by Casey Hurlburt
The Bees Knees is a restaurant located in downtown Morrisville. They serve local food and feature local artists and musicians, employing area kids and providing a good environment for them to come hang out. The Bees Knees opened in 2003 because Sharon Deitz wanted to create a “local hang out where you can come and write in your journal or write poetry, and have poetry readings or live music.”
Sharon was inspired during her time in England. “I liked the local pub feel, a community gathering place for people of all ages,” she said.
Sharon felt like her community in Morrisville was lacking a place where people like her could gather. So she decided to create one herself. And apparently a lot of other people felt that Morrisville was lacking what Sharon was able to create.
The Bees Knees quickly lived up to its name, “We had a limited menu and we were busy right from the start… the community was really wanting a place like what we developed.”
Sharon’s friend, Jennifer Edwards, who helped her start the business, passed away unexpectedly a month before the Bee’s Knees opened. Together they had bought a beat-up old building, and completely renovated it; doing demos, drywall, painting, and everything they could on their own. They only hired people to do things like plumbing and electric. Sharon ended up opening the business on her own, a task that proved to be more work than she had initially imagined.
In the beginning, they used Sharon’s kitchen to prepare all of the food and coffee. The popularity of the business soon required more than a small apartment kitchen, “It gradually grew and grew and grew to the point that on busy nights we were doing 75 dinners out of this little tiny kitchen that had a convection oven and a few microwave ovens. We were prepping food up in the apartment kitchen on the electric stove eight or 10 hours a day. Eventually it became really apparent that the only way to continue moving with this [business] was to purchase this back building and add a dining room and kitchen.”
Starting the business on her own had been more of a challenge than she had imagined, and the prospect of expanding was daunting. She was ready to give up, until the community stepped in and encouraged her to go through with it.
“They helped with lending money; we had workers, painters, masons - doing work for trade, for gift certificates. We had a week between Christmas and New Year’s where we were closed and we had 50 or 60 people volunteer their time to help get everything together. Our local bank, Union Bank, lent a lot of money.”
The support Sharon received from the community helped shape the whole ambiance of the place itself.
“That’s a whole piece of the feel of this place. We do our best to support our community and our community does its best to support us.”
Sharon provides a place for local young people to have experiences and build relationships. Not only does she provide jobs for them, but she tries to provide an experience that will lead to other opportunities. She said the most fun thing for her in this business is meeting, working, and building relationships with local businesses.
“When I was cooking, the fun part was going up to Pete’s Greens to pick up the food and seeing the people who were growing the food, and knowing them.”
As her business grew, she wanted to maintain that connection, so she organized field trips, for any employees who were interested, to go to places like Pete’s Greens, Apple Cheek Farm, Vermont Artisan Coffee and Tea, and Elmore Mountain Brooke.
“It not only helps them understand the dimension of the food we are serving here, but it helps develop relationships and connections and ideas,” she said, “and you never know where those things lead to. Does it lead to an employment opportunity? And it’s really fun, having relationships with the food producers.”
One employee, a recent graduate from Johnson State College, Tom Cote, started working at the Bee’s Knees before the expansion, as a dish washer. Now Tom runs the kitchen. He said he never would have imagined himself doing what he is doing now.
Sharon explained that the way Tom leads is more collaborative. He has to make sure the schedule is done and people know when they are working.
“My title is very ambiguous. I don’t know what I am. It’s a very gray area. I just have to put up with all these guys and they look to me if something’s going wrong,” Tom said.
He has played around with business ideas of his own, like opening a coffee shop. Tom enjoys his job at the Bee’s Knees because it allows him a lot of freedom. “If you can make a living doing something that you are creative with, I think that’s the goal.”
Sharon admires kids who are working in creative jobs, like farms, bread bakeries, and little restaurants like hers, “I think it’s really exciting for young people to work at jobs that will broaden their imagination.”
Her own experience has taught her that Vermont is unique because small businesses are common here.
“I think that’s one of the things that’s really exciting about Vermont… Family owned and locally owned businesses are really valued. You’re really only limited by your imagination here.” She said there are a bunch of store fronts for sale and “it just takes young people with a sense of creativity to know what’s been missing in their town, because that’s how this came about here. This is what I thought I was missing in my town.”
What do you feel was missing in the town you grew up in? According to Sharon, if you think it would have been great to have that business in your town, chances are it’s a good business idea.
“Put yourself in positions where you can learn as you are working. If you’re thinking it would be great to own a bike shop in town and there’s no bike shop in town, find a job at a bike shop, see how everything works and go for it.”
The Bee’s Knees: A local hang out for folks of all ages
by Casey Hurlburt