanobrewed beer. It’s craft. Artisanal. Small batch. Unique.
He says the reason this went from weird hobby to full-fledged business is that the honey was too good to keep to himself.
“I knew I had to share it,” he says, remembering that first taste of unusually dark amber honey.
There would have to be more bees, more hives, more time.
In his kitchen, he pulls the shiny stainless steel cylinder away from the wall and to the middle of the floor. That’s the extractor which will spin honey out of the combs to pool at the bottom where he can collect it into jars. He plugs the hot knife in and soon it smells like a curling iron. He washes out his collector bucket and explains that all of this, plus a wood-burning stove, will soon be in “a little Hobbit house” on the new property in East Akron he purchased thanks to the crowdfunding success.
He pops the top on a large, stacked Rubbermaid bin and unloads a honeycomb frame, a couple feet long and about a foot wide. Flicking away the caked wax, he shovels some of the sugary gold stored beneath into a spoon and offers it to me.
“This,” he says, “is why I started doing this.”
I understood immediately why he felt compelled to share, not to mention grateful he did.
“If you want to gather honey, don’t kick over the beehive.” – Dale Carnegie
His wife, Rebecca, stood at the threshold watching with me as Brent churned the hand-cranked extractor. Their adorable 3-year-old daughter toddled up to join.
“It was a surprise,” Rebecca says about first hearing about her husband’s plans.
But she’s used to it, she says. He’s a vibrant guy with more energy than most folks you’ll ever meet. This is how he approaches life.
They met at Kent State at the gym. He was a business student who’d taught himself microeconomics after spending a year out of college working in Pennsylvania.
“The year off made college more valuable to me,” he said. “That’s when I realized I didn’t want to work in a hotel forever.”
He grew up in Aurora and was lured to high school football after coaches caught him outracing their players to a ball on the sideline at practice one day. He had played some in middle school but quit because he didn’t like the smell of the locker room. So it wasn’t a love of the sport that pushed him on the gridiron.
“I’m not a fan of football,” he confesses. “I just like movement.”
His talent and an urge to stay in motion led him to a year of scholarship football at Thiel College in Greenville, Pennsylvania, but it didn’t take long before he had his fill. In high school, he was allowed to use his athleticism to make plays. In college, he was expected to run plays. He says he stopped enjoying it when someone started to tell him what to do.
Except for recreational dodgeball at Kent State, which led to a tryout for a pro dodgeball team, he’s stayed away from sport.
If Brent has a team now, it’s the Akron community. He thinks a little like a lone wolf, but he’s passionate about the greater good. As he talks about Akron Honey’s future, he says it boils down to what the people of Akron want. He’s not trying to build a business that will sustain him so much as he’s trying to find ways to be a better Akronite.
“You don’t lose if you do good,” he says. “You can’t.”
“A day without a friend is like a pot without a single drop of honey left inside.” – Winnie the Pooh
This is his off-day, but he’s nowhere near done yet. The Eye Opener is expecting an order and he sells out every time he offers packages online. Even when he finishes with this batch, there’s more to do.
The deal for the new property has closed and it won’t be long before he’s building that “Hobbit house” and making plans to bring people out to Middlebury, a part of town few would consider a destination despite being older than Akron itself.
But that’s part of the plan, which he sees more clearly by the day.
“It’s a very specific vision,” he says, grabbing a frame from the extractor, “and I don’t want anyone to derail me.”
A viscous rivulet of honey clings to his arm as he hoists the honeycomb up to the light, checking to see whether it’s completely spent yet. In this moment, I’m reminded of his music, which is as hard won and sweetly rewarding as the honey. I hear his talk of the “intangible benefits” of this kind of life and I picture him on stage, the crowd dancing and moving to the punchy sway of the horn section. Much like I wanted to dance when I had my first taste from the honeycomb.
It’s easier now to see how the different sides of this man fit together.
A few moments passed in quiet. I had no more questions so I grabbed the camera and snapped away. Brent looked up briefly and smiled, as he often does, then got back to work, sliding the frame back into the extractor for another spin, hoping to wring a little more of this sweet nectar from its home.