MASTERMIND: Bee Mayhew

Bee Mayhew grew up pretty much everywhere, moving from tourist region to tourist region with her sister, brother and their mom, who tended bar in vacation towns in every corner of the country.

Born in Canada, Mayhew has lived in cities up and down the West Coast from Ridgefield Wash. to San Ysidro, Calif. She's lived near Orlando, Fla; in Portland, Maine; Petoskey, Mich. and Spencer, Iowa. This nomadic upbringing gave Mayhew three things for which the people of Ypsilanti can be extremely thankful.

It instilled in her a deep appreciation for the things that make a place unique, a love for feeding people good food, and a desire to find a place that fits, and stay put.

"It's like the ultimate act of defiance for me to live in one place," she says.

In November, 2008, Mayhew opened Beezy's Cafe in the former Oasis Cafe space at 20 N. Washington in Ypsilanti. Business took off so fast that Mayhew, 31, had to shut down for a long weekend in February to rest, regroup and get caught up on renovations. She'd envisioned a gradual buildup of buzz that would give her time to finish converting the cafe's two adjacent rooms, which will eventually boost seating to 65 people.

But buzz preceded her, and Ypslianti welcomed her like a long-lost friend. During renovation people would see her taking a cigarette break on the sidewalk and ask when she was going to open. By February – with just the nine-table main room open - she was hitting sales numbers she'd projected for her second year.

Instead of cooking her soups a day ahead and giving all the flavors time to blend as she'd planned, Mayhew was throwing soup together as fast as she could and still selling 10 gallons a day. The breakfast burritos she thought were part of a tight little breakfast menu were so popular she'd make 20 of them, one after another.

Scotty James from Materials Unlimited around the corner asked if he could come in and work a few hours a week, for food.

Beeezy's is open from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. but on a couple of occasions Mayhew's hosted 2 a.m. breakfasts – feeding the after-bar crowd from the Elbow Room because she felt like it, and she could.

"I've always cooked for people," she says. "The fact that all these people are my friends and they're paying me to do it is a dream come true."

Mayhew focuses on locally-grown ingredients, bought whenever possible from from local merchants, and transforms them into simple, flavorful food that's made from scratch. The oats in her oatmeal come from the Ypsilanti Food Co-Op; the chorizo in the aforementioned breakfast burritos comes from Dos Hermanos Market. The Beer Cooler Party Store supplies the "little something extra" she sometimes slips in the soup. She's worked with Brenda Jo's Organics and with Eat Local, Eat Natural, a start-up that ferries food from farm to restaurant within a 200-mile radius.

She buys from Gordon Food Service, too – and says they're very sensitive about freshness and where the produce is grown. If people don't use their voice to influence the big-box, mainstream stores, she says, they're never going to change. Besides, she adds, GFS is a 103-year-old Michigan company.

"One of the reasons (the local thing) is important is that I've never really had a place that's home." Mayhew said. "Wherever I've been I've tried to collect and pay attention to what's going on locally."

But the local focus is also a practical choice. Mayhew, who doesn't own a car and has never had a driver's license, has been a locavore since before she knew the word existed.

"That's how it's always been," she says. "I've had to find the resources wherever I've been. Know the resources downtown; meet everyone; talk to them; think creatively."

Mayhew got her first paying restaurant job when she was 14, as a busgirl, dishwasher and hostess at Roast and Toast in Petoskey. She worked her way up to general manager at 21.

At 25 she set the goal of owning her own place by the time she was 30. At 27 she moved to Ann Arbor and became manager of Zingerman's Roadshow.

She likes the Zingerman's community of businesses concept, and for a while she thought that might be her future. Then last spring she saw the building at 20 N. Washington in all it's baby blue, pink and purple splendor, and that was it. She started looking for a backer, keenly aware that it wasn't the most sensible or conventional choice for a single mom to make.

"
I'm not a trained chef," she said. "Lots of people cook good stuff, but just because you can make brownies doesn't mean you can make money."

The economy tanked. People asked, "Are you sure."

But the more people questioned, the better her answers became.
 

"It's not really about food," she said. "Its really just a front to connect with hundreds of people a day, and to be able to provide something authentic and nutritious."

Beezy's doesn't quite fit the restaurant model, or the coffee shop model. It's not precisely a cafe.

"It ends up being whatever the person who comes in wants it to be," Mayhew says.

"...The critical thing for me is that the cafe stays small and really intimate."

Which is not to say one small, intimate cafe is the extent of Mayhew's vision. We're talking about a woman who keeps a manilla folder titled "world domination."

Inside are other dreams.

Parking lots converted to green space, people ordering their coffee drinks at a drive-up window where they'd also drop off their laundry for the attached laundromat. The humidity from the laundromat would vent into the tropical plant and pet store next door...

It would be empire (or maybe just a community) of small, intimate businesses, each with a stake in its neighbors' success.

"That, for me, is all I really wanted out of life," said Mayhew. "I want a small place to be where you know everyone and there's that old-fashioned channel of delivery and community that you really only get when you need the people in your community."


Amy Whitesall is a Chelsea-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Ann Arbor News, Crain's Detroit Business and Michigan Today, and you can find her online at www.activevoicemedia.com. She's also a regular contributor to Concentrate and Metromode. Her most recent story was Ann Arbor's Yoga Pose.

Photos:

Bee Mayhew Strikes a Pose at Beezys-Ypsilanti

I Heart Vegetables Too-Ypsilanti

Bee At Work in the Kitchen-Ypsilanti

A Line o Sandwiches-Ypsilanti

Soup's On!-Ypsilanti

The Daily Specials at Beezy's-Ypsilanti

The Birds Hitchcock Style-Ypsilanti

All photos taken by Dave Lewinski

Dave Lewinski
is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.  He digs Bee because she hooked him up with some tea when he was in need.

He started a blog too.
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