Honeycomb Shop + Play Brings Sweet Sustainable Children’s Goods to Botanical Heights
When I step into Honeycomb’s sun-swept brick-and-mortar shop, the second thing I notice—after fawning over its almost painfully adorable collection of children’s toys and clothing, such as a red panda backpack and bear-ear bonnets—is that the store is neatly divided into two sections. On one side, the shop: ethically made clothing in natural colors, sustainable toys and Honeycomb’s own brand of home and body products. On the other, a play area: miniature tables, chairs and cushions where kids can test out products while their parents shop.
“Nothing in our shop has a button,” co-owner Angela Giancola tells me while explaining that they opt for exclusively non-electronic toys. She and fellow owner, Zoë Kaemmerer, launched Honeycomb as a “Shop + Play” concept earlier this year in order to cultivate a space where customers can make conscious purchases that discourage waste. They focus on products, such as their Joan Miró-esque wall decal stickers, that can be played with by any age group in imaginative, versatile ways.
For Giancola, Honeycomb is a departure from previous dining and hospitality ventures; she is married to chef Ben Poremba of Olio, Nixta, Elaia and other St. Louis restaurants. But Honeycomb is on familiar turf in the historic Botanical Heights neighborhood, right across the street from Olio.
Kaemmerer and Giancola sat down with ALIVE on the floor of the “play” side of their shop to discuss their sustainability mission, their efforts to promote thoughtful consumerism and their community-building events, such as Giancola’s American Sign Language classes.
ALIVE: What was the process from conception to launch of Honeycomb’s brick-and-mortar shop?
Giancola: About three years ago, I unplugged when my daughter was born. I lived in Israel for about four months, and when I came back, I wanted a one or two-day-a-week job. At the time, Zoë was working at Ylang Ylang, a fine jewelry store in Ladue. I started working there one day a week and that’s how we connected.
I always knew I wanted to have a children’s store, where kids could interact and explore gender-neutral products and where nothing would go to waste. I also wanted to stock products that could double as home decor. But the timing was always wrong. My husband and I have two kids and we’ve always been busy with the restaurants. Then I met Zoë, who has a great background in business, retail and fashion. We share the same ideas and passions.
I found out she was planning to leave Ylang Ylang for the next adventure, so I proposed my idea for the shop to her.
Kaemmerer: It was perfect timing in my life. She didn’t even know if I was going to go for the idea, but right away I said, “I’m in!” From there—although we were both working and Angela was raising her family—we started planning: writing a business plan and creating a brand at 10 o’clock at night after her kids were asleep or on random free days at Hello Juice & Smoothie or Olio. We didn’t have an office, we didn’t have anything.
Giancola: Our office was our backpack; we had this Superwoman backpack. [Laughs.]
Kaemmerer: It had our laptop, orders, anything we had talked about was in the backpack and we took it everywhere with us.
Giancola: People would ask if we wanted to meet in our office and we would tell them we could meet at a coffee shop and bring our office with us.
ALIVE: What types of products do you bring into the shop? How do you make those decisions?
Kaemmerer: Right off the bat, we knew we wanted to have a unisex store, where the clothing and toys could be worn and used by both boys or girls. That’s what got us thinking we wanted to make our own products. The first product we made was the decal stickers. When Angela was living in Israel, she visited an art museum that featured an exhibition created by students using decal stickers. The kids were allowed to go crazy with the decals in this white box of a room. Everything was covered in stickers, and Angela’s son wound up playing with them himself for two hours.
Giancola: I asked where I could buy the decals and learned they were custom-made. I knew then that was the very first product I wanted to make for the shop.
Kaemmerer: One of my best friends is a graphic designer in LA, so we could request specific colors and free-form shapes; we wanted to let kids use their creative and critical thinking to make their own shapes and images. A lot of decals out there are shapes such as trees or birds; they’re not toys that let you use your imagination.
ALIVE: Is it your ultimate goal to carry 100 percent house-designed Honeycomb products?
Kaemmerer: That was our initial goal. We really wanted to have a brand: things that we believe in that we could make or that people we know could make for us. Honeycomb has evolved so much in just three months, so I don’t know if we’ll continue on that path—because we do like collaborating with other people and using our store as a platform to showcase other people’s ideas and designs.
That’s the beauty of it: We will continue to carry the brands we do because they go over well with our customers and our relationships with those brands are really nice, but we’ll continue to make our own stuff, too. I think it’s going to be a nice mix.
ALIVE: What motivates you to create and sell versatile and sustainable products?
Giancola: It’s concern for the environment and our well-being. Even when I was a little kid, I liked to have things that were reused. I had clothing that once belonged to my great-grandmother or someone else in the family. I always loved the idea of tying into something bigger.
When you go to Europe, for example, you see a lot of old buildings. Nothing has been torn down. Even if a building is damaged by a natural disaster, European cities keep the remains and build something new from them. I don’t see that very often in the United States, and it makes me sad that history can be so easily forgotten.
This correlates to wastefulness. The more we waste things, the less the future will have. It saddens me that younger generations won’t be able to appreciate what we were able to appreciate, whether it be nature, animals or food.
Kaemmerer: Or face-to-face conversation.
Giancola: Or creative and critical thinking. That’s really how the decal stickers came to be; the engine was rolling in my head. I’m not saying technology is a bad thing, but I have seen a lot that has diminished our kids’ ability to think creatively. I can see its negative effects even in my own kids.
Kaemmerer: The products we sell are high-quality and adaptable so that kids don’t need 300 toys or 20 pairs of pants. The point is, you can find things here that will suit your child for a while.
ALIVE: It seems like a strong stance for a business to take because, at its core, there’s something anti-consumerist about your mission. There’s an irony there.
Giancola: Oh yeah. It’s interesting because we have some customers who don’t understand who we are and what we’re trying to do. But it’s simply a matter of guiding them to the realization that you don’t need four or five of the same thing. You can be creative with four garments, switching things around so that you have eight outfits. If you buy block toys, you can build a house, a park, a person or a piece of art. It’s all an exercise in recycling.
ALIVE: Why “Shop + Play”?
Kaemmerer: The “play” part of the store we’re sitting in now is filled with a good amount of the products we sell. This allows our customers to test most things before they buy them. We figure, why shouldn’t everyone be able to come in, test out the art products, play with the decals, read a book, mess around on the wobble board, figure out what they like and then they can make that decision. Plus, we know getting a kid to go into a store with you is pretty impossible unless there’s something in it for them!
ALIVE: Angela, you’ve been teaching ASL classes in the shop for a few months. Was that one of your original plans for the shop, and why is that something you wanted to do?
Giancola: I taught sign language in the past and I’m deaf myself, so both my kids know sign language. When I taught in Washington D.C., I had 38 kids from ages 3 months to 13, and not one of them spoke English.
Their families had come to work with the White House or the government and it was hard to determine how long they would stay. So, it was difficult for the families to find schools that would accept kids for one week, two months, one year, however long they would be visiting. Knowing that sign language is as close to a common denominator as you can get for language, art and music, I taught sign language and it helped the kids pick up English very quickly.
I’ve always known sign language has importance beyond the deaf world. There are baby signs, animal signs, signs for communication in general. I wanted to do a sign language class at Honeycomb to exercise that.
ALIVE: So far, who has been coming to the classes?
Giancola: It’s been a diverse group of people. We have a mom with a son who is deaf, but oral. We have a preschool teacher, a nurse, a person who learned sign language in school but has forgotten much of it and would like to learn again. We’ve had some kids. It hasn’t been one specific demographic.
Kaemmerer: You can take the class however you like. You can come every Wednesday and Angela will teach you something different each week. You can come once every two months. Angela curates the class to who is there that day, and you can take out of it what you want.
The class has become this hang out group. The kids play, the parents talk. It’s inspired us to figure out how to make more gatherings part of our business. That’s just how we work: We see one thing work well and then we build on it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Images courtesy of Honeycomb.