SEA ISLE CITY - Any hot sauce you can find in a surf shop lined up in rows like the next artisan sunscreen or surf wax maybe means its creators have got something figured out.
For the Jersey Shore guys behind Hank Sauce, which has taken the red-hot red-hot-sauce market by storm in the last few years, having their friends at Heritage Surf sell their sauce was a no-brainer.
So was opening up a restaurant on Landis Avenue in the south end of Sea Isle, at 86th Street. Brian "Hank" Ruxton, after all, was an accomplished and creative chef who started out making the sauce for his friends at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla. When Matt Pittaluga, now 28, decided to create a logo and bottle design for a college project, the business model seemed to coalesce like a well-formed set of waves. A third friend, Josh Jaspan, the business major, took hold of the business end.
The sauce is now sold up and down the East Coast, the restaurant is busy, farmers' market sales are booming, the online business is robust, and their word-of-mouth reputation was such that Di Bruno Bros. in Philadelphia called them to ask to stock the sauce. Basically, they can't make enough of it.
Pittaluga sat down at the shop recently to talk about the company's origins and future, why Hank doesn't strive to be the hottest sauce, and why his generation seems to want hot sauce on everything. Hank was cooking.
So you're not Hank. Does Hank exist?
He's here. He's really busy. He couldn't step away right now.
His name isn't Hank either?
His name is Brian. Hank is just a nickname we gave him back in college.
Before the sauce, or after the sauce?
Before. It was his nickname. They were in a band and stuff.
What's your role? You're the graphics guy?
He used to make the sauce, the original one, the Herb Infused. It was my graphic-design project in college. We were all roommates, actually, at one point. I always thought it was really good. I didn't even like hot sauce at the time. When it came time, I made a label and a logo for this graphic-design project. People seem to really enjoy the packaging, but also the sauce.
The hot-sauce thing has just exploded.
It's been going very well. We're carried in a lot of places around here.
When he made it in college, did he sell it?
No, he just made it for his own use. When your roommate is a chef, anytime he makes something - you eat it.
What about the logo, saying "Hank Sauce" in the shape of a fish?
We're from around the water; we wanted some type of maritime theme to it. The fish symbolizes freedom as well - the freedom to break away from the industry-made hot sauces, get some locally made stuff. And the fish and surfing - it just looks cool. It has to be something you want to grab for.
And the bottle itself?
It's real simple with the square bottle: You get more sides to look at than a round bottle.
We started with a five-ounce bottle. I noticed a lot of our friends were just tearing through it, going through it real fast. I thought, "This is a sauce, this is something you pour on, we need a bigger bottle."
We wouldn't change a thing. That's why it's been tough to get it made in bigger quantities.
The first place I ever saw it was at Heritage Surf shop in Margate. I was thinking, "It's the surfer's hot sauce. Who wouldn't want that?"
Hank used to work for Heritage. They've always been good friends. It sells really well to that demographic, people who are into the outdoors.
There are four varieties: the original Herb Infused, Hank's Heat, Cilanktro, and Camouflage.
For now, we're focusing on these. Hank's got a ton of stuff up his sleeve.
What's the Camouflage?
Sweeter, tangier. It's got, like, a vinegar kick to it, great for grilling.
How hot is Hank's Heat?
It's not hot. It's got fresh habañeros in there.
You're not going to be the hottest hot sauce on the market.
Absolutely not. Flavor over fire. We do have some really hot stuff up our sleeves, and once we have time to bottle it, it's going to be awesome.
Are the labels on each of the flavors different?
Just the colors. I've done a lot of custom bottles. I did a custom bottle for the University of Pennsylvania this past year that was really cool.
What does that even mean?
They had a big conference for the Wharton School for their initiative for Global and Economic Leadership IGEL Conference on Earth Day, and it was like, "If the World is Getting Hotter, It Might as Well Taste Good."
They gave that to all the people, a thank-you gift. I do wedding bottles, too.
Do they give away the sauce at weddings, or just use it?
It's like a favor. Names, date. I do a design for them. We do mini bottles.
Where is the sauce being sold now?
In Sea Isle, it's all over. We're up and down the coast. We're in Florida, up in Rhode Island. Places out in Chicago. We do five farmers' markets every week: Sea Isle, Ocean City, Upper Township, Brigantine, and Stone Harbor.
Hot sauce is very popular with millennials.
They're more apt to try something new. There's been a ton of good research on the benefits of hot sauce. It's good for your metabolism.
Are people asking for hotter?
We've done a lot of experimental stuff. People are always asking for the small-batch stuff. We've had a lot of people who want it a lot hotter. We have a couple of them, a honey habañero.
Hot sauce is becoming like everything else, small-batch beer, small-batch cider, small-batch bacon.
That's why the quality's high in here. Keep it the same, just trying to get more of it made.
How much do you make?
Not enough, that's really the right answer. I just had to run Josh down some at the farmers' market.
Did you go to Di Bruno's and say, "Hey, do you want to sell this?"
They contacted us. Locals in their area had been asking for it. We started out doing a lot of flea markets in Philly.
We've done a lot of grassroots face-to-face with people, setting up the tent, going to farmers' markets, seafood fests. We've done the beer festivals and other festivals from New Hampshire, Boston, Chicago, Florida. Our website sales are a big part of it. We offer free shipping for $24 or more [four bottles at $6 each].
And now you're looking to expand.
We're looking for a bigger facility to try to get a lot of it out there. We want to make more than just sauce. We want to make everything that's in Hank's mind.
What's in the elusive Hank's mind?
Everything from barbecue sauce, salad dressings, spreads, collaborations. We already have something with some beef-jerky guys.
(Interview condensed and edited.)