Busy Bee Organics was created to provide Jersey City residents healthy meals and snacks that fit easily into their hectic lives, owner Michelle Berckes explains to a customer who’s wandered into her sunny new shop in the city’s Heights neighborhood. Flitting between the kitchen, chatting with customers and friends who’ve stopped by and stocking the shelves with grab-and-go meals and fresh baked goods, Berckes resembles quite the busy bee herself.
It’s a pace she’s kept up since she started her prepared meals business five years ago, staying up until two, three or even five in the morning to churn out nut butters, jams and vegetable-packed meals to sell at the Grove Street Farmers Market in downtown Jersey City. A trained chef with a degree in nutrition, Berckes felt there was a need for health-supportive meal options for busy city dwellers who didn’t have time to cook, but cared about the quality of their food and where it came from.
As farmers market season drew to a close, customers wanted to know where they could get Berckes’ gluten-free, dairy-free and plant-based salads, stews, sauces and sweet treats throughout the winter. “I said, ‘Oh, I’ll deliver it to you!’” without thinking about what that would entail, she recalls. This was 2014, before any meal kit delivery services were household names or even really an established concept, Berckes points out, and she soon found herself loading up her Honda SUV and delivering meals through rain, snowstorms and traffic jams. But, to Berckes, who as an adolescent struggled with an eating disorder, “it was magic.” Making and sharing healthy food with the community, she says, felt like a calling.
A team of 12 people now cooks and delivers Busy Bee’s eats throughout Jersey City, Hoboken and Union City (though she still, on occasion, makes deliveries herself). Berckes’ food philosophy, however, hasn’t changed: “I based Busy Bee on looking at what physical fitness and nutritional experts all agree on—that vegetables are good for you.” Hence, they serve as the base in everything from colorful stir-fry medleys, quinoa bowls and enchiladas and even sweets (think black bean brownies and quinoa carrot cake bars); Berckes sources from local farms whenever possible and uses mostly organic ingredients. Beyond that, “we’re not here to judge, we’re here to support all types,” with modifications and options available for vegan, paleo, vegetarian and soy-free diets (all dishes are gluten-free and dairy-free to begin with; diners can choose to add responsibly raised meat or cheese to a dish).
Though ordering weekly selections is a speedy, all-online process, Berckes says she always intended for the deliveries to bring a warm, cozy vibe, along with good nutrition, into diners’ home. So even as the business grew, she dreamed of having a cafe storefront “to serve the community in a bigger way.” Plus, she and her team were outgrowing their kitchen space at a local school, where they also cooked nutritious meals for the students.
The decision to open a storefront in the Heights, where several high-profile restaurants have also opened in the last few years, was an easy one. There’s “an energetic shift” going on in the area, Berckes says, and she’s happy to be a part of it. After looking at potential spaces for about a year in different parts of the city, a 1,200-square-foot space on Palisades Avenure had just the floor plan she was looking for—she signed the lease the next day. They’ve been cooking out of the Heights kitchen since January, and opened the cafe in late August. “The Heights chose us,” she says. She also now lives in the neighborhood, just half a mile away.
True to Busy Bee’s origins, customers can still grab prepared meals to go from the bright cafe, under the gaze of a chipper honey bee mural on the back wall. They can also pluck a bestselling breakfast sandwich, chickpea stew or quinoa bowl from the refrigerated case, have it warmed up and eat in one of the 10 seats. Many take their goods to Riverside Park across the street, where Berckes, up until recently, was a vendor. There’s also a large pastry case with Busy Bee’s signature lower-sugar baked goods. Shoppers can also stock up on housemade nut butters and muffin mix, as well as goods from other local makers—Klüsterføk grain-free granola, honey from a farm run by a current employee’s family, coconut water and probiotic ice pops made by a former employee.
Opening a storefront has only meant a more frenetic pace for busy bee Berckes and her team, but the response since opening has been “really awesome” and meaningful, she says. Not one to sit back, Berckes plans to host health and wellness-centered events at the cafe, such as meetups, cooking classes and cookbook clubs in the new space. Her own first-ever childhood cookbook, a Betty Crocker volume, sits on a shelf in front of the kitchen.
Busy Bee Organics, 451 Palisade Ave, Jersey City, 908-219-9066.Click here to leave a comment