This businessman believes unsupervised customers won’t steal, and he’s willing to risk his livelihood on it.
Finding himself shortchanged, a customer at Biggers Apiaries’ honey stand faces an ethical dilemma. No one watches the stand, which means no one will notice if he takes his honey and runs. So he does. But before he leaves, he takes care to leave a carefully worded note explaining his predicament.
The note reads, “I purchased $18 worth of honey and all I have is a $20 bill, so one of us is going to have to trust the other. It appears that you probably have more money than I do, so I’ll owe you.”
David C. Biggers, 63, owner of the San Mateo stand, recalls the anonymous note as one of his favorite examples of the fundamental honesty that keeps him in business. A week or two after receiving it, he received another note that said the money had been paid.
Relying on the moral integrity of its customers, the honey stand has operated without an attendant since Biggers’ father, Calvin A. Biggers, opened it almost 60 years ago in San Mateo. Customers pick their honey, check prices written in permanent marker on the lids, and drop their money into a lockbox.
“People don’t steal honey. When you’re on the honor system, even a crook will say ‘Look, the man’s trusting me,’” Biggers says. “It works for us. We’ve been here since 1947 and we haven’t gone broke.”
The system works better than Biggers’ modest words let on. He estimates he sells about 1,000 pounds of honey per week, or about 50-70 of his 1-pound, 2-pound and 5-pound jars per day. Either way, it’s enough that he and his wife, Christa, must restock every night.
Biggers lives only a matter of yards from the stand, which sits on the same plot of land where he was raised. East State Road 100, known to the locals as “Highway 100,” runs in front. A yellow sign a few yards down the road announces “Raw Honey” in big, red block letters, alerting customers who otherwise might miss the short, well-worn stretch of dirt that serves as the parking lot.
Twin 8-foot-tall Statue of Liberty street lamps guard either side of the stand, courtesy of Barberville Produce, another store that Biggers owns.
The stand itself, a weather-beaten wooden shed, measures no more than 8 feet tall from its concrete foundation to the peak of its aluminum roof. Periodic touchups have left it painted a conspicuous shade of orange with yellow trim, though the pale yellow on the door doesn’t match the brighter shade of the rest.
A notice in permanent marker written directly on the door points to the lockbox and reminds customers to deposit their payment. Jars of honey crowd shelves attached to the upper left portion of the stand, while more occupy a white folding table below. Stickers identify each jar as gallberry, orange blossom, or wildflower honey.
A second folding table holds barbeque sauce, pure vanilla extract, jelly and marmalade — all of which Biggers sells for other companies — as well as Biggers’ own homemade roasted peanuts. All of these are available 24 hours a day, every day, because Biggers doesn’t have to work around employees’ schedules.
“I don’t never close it. People are out there at night with flashlights buying honey,” Biggers says.
Customers come and go in a sparse but steady flow throughout the day, as does the traffic on Highway 100. Biggers’ father, who took care of the stand until his death in 1985 at the age of 87, chose this location because he thought passing motorists would offer the most exposure. “Back in those days, there wasn’t no interstate. Highway 100 was the artery of traffic coming from the east coast,” Biggers says.
Larger roads have slackened drivers’ reliance on Highway 100, but much of Biggers’ business still comes from intrigued passers-by.
Sandy Biddle, an area native until the early 1970s who now lives in Ormond Beach, first stopped in on a whim a few years ago after seeing the stand from the road. Now, she uses the honey as an excuse to return. “I like to get something made from my home, rather than something from a store,” she says.
Soon after arriving at the stand, Biddle selects a 5-pound jar of gallberry. Her mother, Elose Wilford, tries to decide whether her 2-pound jar of the same will be enough. Biddle suggests it might run out too quickly.
“Well, maybe that’d be a reason to come back sooner,” Wilford says. She mulls it over and then points to Biddle’s larger jar.
“Maybe we could share that one if this one runs out,” Wilford says.
“No. I’m not sharing,” Biddle says, deadpan, hugging the jar to herself.
Walking to the lockbox to pay for both of their jars — Wilford having chosen the 2-pound jar and a return trip — Biddle relents.
“Well, I probably would share,” she says. “But I wouldn’t want to.”
This same theme repeats itself over and over as other customers relate their first experiences with the stand: Curiosity led them to stop by, and they got hooked.
“Have you tried some of this honey before? You should: it’s great,” Jan Coumbos says through her lowered car window upon arriving at the stand, before she even has had a chance to open the door.
Coumbos, who lives in Merritt Island, has been a regular since 1979 or 1980, when she discovered the stand during one of her regular trips up Highway 100 to visit relatives in Mississippi.
Coumbos can’t explain why she likes Biggers’ honey so much, except that “there’s just something about it,” especially when she puts it in her tea. In fact, she’s planning on using this jar of orange blossom to pass that practice on to the next generation.
“I’m buying some for my son’s girlfriend, because she likes to drink tea,” Coumbos says.
Biggers raised his own bees until 1993, when his duties at Barberville Produce began to require more of his time. His friend Ray Warren, from Umatilla, a town 60 or 70 miles south of San Mateo, has handled the bees since.
Although it sells a different kind of product, Barberville Produce relies on the same honesty as the honey stand. Despite the name, the market does most of its business in giant lawn ornaments, ceramic wall hangings, and other upscale knick-knacks. Most of its stock sits outdoors on the 3-acre lot the business occupies in Barberville, seemingly ripe for plucking by greedy hands.
“You see this whole place here? I’ve probably got three-quarters of a million dollars worth of inventory, and I don’t care. I never lose a wink’s sleep over it,” Biggers says, lounging behind his desk in the trailer that serves as the market’s office.
At Barberville Produce, Biggers and a few helpers roam the lot during the day to accept payment for the market’s cast-aluminum streetlamps and rusted-iron mariachis. Biggers can’t foresee ever extending that level of supervision to the honey stand, though he admits he has made one concession to security. In 1987 or 1988, he retired the money jar that held customers’ payments and replaced it with a more secure lockbox.
Looking like a cross between a red fire hydrant, a pay telephone, and a vintage Coca-Cola vending machine, the lockbox feeds into a concrete-reinforced container that extends six feet into the ground.
“Times have changed,” Biggers says with a shrug. He insists, however, that “It’s not the public that you’re concerned with about not paying for their product. It’s the low-lifes, the crack heads and all of those who want to get the money out of the thing.”
With sales high and theft minimal, Biggers feels there’s no reason to move away from the honor system. After all, he figures he loses far less profit to stolen goods than he would by keeping an attendant at minimum wage. For a man who believes deep down that people are honest, that’s more than enough reason to stick to what works.
“If you lose a jar here or there, what’s the big deal?” Biggers says. “The person who gets most paranoid about somebody who steals something or other isn’t that honest himself.”