Stepping into Pachamama Restaurant in Normal Heights greets customers with green. The entrance is lined with rows of plants that lead to the menu and bar — also strategically topped with potted vines that could leave one feeling as though they are in a lush oasis rather than a fast-casual restaurant.
But step through from the back patio and one might just miss the hum of San Diego’s first working rescue beehive before dining on the sweet byproduct of the bees’ labor — honey.
When Owner and CEO Vick Vannucci first went about researching how to create a green space for Pachamama, she initially aimed to install a beehive in her home. She quickly realized that properly rescuing and caring for bees requires a lot of expertise and working knowledge. One of the experts she partnered with to do that was Travis Wolfe of San Diego-based bee rescue nonprofit Bee Leaf USA.
“I am super, super amazed with Travis and the work he’s doing with Bee Leaf USA,” says Vannucci. “The passion in which he works and explains everything, I’m grateful to have an expert who loves what he’s doing.”
Once Vannucci visited Bee Leaf USA’s hive at the Fairmont Grande in Del Mar, however, she instead shifted her focus to showing her Normal Heights community how incredible the journey to honey can really be.
Vannucci’s dream of creating a safe haven for all people and animals coupled with Wolfe’s dream of creating safe havens for bees at the brink of endangerment led to Pachamama’s first honey latte; where a portion of each sale was donated to Bee Leaf USA.
The project could have stopped there, but Pachamama fancies itself as an educational space, not just a restaurant. “Imagine if you could not just help Bee Leaf USA to continue their amazing work across San Diego,” says Vannucci, “but also to explain to people inside our restaurant why bees are so important, why we need bees. We have so many misconceptions because we don’t have enough information.”
Soon, the dream grew and became a new reality: a working research beehive that also directly provides the honey for the restaurant’s menu.
The beehive designed for Pachamama is specifically designed for educating visitors; it has a glass observational window and a special exit that allows for the bees to work without viewing their fellow humans as a threat. It will also be installed in Pachamama’s tree on the outdoor deck where kids and families playing in the gardening space at the tree’s base can learn to coexist as nature — and Pachamama’s family-oriented environment — intended.
Bee Leaf USA CEO Travis Wolfe is in charge of installing the beehive, and is equally as excited to be a part of installing San Diego’s first honey refillery.
“This is the first step in creating a sustainable avenue for people to get honey in this neighborhood,” says Wolfe. “The reason we’re doing this is essentially to reduce the waste we have come to dispose of so easily in our world.”
Anyone could continuously buy a large new jar of honey every time it runs out, but it’s unsustainable, according to Wolfe. “If you do that, you will eat way too much honey and that’s what bees need to survive.”
As a result of this beehive brainchild, customers can experience the nectar-to-honey process and recognize how much labor goes into harvesting one of their jars of honey; and still shop sustainably should they decide to come back for a refill.
Bees aren’t the only hard workers here. The project has led to a buzz of new ideas among the kitchen staff. When Pachamama barista Scout Cordasco started, the drink menu was limited and sustainable ingredients were sparse. Within weeks, she used her mixology experience to create a diverse menu of coffee and alcoholic beverages that led to a brief period of customers ordering more drinks than meals.
“You can always make something out of nothing,” says Cordasco. “Even when it seems like there’s nothing, there’s always something.”
“I didn’t know what to order and the barista made me something she thought I’d like,” says customer Isa Rodriguez about her first time trying a honey latte at Pachamama. “The drink was perfect. Not too sweet or too bitter, but somehow just how I like it and now I want to come back and try everything.”
In fact, an influx rave reviews about the plethora of options led to a rotating drink menu which in turn satisfies customers’ need to try something new every visit. The experience finds them much more open to the idea of a changing menu of seasonal fruits and vegetables.
In an age where consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of their carbon footprint and actively seeking ways to shop sustainably, the responsibility of small businesses and corporations can go overlooked — one of the reasons Pachamama is only selling small-sized jars of honey.
“That’s the best part, it’s not just the bees,” says Vannucci. “It’s not just me and Travis, it’s also my small family inside Pachamama … Alone, I can’t do it. If I don’t have a team like them, I would never be able to do what I do here.”
Outdoor diners don’t ever have to worry the bees either. “A big misconception about honeybees is ‘they’re out to get people,’” says Wolfe. “There’s really nothing that a bee wants from us unless we’re honey, nectar or a flower. This is going to be an ongoing demonstration of bees and their peaceful nature.”
Few could demonstrate just how peaceful bees are as Vannucci has. While learning about Bee Leaf USA’s functional beehive in Del Mar, she immersed herself in a swarm of several thousand bees in order to experience what being in such close proximity of a much larger hive would feel like for others.
“I had my entire body full of bees, and I’ve never seen something work with such harmony and peace,” says Vannucci. She also adds that Pachamama’s staff will also be consistently explaining to visitors how the beehive works within the scope of the restaurant and neighborhood. “Seeing the harmony in which they work, you will see the bees don’t want us, they want to pollinate and make honey. The number one priority is always the wellbeing of our customers so that they can feel safe.”
Customers curious about sustainable business avenues can simply ask Pachamama’s staff about it, or by stepping outside and seeing it for themselves. Even better, they can enjoy the fruits (or rather, honey) of the bees’ labor while sipping one of Pachamama’s honey drinks knowing their purchase goes toward maintaining sustainable practices for both businesses and bees.
Pachamama may be San Diego’s first honey refillery, but Vannucci and Wolfe hope to make this project a replicable example for other local businesses.
“I want to help build the awareness I didn’t have growing up,” she says. “Becoming more sustainable is not something you decide one day and the next you are fully sustainable. It’s a profound change. It’s something you keep working with. We are learning so much every day, and we still keep growing from that.”