Food & Drink

This Iconic Atlanta Hotel Has a Buzzing Secret Garden

Meet the pastry chef harvesting honey on the rooftop of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta

Photo: Courtesy of Hyatt Regency Atlanta

Chef James Gallo harvests honey on top of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta.

James Gallo has a bee on his shoe. “There’s honey on my boot, obviously,” says Gallo, a pastry chef at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta. “She’s going after it.” Gallo doesn’t mind the hitchhiker. We’re standing on the roof of the hotel, surrounded by skyscrapers in the heart of downtown, on a hot July day. You’d never know by looking at the iconic 1967-built building, but its rooftop is home to hundreds of thousands of bees. In addition to crafting desserts for the hotel’s restaurants, Polaris and Sway, Gallo happens to be the resident beekeeper.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta tending to bees and producing honey. It started when the hotel partnered with Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association in 2013 as part of an initiative to use local ingredients. Shortly after, the association reached out about some orphaned bees, and the Hyatt ended up with one hive, which quickly grew to two. 

photo: Courtesy of Hyatt Regency Atlanta
The writer and Gallo examine the hive.

Gallo grew up helping his family keep bees in New Jersey and was drafted into helping the Atlanta hive by default, but the job unlocked a passion. Taking care of bees means more than just trying to get honey, he says. It’s about sustaining life. “You’re dealing with a different kind of elements up on the roof,” says Gallo. 

photo: Courtesy of Hyatt Regency Atlanta
Chef James Gallo.

Under the spinning dome of Polaris, 250 feet above Peachtree Street, raised garden beds contain a dizzying array of yellow pentas, basil, purple obedient plant, rosemary, and mint—much of which appears in the hotel’s restaurants. Bees flit around the garden and likely far beyond,  traveling up to five miles for pollen and nectar before returning to one of the hotel’s fourteen hives. Gallo, suited in protective gear, visits them nearly every day. In the winter the colonies shrink as the bees go into survival mode, living off sugar water; summertime brings a flurry of excitement as they expand and begin producing honey. When Gallo opens one of the hives, a world of organized chaos is revealed, each bee with its duty. 

No two batches of honey are alike. Their hue depends on the flowers the bees fed from that year and can range from clear yellow to deep amber. The honey’s flavor profile changes each season too. “A lot of our honey this year has just been very floral,” Gallo says. 

photo: Courtesy of Hyatt Regency Atlanta
Basil and black-eyed Susan.

More than a deliciously sweet substance, honey reflects the world around a hive. Atlanta’s experienced a construction boom in recent years, and the Hyatt’s honey looks different than it did a decade ago, when it had a dark, stout-beer-like tint. “I haven’t seen that super dark color and that was very earthy, almost herbal,” Gallo says. He supposes the bees were using holly nectar and that a building with that plant is now gone. “Everything is a byproduct of change. So honeys are going to change,” he says. “Your flowers around the city are going to change.”

photo: Courtesy of Hyatt Regency Atlanta
The blue dome dessert; jarred honey in the hotel gift shop.

The hotel is on track to produce about eight hundred pounds of honey this year—and it gets put to good use. It’s sold in jars at the hotel’s gift shop and used in myriad ways in the property’s restaurants. Honeycomb appears on charcuterie boards in Sway. In Polaris, honey shines in the blue dome dessert, a chocolate mousse filled with honey caramel and served alongside pecan praline for Georgia flair. In the Smoked Honey’O cocktail, honey syrup blends with dark rum, whiskey, and orange bitters for a showy drink smoked tableside. Gallo also likes to experiment with the honey, whether that’s making honey doughnuts or his version of Snickers with a honey nougat. “It’s whatever I feel like doing that day, if I really want to have fun,” says Gallo. “A lot of times I’ll use it as a guide for teaching my team in the pastry kitchen.”

Taking care of the bees isn’t easy—it can reach up to 105 degrees in the bee suit on a summer day—but Gallo wouldn’t have it any other way. “I can be angry at the world. I don’t want to talk to anybody,” he says. “But you go up there and everything falls away.”

photo: Courtesy of Hyatt Regency Atlanta
The Hyatt Regency Atlanta and its iconic rotating, blue-domed restaurant, Polaris.