Local beekeeper Julie Servantez has been watching honeybees closely for a few years.
Bees’ work and social habits, as Servantez sees them, show the nectar-gathering, pollinating insects to be selfless in serving the good of the hive.
A few years ago, Servantez had a thought: Could the inner workings of a beehive serve as a model for people to become productive parts of the local, human colony if they had a chance to join?
Servantez, a Janesville native and retired Milton elementary school secretary, has spent the last two years developing plans to start up a nonprofit, coffee-and-bakery restaurant that would be named “The Hive.”
The name is more than a clever riff on bees.
“Bees’ sense of community is that everyone works for the common good. There’s no ego, and it involves servant leadership. I got to thinking, ‘What if there could be a place where this is how people are? Wouldn’t it be great if there could be something where people could function that way?’” Servantez said.
The Hive would serve as a workplace for local people who might otherwise face barriers finding gainful employment, such as those who are homeless, have disabilities, or are recovering from abusive relationships or drug and alcohol addiction.
Servantez said her goal is for The Hive to find a home in downtown Janesville. It could run as an artisan-style bakery with some breakfast foods. Plans show walls with built-in, see-through “observation” beehives that would let diners observe a true hive mind.
The concept couples a charitable cause with what Servantez sees as a mainstay for Janesville residents: dining out.
The Hive would use part of its revenue to pay employees earned income, putting them in the driver’s seat of their own lives.
“What do we do for the so-called ‘disposable’ local people who just need a first or second chance? We have mechanisms in place to get them some sort of help, but once the help is done … what can these people do to carry on with their lives and have meaning and purpose, to make a living wage and build a skill set?” Servantez said.
Servantez envisions The Hive as a place where people might gain workplace and interpersonal skills and build a work history. She’s been in conversations about The Hive with leaders of GIFTS Men’s Shelter, the YWCA’s Empowerment Center and KANDU Industries, a nonprofit agency that employs people with disabilities. She said The Hive would form partnerships with them and other local nonprofits.
Under plans Servantez has developed, The Hive would be overseen by a board of directors, and its profits would be returned quarterly to local nonprofit social service agencies that serve at-risk people such as those who would staff and operate The Hive.
It’s unusual for a restaurant to run under a nonprofit business model. In fact, Servantez said, The Hive would be the first nonprofit restaurant of its kind in Rock County, if not Wisconsin.
Servantez said she’s ready to begin the legal process of incorporating The Hive as a nonprofit.
The Hive would need a storefront, and that would be a main cost for starting up, Servantez said. She said that would require a campaign for private donations.
Servantez said over the last two years, she has researched other nonprofit restaurants nationwide and met with the some of the owners.
One such nonprofit restaurant, Bitty & Beau’s Coffee in Wilmington, North Carolina, employs people with disabilities. It was founded by parents whose two children have Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that often causes cognitive disabilities.
Allison Hokinson, spokeswoman for the Community Foundation of Southern Wisconsin, a Janesville nonprofit agency, said she volunteered to guide Servantez in her plans for The Hive.
Hokinson, whose adult daughter has a disability, said many local people with disabilities are underemployed; some only work a handful of hours a week.
Hokinson likes the idea of a nonprofit organized around a restaurant because it makes the nonprofit’s mission both “public” and “transparent.” She said people who would dine at The Hive would come in contact with the nonprofit’s mission every time one of its employees served them coffee or an onion jam egg and cheese sandwich.
That’s the whole point.
“Humans come together when disaster strikes. Hurricanes, wildfires, flooding and tornadoes create a human ‘swarm.’ Everyone wants to help and to be part of the solution. When everything gets cleaned up and back to ‘normal,’ the swarm dissipates,” Servantez said.
“By keeping some of the problems our community faces always in the spotlight via The Hive, the community has an ongoing opportunity to make a difference.”