Written by Shannon Walters, her daughter-in-law.
Mark and Sharilyn Walters moved to Duluth, MN in 2007, and moved into the same neighborhood as my husband Zach a year before we were married. They had hives in North Branch prior to moving to Duluth and moved them to Duluth. Zach and his dad thought it would be fun to do beekeeping together since it has a family history in the Walters family dating back many generations, and they lived in the same town now! They thought it would be a fun hobby they could do together and started keeping bees on the back of Zach’s house on a second-floor porch. Then they added hives to their own house down the street in the same neighborhood. There are times Zach’s brother Jake would help them out with beekeeping, so it was a special bond and time that the guys could spend together as a family.
The first year was highly successful and the bees made way more honey than we could use. So, Mark wondered what we could do with it? Zach, being a graduate at UMD, said we could sell it at their Wednesday Farmer’s Market. We ordered some honey bottles to start. Sharilyn and Zach then took one of Mark’s photos of the lift bridge from up at Enger Tower and created our first unique “Miel” label. We called the honey “Miel, A Taste of Duluth.” Miel means honey in French, and with the family being from Madagascar, it felt fitting since they spoke French and Malagasy there. Sounded fun! We had the label printed at Paper Hog where Zach’s boxing posters were printed. In negotiating the job, Mark told Lonnie, Paper Hog owner, that there was a problem. He said, “What kind of a problem?” Mark said, “Lonnie we have honey but no money.” So, Mark asked if he would pay for the labels with honey. He agreed and we took our newly labeled honey to the UMD market. The first year there went well.
They then met Emanuel, formerly from Tanzania which was “close” to where they had lived in Madagascar. They became friends and during the second year at UMD he told us we should be selling at the Duluth Farmers Market on East 3rd Street. We got our foot in the door and have been vendors ever since! We were able to add all Sharilyn’s homemade products soon after, to the honey mix, which I will talk of next. All our hives are currently in Duluth- Chester Bowl, Duluth Heights, just east of Lester Park and on the west side of town.
Meanwhile during the early days of honey making, a close friend of Sharilyn’s, Shirley O’Brien, asked if we do lotions because she needed some thick, effective lotion. Nothing in stores was working. Sharilyn thought, “well I could try to come up with something!” It was such an amazing product that we started making lotions in tubs and selling them at the market. She then asked me, since I had a background in graphic design, if I would be willing to design an official Miel logo and a label for the lotions. That was a fun project to work on together because we collaborated on the design and colors and bam, had our first ever Miel “logo” and label! The first scents she experimented with were lavender, vanilla, and fragrance free. These were a HUGE hit with the customers, and we were getting feedback that they were “fixing so many skin problems, thank you! I couldn’t find anything that worked until now!” Her lotion helped soothe baby rashes, sunburns, eczema, allergic reactions, general seasonal dry skin, etc. Her lotions mixture, I am telling ya, is miracle cream! There is nothing like it out there!
She had a real knack for knowing what natural ingredients would combine to be effective on skin and still be safe and chemical free. We had so much fun producing our first “gift baskets” and “gift sets” and working on those combinations and what we wanted them to look like. We would research different packaging and filler and put them together once the pieces came. When we would spend time working together it was also nice because we really had a chance to sit and talk about life. She was always great at giving advice and listening and caring about what was going on in our lives. I cherish those memories and will miss that time together.
Soon after she said, “I really want to try making lip balm”? So, she whipped up an amazing recipe for that and immediately they were a HUGE success! She asked me if I could take our logo and design lip balm labels also. So, I did! We tried many different varieties of quality for labels and print shops. Finally, we found that ShelDon was wonderful to work with and I could send them our designs and they could print them for us. That has become a great partnership over the years. Her lip balms became popular throughout the community and eventually the word spread. We started with peppermint, natural and vanilla, then soon after added pomegranate, almond, and recently tropical. We’re in the process of expending our lip balm wholesalers, which is something we always dreamed of.
She then added additional products such as our soaps, from her own unique recipes based on knowledge and research of what REALLY is effective in solving skin related issues and what is gentle on skin, while keeping everything all-natural. She did not like the idea of chemicals or additives, which we thought would make our customers happy as well. She produced beautiful candles out of molds she ordered, never stopping at “trying new shapes and colors”. Anytime a customer would ask her or Mark if we had something, we would try to make it happen, even if we didn’t have it yet.
We were so blessed to have her daughter Vanessa move back to Duluth 2 years ago, and immediately jump in to help with the family business because we had been growing immensely over the past 5 years especially. Her husband Keith is in the Navy and will be retiring soon and moving here as well, since he has had to travel a lot with his job. He wants to spend more time with family and settle in Duluth, even possibly helping with the Beekeeping side of things. We now had a website, festivals to attend, farmer’s market to maintain and the workload was getting heavy! Vanessa immediately picked up the skills to help take the responsibility off Sharilyn, of making all the lotions, lip balms, soaps, and candles. She really does a wonderful job at keeping up with production needs and offers great suggestions!
Vanessa has been great in coming up with new scent combinations, she has a real knack for finding genuinely nice natural scents from our suppliers. Bookkeeping was Sharilyn’s specialty also, she was incredibly good with numbers. She always kept the receipts and books organized, so that way we all could do our separate parts of the business. She taught Vanessa and I how to fulfill orders. I was getting busy with increased marketing needs, so Vanessa and her mom really partnered up on the production and fulfillment side together. Since Sharilyn has passed, Vanessa has done a wonderful job of keeping the bookkeeping and orders flowing. I don’t know how she does it all, especially with the loss of her mom. Her cat Pisu has been quite the office support lately, which is a blessing. Vanessa is also now our “go to” for new retailers!
Mark is our beekeeper who many call “The Honey Guy”, with Zach helping when he can. Zach is also the “lead” in big ideas business wise, for the company. He is hugely instrumental in directing new initiatives, reaching out to new and helpful resources, and making things happen. He is a true entrepreneur and a major asset to helping keep us on track. He partnered us with a great company up the north shore called Garage Starts. Matt and Calvin have helped keep us accountable and organized as we continue to achieve our business expansion and goals. We just had our first Minneapolis Mart convention, that Mark and Zach ran, with a focus on selling our lip balms to new retailers. It was bittersweet because Sharilyn could not see all our efforts come together and be there to attend it, as was planned originally. She would have been extremely proud though because sales were incredible! Zach also partnered us with Breakwall Digital who I consulted with while they created our brand-new website, which is doing very well. It really captures the essence of our business!
Myself, I have always love helping create all the labels, branding, advertisements, marketing, social media posts, print materials, anything that needed to be designed. I was thrilled to be able to put my degree to use and use my art background in a fun way that I felt helped our family. Fun fact is Mark took the photo (yes, he is a photographer also), of the flower in our logo, and I used that image to create our logo and added the bee icon recently when we revised our branding a few years back. The rework of the logo Sharilyn and I collaborated on for weeks, to finalize a new idea. I did not care for bees early on, they freaked me out, so this was my way of contributing! I am now embracing the bees; they are cute little guys and really are quite harmless! Sharilyn was also allergic to bees, ironically, so she was able to contribute her amazing homemade products and her bookkeeping and communication skills instead of to the beekeeping. She was the liaison with our vendors and suppliers for years. She was so great with people and always greeted everyone with a friendly warm smile and genuinely cared about our business partners and customers.
We all found a way to work as a family and a team over the years and really had our groove down. Until the recently devastating untimely event of her death. Vanessa stepped in right away and started taking care of orders and the books, while still training in our new employee Lexi, on learning production and filling our stock. So many exciting things in store! It’s just bittersweet now because Sharilyn won’t be with us to experience what’s next for our bee biz. We know her spirit will carry us onward. She left an incredible impact on everything we do. I was always inspired by her work ethic and her drive as well as her caring nature. She deeply valued what she did and genuinely cared about all our customers.
She loved her entire family and was a proud and wonderful grandma to thirteen grandchildren. She always showered them with love and time, even though she was a busy lady. She always made time for them and taught them some of the beekeeping processes along with Mark, had them help in her beautiful gardens, and taught baking and knitting/sewing to them as well, among many of her hobbies. With her sewing hobby, she learned how to make those awesome lip balm hanging pockets that you can only buy at the Farmer’s Market and area festivals. They were all handmade by Sharilyn! There is nothing that would stop her drive and determination to create something. Her knack for ingredients and combinations was so unique and special. I do not think anyone realizes just how incredible these products are. Our customers sure do, but they truly are quality effective products and Sharilyn is to thank for that. She will be missed in so many ways. As someone to come to for advice and help on an issue, for her great opinions and eye for detail, her work ethic, everything that made her special.
Sharilyn, we will try to honor your legacy and all the work you put into this business and carry it forward to the best of our ability.
We are forever grateful for you and love you!
~Shannon Walters and Family