When Muaath Alghazli moved to Detroit from Yemen five years ago, friends and family here repeatedly would ask if he knew how to get them some of the raw organic honey from his home country.
His brother ran the family business back home selling the honey, so Alghazli began ordering some as wedding gifts, favors, or for the occasional sale. But it wasn’t until he was back visiting his family in the Arabian Peninsula at the beginning of the pandemic, when he noticed sales of honey were soaring, that he considered starting a business. Once he returned to Detroit, Alghazli worked on launching Asal Bee, a Dearborn storefront selling the prized honey.
Yemen is renowned for its sidr honey (pronounced SID-jra), named after the tree from which the nectar is gathered. It’s often compared to its rival manuka honey from New Zealand for its quality and purity, and is informally called “Middle Eastern manuka.” The honey comes from bees that feed exclusively on the tiny flowers of the trees, which grow uncultivated in the Middle East, producing thick, pale-colored honey that has a fiery, almost bitter aftertaste. Yemenis depend on it for nutritional and medicinal purposes so much that as COVID-19 took hold and spread worldwide, demand for honey soared. “People were using the honey for the coronavirus, and I thought ‘Why don’t I open a store in the U.S.?’” Aoghazli recalls.
The elegant Asal (Arabic for honey) Bee, which opened in April 2021, is bustling most days with customers waiting for samples or purchases of the half-dozen or so honey varieties, which range from bright yellow to deep brown. Around the black-and-yellow retail space, customers are examining consistencies and colorings of the honey that they’ll eat from a spoon, mix in water or tea, or stir into their vegetables. Asal, which is designed to resemble a honeycomb, also sells almonds and chocolates, raisins and male garlic, along with coffee, medicines and perfumes that all depend on the honey. Prices for the honey can range from $50 a jar for honey from Do’an Valley to $250 for a jar of Jabali, collected by bees at high altitudes above sea level, where the flora is different.
“People in Dearborn know the value of Yemeni honey and the price, and they know our story and experience with the product,” says Alghazli, an IT engineer by trade. “If you go to a house in Yemen, every house has honey.” An estimated 30,000 Yemenis live in Michigan, with a significant population in southern Dearborn.
Decades of political instability and epidemics in Yemen have limited outside distribution of its honey, even to Michigan. Civil war and restrictions on imports and travel both help and challenge his business, Alghazli says.
Products must be flown in, rather than shipped directly, and arrive via a circuitous route through Oman, Saudi Arabia, or the United Arab Emirates, driving up the cost of importing. Aoghazli purchases directly from farmers, which helps him navigate moving honey during a civil war that has pushed the country’s beekeeping — and the economy— toward the brink of collapse.
“Thankfully, we have good farmers, and we have many farmers,” Alghazli says.
While business is brisk, Alghazli says he’s more focused on providing a community service. “We treat our customers like family. I’m thinking about my customers now, his kids will be our customers. I just feel happy to help my people.”
Asal Bee is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily at 10503 W Warren Ave., Dearborn, 313-406-6677.