Golden Touch

From humble beginnings,
when his father brought home three beehives in 1946, Bill Gamber, '59, and his family grew a backyard hobby to the nation's largest family-owned honey processor

by Jennifer A. Cline, writer/editor-One College Avenue. Photos by Cindy Davis Meixel.

Bill Gamber II was 8 years old in 1946 when his father arrived home from his uncle's farm sale with a surprise – three beehives on the back seat of his car.

As the story goes, according to Gamber, a 1959 Williamsport Technical Institute toolmaking graduate, his father, William "Ralph" Gamber, had had a heart attack in his 30s and was following doctor's orders to get a hobby.

It's The American Dream

That fall, Gamber's father and mother, Luella, packed their first honey harvest in the kitchen of their Lancaster home. Soon enough, the hobby was a growing business. Three hives became 300, and Gamber and his sisters sacrificed hobbies – for Gamber it was baseball – to help to sell honey to their neighbors. At their parents' side, the children learned the honey business.

Dutch Gold Honey's bottling lines produce 120 containers a minute. The company ships 50 million pounds of honey each year to retail stores and food manufacturers."We only bottle the best," Ralph Gamber always said, and his children have kept their father's simple promise.

Ralph Gamber – a salesman in his prehoney life – eventually made more sales than his own hives could keep up with. Lancaster is not the most productive area for honey, Gamber explained, so Dutch Gold began buying raw honey from New York and Virginia, and then went west. Today, the company no longer keeps its own hives, and barrels arrive daily at the 100,000-square-foot processing plant at 2200 Dutch Gold Way from Canada, Argentina, Mexico, Vietnam and other countries.

"The U.S. only produces one-third of the honey we consume, so the honey industry is a net importer," Gamber explained.

Each year, 50 million pounds of honey leave Dutch Gold – now the largest independent honey company in the nation – for destinations across the United States, traveling in consumer-size containers, as well as totes, drums and tank trucks.

In addition to the signature Dutch Gold Honey brands, the company supplies a large percentage of private-label honey for grocery stores in the eastern United States. About half of Dutch Gold's honey is sold as an ingredient for cereals, salad dressings, breads, yogurt, ice cream and other items.

Since each product requires a different "taste" of honey – for instance, Gamber explained, there's a standard formulation for yogurt producers, who do not want an overpowering honey taste in their products – and because each year's honey crop may change according to the flora bees find, making sure honey tastes as specified requires the skills of a master blender.

The skill is one of many Gamber learned from his father, the original Dutch Gold Honey master blender.

"You can't put senses down on paper," Gamber explained, so as master blender, he worked with clients as they developed their recipes. (He has since trained his successor, a longtime Dutch Gold Honey employee.) "You sit down with them, find out what they want to use it for, and get an idea of what taste they're looking for. It's up to me, then, to blend and come up with the taste they're looking for."

It's not always simple to come up with just the right taste for a client, Gamber said, recalling that he worked for two years with a cereal manufacturer to get the right flavor for one of its products.

Master blender is one of the many roles Gamber, now the semi-retired co-owner and chairman of Dutch Gold Honey Inc. and McLure's Honey and Maple Products in Littleton, N.H. (a division of Dutch Gold Honey that the Gambers acquired in 1997), has held since he joined the company officially in 1967.

When Gamber graduated from Manheim Township High School in 1956, although his father's honey business was steadily growing, it was still a part-time venture. So he worked for a year to earn money to enroll at Williamsport Technical Institute, where he earned a two-year certificate in toolmaking.

With his education, he got an apprenticeship with Flinchbaugh Products in York, followed by a job at RCA as a tool and die maker, then another at AMP Inc., which in 1999 became Tyco Electronics. He became a supervisor there, but to achieve the next step – plant manager – applicants needed a four-year degree; so in 1967, Gamber took his chances – and a large pay cut – to leave AMP and join his parents in Dutch Gold Honey.

That year, the business was incorporated. It had several part-time employees and four full-time employees: Gamber, his parents and his wife, Kitty, who worked when the children left for school to help with quality control and designing labels for the bottles. Today, the company employs about 90.

Gamber's machining certificate came into play as he helped to purchase and maintain the factory's equipment in a small machine shop in the plant.

When Bill Gamber joined his father's company in 1967, there were four full-time employees: he, his parents and his wife. Today, the company is the largest family-owned honey company in the nation.

When his father retired, Gamber became president. A few years ago, he stepped down to hand the presidency to his younger sister Nancy. His sister Marianne is president of Gamber Container Co., an offshoot that originated when Ralph Gamber, talking with fellow beekeeper Woodrow Miller in 1957 about how great it would be to have a squeezable honey container that didn't drip all over the table, came up with the now-iconic and often-copied honey bear bottle. The container company sells plastic and glass bottles and jars.

While part of his "semi-retirement" is spent on such leisurely activities as flyfishing and golf, Gamber remains busy not only on the Dutch Gold Honey board and the Gamber Container Co. board, but also as director of the Gamber Foundation, which supports local charities, honeyindustry research and scholarships for children of Dutch Gold Honey employees.

He's also entered a new venture called En-R-G Foods with his son. The company, of which Gamber is vice president and co-owner, specializes in honey-based energy bars, chews and gels.

"Dad (Ralph) had energy bars in the '50s, made of all-natural products," Gamber said, but at the time, there was not much market for them. "Eight years ago, I had the dumb idea to bring it back," he joked.

This go-round, the time was right. The original four-man collaboration – made up of Gamber and his son Bill Gamber III, who owns a store, as well Big Agnes Inc., a tent and sleeping-bag company in Steamboat Springs, Colo.; Bob Stahl, a food scientist who develops formulations for many of the products; and John Miller, a honey producer – recently added a fifth partner, worldrenowned cyclist Lance Armstrong.

The "Honey Stinger" products are sold at Wegmans, Dick's Sporting Goods, the Sports Authority, REI, Eastern Mountain Sports, Whole Foods and many smaller shops.

It was by no accident that Dutch Gold Honey Inc. grew from a backyard hobby to the national producer it is today, Gamber said.

"Dad was always a pusher," he explains. "It's the American dream. There are a lot of them out there."

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