Updated at 19:57,28-03-2020

Belarusian Buzz: He Sells Raw Honey, Aims To Be Most Transparent Company In Unregulated Industry

Nina Roberts, Forbes

Belarusian Buzz: He Sells Raw Honey, Aims To Be Most Transparent Company In Unregulated Industry
Apiterra founder and CEO Dimitri Grigorovich at Foodceller & Co Market in Long Island City, Queens. Photo by Nina Roberts
“We’re on a mission,” says Dimitri Grigorovich gesticulating his blue-sheathed hands in the air to a supermarket shopper who stopped to sample his Apiterra raw honey, “to eradicate processed sugars!”

Grigorovich, a tall strawberry blond with big blue eyes, is the 28-year-old founder and CEO of Apiterra, a honey company based in New York City specializing in raw honey mixed with various berries, fruits and flavors.

Standing behind his demo table at Foodcellar & Co Market in Long Island City, Queens, Grigorovich beams at the hesitant shopper, waiting for her response as she samples his matcha honey. “Oh, it’s good,” she says demurely, “I wasn’t sure I would like it.”

American consumers are not familiar with flavored raw honey; most consider honey as a tea sweetener. Should a spoonful of Apiterra’s açaí-bluberry honey be plopped into a steaming cup of Earl Grey tea?

Aware of the marketing issues Apiterra might pose for the average American consumer, Grigorovich is often found at in-store demos. He enthusiastically explains how flavored raw honey can be put on oatmeal, mixed with yogurt or cottage cheese, top toast or crackers; even used in baking. To reinforce the point he pulls out visual aids, a stack of large laminated photos of Apiterra honey in food-styled scenes. Grigorovich often sells 30 to 40 jars per in-store demo.

He also stresses the nutritional value of raw honey, which is collected straight from the hive, “never heated [above 100F], pasteurized, processed,” states Grigorovich. Although the superior nutritional value of raw honey is a debatable point as it’s not scientifically proven yet, honey experts like Kim Flottum who is an Ohio beekeeper and editor of Bee Culture Magazine, says raw honey is better because it retains pollen, enzymes and antibacterial properties, destroyed when heated.

Grigorovich moved New York City from Belarus in the summer of 2015 specifically to start a business. When he arrived, he’d already graduated university in Belarus and cofounded a wholesale/distribution company at 22-years-old that supplied the “Walmart of Belarus,” as Grigorovich describes it. He later exited the business when Russia’s instability started in 2011, which impacted Belarus’s economy.

Thanks to the American Belarusian Relief Program Grigorovich was able to spend summers in the U.S. from ages 7 to 15 with American host families; his English is fluent, sprinkled with Americanisms.

These transnational flights to and from the U.S. with stopovers in Frankfurt or Paris proved to be revelatory for Grigorovich. Not because he was scared as a 7-year-old traveling alone, quite the opposite. He recalls observing the airport’s people in awe, “Different cultures and different nationalities and different people,” unlike his small, homogeneous hometown of Mogilev, east of the capital Minsk. “I realized that I would never live in the country I grew up,” says Grigorovich of his early airport experiences, “something changed.”

Although Apiterra is a success story thus far, it now sells on Amazon and it's stocked in approximately 1,000 U.S. stores from Maine down to Atlanta; Grigorovich’s initial introduction to New York City’s business world was turbulent.

“I thought the plant based water was hot in America,” reflects Grigorovich on his original business idea, a birch water company. Birch water is a clear drink made from birch trees, popular in some Eastern and Northern European countries, as well as Russia. Grigorovich was so certain of a birch water company’s success, he registered a company in the U.S., purchased a container of birch water in drums from a supplier and shipped it to New Jersey where he had found a co-packager.

During his first meeting with the New Jersey co-packagers, while the birch water container was sailing across the Atlantic, he was told he’d need a minimum of $1 million to start a birch water business. “All the calculations I was making from abroad had to triple,” says Grigorovich, “my mistake.” He didn’t have $1 million.

But Grigorovich had a project in his “back pocket,” as he puts it. As he drove back to New York in a panic from the New Jersey meeting, he called Aleh Svirchou, an entrepreneur he met prior to leaving Belarus. Svirchou had been planning to buy an old manufacturing facility to package honey in Grodno, near the border of Poland and Lithuania.

Belarusian Buzz: He Sells Raw Honey, Aims To Be Most Transparent Company In Unregulated Industry

A Foodceller & Co Market customer samples Dimitri Grigorovich's Apiterra raw honey in Long Island City, Queens. Photo by Nina Roberts

“I asked him if everything is still set up for the honey business on their side. He said, ‘Yeah, we’re doing it.’ Ok, I’m in,” Grigorovich told him, laughing as he reflects on the phone call. Svirchou, now Apiterra’s cofounder, asked if Grigorovich was sure. “I was like, ‘Yes! I don’t have another option, I’m here in the U.S. to start a business and I just realized what I’ve done is not working out.”

Perhaps it was the panic, terror and fear all mixed together, Grigorovich’s brain went into adrenaline-induced overdrive. He came up with Apiterra’s concept of product in a couple of weeks. Grigorovich was flooded with childhood memories of his father, who made honey as part of his job in the forestry department, and mixed it with chopped cranberries. “My family was not wealthy,” says Grigorovich, noting that treats like chocolates couldn’t be had everyday, “so we had a lot of honey with berries.” His father became one of Apiterra’s first honey suppliers.

The first box of Apiterra honey prototypes arrived in New York City by airplane the fall of 2015. Along with two co-workers who joined the team, Grigorovich began selling Apiterra at the Long Island City Flea & Food, which he found by googling, “How to sell food products in New York?”

“I had a little booth assigned to me,” Grigorovich recalls. He set up a folding table he bought at BJ’s and a canopy tent from Kmart, “Which I returned,” confesses Grigorovich, “because we didn’t have enough money for that.” (Grigorovich and Svirchou are financing Apiterra from savings, no outside funding.)

Encouraged by the positive response, Grigorovich was emboldened to approach local stores like City Fresh Market in Queens and Brooklyn Harvest Markets. Apiterra works directly with the beekeepers, rather than honey brokers or any type of middleman, so it retains a competitive price, retailing for $4.99 to $5.99 for an 8 oz. jar.

Alarmed by his research on the U.S. honey industry, Grigorovich aims to make Apiterra the most transparent honey company in the U.S. He believes about 75% of the honey in the U.S. is mixed with corn syrup or another non-honey substance, as it’s an unregulated market. International “honey laundering” scams remain a problem—when fake honey, usually from China, moves through several countries’ ports, gets relabeled and sold to the U.S.

“Right now we’re working on a new product line,” says Grigorovich, which he plans to unveil at next year’s ExpoWest trade show for natural food products, a component of his transparency mission. Through technology, consumers will be able to pick up a jar of Apiterra honey from the supermarket shelf and find out where the honey originated, down to the beehive.

Apiterra, now a five-person team, has expanded to wholesale and sells raw honey to U.S. bakeries and breweries; it will soon supply the cafeterias of a large tech firm. This year is Apiterra’s first operational year, “We are going to close it over $1 million,” says Grigorovich, which proves that sometimes it takes an immigrant entrepreneur’s unique set of life experiences and perspective to launch a successful, unconventional business.