Without meeting Geraldo Alfaro, it’s safe to assume the word “or” wasn’t in his vocabulary. He rejected the idea of choosing between one thing he loved or another.
Geraldo had “and” mentality. He found ways to preserve his Mexican heritage and assimilate into his new country. Make a living and a life. Mix business and pleasure. Along with the family’s secret chorizo recipe, he passed that mindset on to his children, who passed it onto their children, who now own and operate Honey Bee Market La Colmena − more than 60 years after Geraldo opened its doors.
“La Colmena means ‘hive’ in Spanish,” Tammy Alfaro-Koehler, Geraldo’s granddaughter, says. “Honey Bee represents the customer and La Colmena, our store, is the hive where the bees gather.”
Tammy and her husband Ken have expanded the hive since they took over 21 years ago, from a 4,000-square-foot corner store to a 15,000-square-foot supermarket that satisfies the appetite of their loyal Hispanic base all while continuing to accommodate the burgeoning Southwest Detroit community. When you ask Tammy how they’ve managed to maintain the soul of the market and its success over the years, she says it goes beyond fresh produce and well-stocked shelves.
“We’re good listeners,” Tammy says. “This place has always been about serving our community and to do that, you have to really love people and you have to be a good listener. I learned that from my father who learned that from his father. It’s not something that’s taught, it’s something that’s instilled in you over time.”
Tammy and her siblings grew up in the store.
“We’d run around the aisles playing cowboys and indians while my dad went about his business. When I was 10, he put me to work. My first job was manning the bottle returns, which I hated. Luckily I was promoted to cash register soon after,” she says. “I was always the fastest one on that thing.”
When Tammy’s father Alex passed away, she was just 13. Her mother took over the store and Tammy took it upon herself to step up and help out.
“I’d come in every day after school, Monday through Friday. I enjoyed being here, being part of it all, but I never imagined I’d be running it one day, or that I’d even want to,” Tammy says. “I studied accounting and looked forward to embarking on a new career after college. I didn’t want children because I’d already helped raise my siblings and I had no intention of getting married because I wanted my freedom,” Tammy says with a laugh.
So how did she end up taking over Honey Bee Market, with a husband and four children between them? Tammy calls it luck.
“Life has a funny way of giving you exactly what you need and I just feel very lucky to come here every day and do what I do,” Tammy says. “Working 12 to 16-hour days isn’t easy. Working with your spouse isn’t always easy either. But once you learn how to navigate that, the reward is so great.” She adds, “There’s no way we could have built what we’ve built without each other. Ken is the creative one. He’s the one with the imagination. He believes in making our little corner of Detroit as beautiful and clean as possible and he inspires everyone around him to do the same.”
The shopping experience at Honey Bee Market is intentionally a festive one. Mexican and American flags line the spacious parking lot and wave to traffic in concert. Mariachi music and bowls of freshly made house salsa, cactus salad, and guacamole greet you when you walk through the door, preparing your senses for the culinary adventures that await.
In true Alfaro spirit, every aisle is meticulously stocked with delights you’d expect and many you wouldn’t. Cactus paddles, habaneros, and banana leaves are piled high among kale, cauliflower and plastic containers of organic spinach. An assortment of queso blanco shares a shelf with vegan mayonnaise. Colorful Mexican sodas are up for grabs along with bottles of local beer from Bell’s Brewery and Motor City Brewing Works. Nearly an entire aisle is devoted to hot sauce, with no fewer than 54 varieties ready to add a kick to your meal. While stocking up on condiments, you can pick up a jar of Michigan-made McClure’s Pickles. And don’t you dare think of leaving the hive without pockets full of candies con chile.
Honey Bee Market shoppers seem as enthusiastic about the staff as they are about the aroma of prepared tamales wafting down the aisles from the back of the market. Yesenia Venegas, the general manager, has been part of the Honey Bee Market team for nearly 19 years and can be found buzzing about with a headset and a smile, quick to greet a shopper with a hug or a suggestion on how to prepare farro, her new favorite grain.
“I think our produce is the best in town and I know our meat selection is exceptional, but what I hope to provide for our shoppers is the chance to be a little adventurous, to try something new,” Yesenia says. “Everyone’s tasted mole, but have you tried pozole or menudo? Have you experimented with your recipes and found ways to make them lighter and healthier? People can play here and we encourage it.”
Though her first job was peeling peppers for the house chorizo, Yesenia was an integral part of the team from the start. Just like in a real hive, the small staff rely heavily on each other, no matter what position, to execute a vision bigger than themselves.
Vito Valdez, a local artist and educator at the Detroit Institute of Arts, has been a loyal Honey Bee Market customer since he was a child.
“This place is still as charming now as it was then,” Vito says. “My family migrated to Detroit during the industrial boom and this market thoughtfully catered to the new population. As the neighborhood changes, they still manage to please everyone without compromising their identity. And they give back,” he says. “Since the days of Tammy’s grandfather, this market has been a beacon in the community. From sponsoring youth programs to supporting the arts, they are happy to get involved. I love that about them − that and their breakfast burritos.”
A trip to Honey Bee Market La Colmena is a delicious reminder that life is not about giving up one thing for another. It’s about what you can add − to a dish, to a neighborhood, and to each other.
On a bright corner at Bagley and 17th, with an abandoned Michigan Central Station looming on one side while the boom of Corktown dominates the other, this market has found a way to both honor a rich past and celebrate what’s to come.