By Tony Hooker
Construimus, Batuimus. We build, we fight.
The motto of the Navy Seabee (Construction Brigade) provides an apt description of Mary Hite and Beth Floyd-Jenks, two retired former shipmates in the Navy’s on-land unit who are now preparing to open the Korner Beehive, a coffee shop/gathering place which will be located in the former “Scoop” space in downtown Villa Grove. They’ve been doing the necessary modifications to the space utilizing a team of erstwhile volunteers, all while fighting many outdated stereotypes about women in the military. They recently sat down to talk about the philosophy behind their project, and much more.
Where did the idea for this endeavor come from?
<MH> When Beth and I retired from the military, we had always wanted to go into business and do something together. We wanted to start our own business because being retired veterans, the idea of sitting at home doing nothing doesn’t appeal to us. We’re used to being “Go! Go! Go!” and working. Being able to give back to our community and to veterans was very important to us.
Can you elaborate on how you’re giving back to veterans?
<MH> A big part of our business model is supporting other veteran owned companies, in addition to giving veterans a place where they can come and feel supported and welcome. As veterans, a lot of us struggle with social situations and atmospheres, so when you have someplace where you’re surrounded by other veterans or by décor that reminds you of that, it tends to be a comfort to you.
You both are veterans. You served together in the Navy Construction Brigade?
<MH> We were dirt sailors! We’ve never even been on a ship!
Are you from here?
<MH> No, I moved down here about three and a half or four years ago, because of Beth. Right after I got injured and retired, I got cancer and my husband’s job took him out of the state so he wasn’t able to be with me. In between Chemo treatments, Beth would come up and get me, and I would come down here to recuperate at her house. I lived in the Aurora area, and it was a much bigger area and really wasn’t my kind of atmosphere. When my husband was home, we would come down here often and we really fell in love with this small-town atmosphere. The real selling point was that my youngest son and my husband’s oldest son graduated from high school at the same time and one was going to U of I and one was going to Eastern, and I thought it would be perfect. I said “We’re doing this. We’re just going to move and be right in the middle and we won’t have to pay dorm fees!” <laughs>
Beth, you’re a Villa Grovian to the core. When did you graduate from VGHS?
You’ve both had varied careers. Has this always been a dream of yours, to have a business of your own?
<BFJ> No, I just didn’t want to have to drive to Champaign or Charleston for coffee! <all laugh>
What sort of restaurant is this going to be?
<MH> Breakfast, coffee, specialty coffee and seasonal ice cream. The ice cream was an add on to our original business model just because it’s been such a staple in this town for so long, and after coming in and talking to Cassandra (Eversole Gunter) and her being willing to help us and to show us how to use the equipment and share with us how they grew into this it made sense to keep it.
Are you going to try to do this on your own, or will you be hiring staff?
We’re going to be looking at hiring some people. Actually, the two people that we’re hiring for the ice cream are former employees who worked here before and know this place inside and out. We’re going to be relying on them heavily for their ice cream knowledge.
What are your hours going to be?
<MH> From May through Octoberish, from 6 a.m. until 8 or 9, depending on local sporting events.
Breakfast is going to run from 6 until?
<MH> The food is gone. We’re not going to be a traditional “come in and order off a menu” breakfast to start with. We’re going to have to expand the kitchen before we can do that. We’re not exactly going to be a buffet, I don’t really know how to classify it.
<BFJ> It’s like a breakfast café. We’ll have certain items and once they’re gone for the day, they’re gone, but you’ll still be able to get muffins and parfaits and things like that throughout the day because obviously the coffee will be here all day.
<MH> Biscuits and gravy will be a staple, because that’s obviously important to Villa Grove! <both laugh>
<BFJ> Oh my God, yes. That’s all we’ve heard about!
<MH> Yes, we’ll have biscuits and gravy, and yes it will be available every day! <smiles> It will be made fresh every day.
You mentioned welcoming décor, before. What sort of ideas do you have for that?
<BFJ> One of the girls that we deployed with is making us a special mural with our design on it. Another guy that we deployed with is making us something out of steel. We don’t know much about it yet because it’s a surprise.
<MH> We’ll have other branches of the service represented as well. Beth’s oldest son served in the Marine Corps and my youngest son is in South Korea now, serving in the army. My mother, who will be cooking, served in the army. We’re looking to make a very big veterans/military mural and make it feel more like “down home” patriotism. Not so much just the patriotic red, white and blue, but more of a down home feel.
<BFJ> If any vets want to bring a picture in, we’ll get it framed and get it on the wall.
Have you thought about the significance of being female, military veteran business owners?
<MH> It’s definitely a niche that is underutilized. We didn’t realize how much so until we started looking at grant opportunities and such. Even women entrepreneurs are a minority in the field, so when you add in the fact that we’re both retired military, there’s not a lot out there. I really wish there was more support for that. We’re actually working with a veteran’s business organization that is really trying to push more female veterans out there, into business. Sadly, reaching out and looking for things as a female veteran, you’re not always given the same opportunities as your male counterparts.
With that being said, I think that could be a real selling point?
<MH> That’s our hope. As I was explaining briefly earlier, our entire business model is based around two things. A) We want to support our veteran community, because coming from that community, it’s a familyhood that unless you’ve experienced, you can’t really understand. There’s no way to explain that connection. I don’t even have to know you to experience that bond. There always will be. We also wanted to really give back and help grow within the business community. Everything we’re having done as far as work on this building, the equipment we’re purchasing, where we’re going to be getting our food products are all being bought from veteran owned companies or from businesses right here in town. We care less about pricing and more about giving back to those two things, because if we can help grow those things, they can help us grow too, especially right here in the community.
Beth, I think I know the answer, but I’m going to go ahead and ask the question anyway. Where did the name for the restaurant come from?
<BFJ> (laughs) Because every time we are done with any type of field exercise or deployment or operation, the Sea Bees would always have a “Beehive” where everyone gets together to cook out. You eat, you drink and have a few. Obviously, we’re not serving alcohol, but it made sense to have a “beehive” where everyone gets to be together and congregate. You can chat and have fellowship.
Do you have a date in mind for opening?
<MH> We’re hoping for a soft open on June 26, but construction is fluid!
<BFJ> Semper Gumby!
<MH> (Smiles) Semper Gumby. Always flexible! We are shooting for an opening day of June 26.
Monday through Saturday?
<MH> No, it will be Tuesday through Sunday.
I, for one, am really glad to have you in town.
<MH> We’ve really received a lot of support from the other business owners here in town, because our other big goal was to not compete with any of the other businesses. We want to help other businesses grow and hopefully they want us to grow. Sticking to coffee, and breakfast and ice cream won’t compete with other businesses. The Embarras just opened and they have a grill. JR’s is right next door and their steaks on the weekends are amazing. The Mexican restaurant right across the street never has less than amazing food. They’ve all been super supportive of us. I actually spoke with Monical’s the other day and we’re trying to put together a package deal where we’ll host kid’s birthday parties here. We can do pizza and Sundae bars for the kids. We’ve really received a lot of support because we’re trying to support them as well. Ryan and Crystal up at the Embarras have really been a huge help for us. They’ve stepped in with advice and offering assistance and items and things we need. They’ve been huge for us
Is there anything you would like to add?
The Veteran’s Business Project is the organization that we’re working with. They work to help veterans connect to opportunities. I can’t say enough good things about them. They came down and went to all of our meetings with us and helped with every step of this planning. They’ve been invaluable to us. Cassandra has been amazing, working with us on a timeline. We were really lucky in that we’ve been really supported, both here locally and within the veteran community. Our spouses and children have been very supportive and they’ve given us plenty of free labor! <laughs>