The pop-up vendor stands on the corner of 18th Avenue and Irving Street, positioning jars on a tiny wooden table. A painted sign reads “Honey,” and a big man in a black-and-red flannel waves at passersby.
Ashot Hovhannisyan comes here most weekends. While the gig is relatively new to him — he began his venture shortly before COVID-19 swept into the U.S. — he is no stranger to honey. His family has been beekeeping for generations, and he’s been working with bees since he was a little boy in Armenia.
As a young man Hovhannisyan worked as a chef in his native country, but in 2002 he left his home for California. The political corruption Armenia had gotten bad enough that he felt he had no choice. He left with his wife; his daughter, Lili Pamukyan, eventually married an American and joined her father and mother in the city.
Hovhannisyan’s first job in San Francisco was as a cook. He worked in kitchens all over the city — making Russian and Jewish foods for Gastronome, a store on Geary Boulevard. He picked up work at several Russian restaurants, including Mishka, Traktir, and Skazka. Eventually he found his way into the plumbing and air conditioning repair business. This was a better fit for Hovhannisyan, as it allowed him to continue working with his hands, while giving him the opportunity to spend more time talking to people.
And yet, while he had his family and a career, something was missing from his life in San Francisco. His wife and his daughter helped him find the missing piece when they gave him a beehive. He hadn’t worked with bees since leaving Armenia, but he quickly picked up where he’d left off.
“We shared his honey with our friends and family, then people began buying it,” Pamukyan says, translating for her father. The seeds for his future venture were sown.
In 2008, on a vacation in Clearlake, the road was sandy and Hovhannisyan’s van hit some rocks. He spun out and went down a gorge 250 feet deep. He survived, but a concussion left him unable to work.
He retired and poured himself into his beekeeping. It wasn’t long before his apiary became a full time project. Now he sells his honey under the name “Brother Bear.” In Armenian, Ashot translates to “strong as a bear.”
That her father has a newfound drive is a gift for Pamukyan and the rest of Hovhannisyan’s family.
“If this keeps him happy we’re fine with that,” Pamukyan says. “My mom, him, and I live here with my family not far away. My sibling is in Russia, so I am the only one they have here. And they are what I have.”
The honey finds ways to sweeten the community, too. Hovhannisyan recently donated 200 pounds to a charity that Pamukyan’s children are helping run. The organization, Armenian Fund, supports those currently suffering from the recent violence in Armenia.
“The territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has been occupied by Azerbaijan, but indigenous Armenians have been living there since 375 BC,” Pamukyan explains. She says that the Armenian Fund will help build schools, provide water, and repair infrastructure damaged or destroyed by bombings.
Brother Bear’s apiaries are in different locations all over the Bay Area. Some hives are in Sonoma, some in Woodside, and he keeps a movable hive in his pickup truck.
Depending on the season, the honey changes. In Armenia they moved by season — one place for the spring, summer in the mountains. In the winter the bees would go to a special place to sleep. In California it is different, though.
“Within six hours everything changes,” Pamukyan translates. “The taste of honey changes too. When mustard season stars in Sonoma and Napa, the honey has some spiciness. When the weather is dry, then the honey will have a darker color.”
In the beginning, people were a little bit afraid of Hovhannisyan, Pamukyan says. On Nextdoor, she says a woman left a post describing her father as “homeless and friendly, selling honey.” Other neighbors jumped in to say they had seen him, too.
Pamukyan made a new post where she told her father’s story. Hovhannisyan says the police come and “say hi and bye.”
“Many see him and say, ‘Hi Mr. Honey’ and ‘Uncle Honey,’” Pamukyan laughs. “Some people see his honey sign and say ‘Hi, Honey!’”
He also sells his honey at 828 Irving Market, a small shop between 9th and 10th Avenue on Irving Street. Sam Dabit, co-owner of 828 Irving Market, always looks forward to seeing Hovhannisyan.
Hovhannisyan is a kind-hearted person. When folks who tell him they are homeless visit his stand, he gives them a tiny honey jar for free. He has a stack in the truck just for these moments. Pamukyan finds these small acts of kindness particularly touching
“Being a beekeeper is hard work. I grew up seeing how hard he works. Giving it away to make something else happy is an amazing thing,” she says.