Two years after the global financial crisis, Christopher Ferguson, BS ’01, was looking for a change of pace. After a decade-long career in commercial real estate, he began considering a move to another industry.
“I used to cook with my dad when I was younger, and I really started enjoying the craft beer industry and food here in Chicago,” he says. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I just knew I liked that space.”
In 2010, Ferguson left his job as a vice president at Cohen Financial and traveled to New Zealand and Australia. While there, Ferguson was impressed with the pairings of beers and bar snacks, leading him to wonder why such high-quality bar snacks — such as flavored popcorn, snack mixes, chips and nuts — were not common in America.
When he returned to Chicago, Ferguson went into the kitchen to create the type of bar snack he felt was missing stateside. He started out tinkering with different possibilities, including popcorn, but flavored nuts gelled first.
“It took 20 to 30 different versions to get to where we are,” says Ferguson about his chipotle and lime peanuts. “That was our first flavor when I was working on recipes.” After getting the peanut recipe just right, Ferguson launched Bee’s Knees Food Company in 2011.
“I’ve always loves the expression, Bee’s Knees,” Ferguson says about the name. “It’s kind of retro and means ‘the best,’ but it’s absolutely nonsensical.”
Bee’s Knees specializes in gourmet nut mixes that pair well with craft beers (there are even pairing suggestions). Currently, the company offers five flavors; in addition to chipotle and lime, there are Mexican hot chocolate almonds, curry curry peanuts, Szechuan roasted peanuts and salted honey lemon cashews. Ferguson has created each one.
“I start by looking for flavors that I personally enjoy,” Ferguson says. For the popular chipotle and lime roasted peanuts, Ferguson “tried to capture this essence of being on the beach in Mexico, eating a taco and having a nice drink — a warm, spicy flavor with lime undertones,” he says.
The salted honey lemon cashew was born out of collaboration with a brewery from Michigan. At Chicago’s Craft Beer Week, Ferguson found that people loved the flavor.
In 2012, the company was nominated for a Chicago Innovation Award, and its products are carried at bars around Chicago, as well as at Whole Foods, Zingerman’s, and Dean & Deluca. Customers can also buy products online.
Bee’s Knees is not Ferguson’s first foray into creating a business. In 2005, he and a partner founded Madison-LaSalle Advisory Group, a commercial real estate company for small- to medium-sized businesses.
Ferguson, who studied marketing and finance while an undergraduate, credits WashU with preparing him to work in business.
“The classes, professors, the student body and, I think, the skills that I learned have definitely translated to a lot of what I’m doing today,” he says. “It’s funny to see that those classes are applicable.”
Ferguson also has advice for entrepreneurs: “Expect challenges. Whatever your path is, there are going to be speed bumps. If you care about it, don’t give up and work through it. Use that WashU education to solve the problem,” he says. “Being an entrepreneur is more mental than anything else.”