Every so often, a new brand is launched that takes a consumer market by storm, driven purely by the passion of the people who buy it, love it and share it with others. Twenty years ago, entrepreneur Mike Kurtz started on a journey that would see him develop a brand new food category, hot honey, and create Mike’s Hot Honey, a $30 million business whose growth is attributed to customer advocacy.
In 2003, Kurtz was on a camping and hiking expedition with friends in Brazil. The native New Yorker had a solid connection to the country because it was where his parents had met, and he had spent a year there studying as an international student.
He says: “On the last day of the trip, we wandered into a little town and found this pizzeria where there were jars of honey with chili peppers for drizzling on the pizzas. It was just one of those flavor profiles I couldn’t stop thinking about.”
A year later, back home in the U.S., Kurtz started experimenting with honey chili pepper infusions in his college apartment. After graduating in 2005, he moved to New York and began working in the music business, but in his spare time, he continued to make chili honey, which he gave out to friends and family.
He had also started experimenting with making pizza. In 2010, when a new local pizzeria opened, Kurtz contacted the owner, Paulie Gee. “I was asking him a lot of questions about recipes and ovens,” says Kurtz. “He could see my passion and invited me to become a pizza apprentice there.”
Taking him up on his offer, Kurtz kept his day job and spent evenings honing his skills at the pizzeria. One night, he brought in a bottle of his hot honey for Paulie to try. He liked it. He put on a pizza, which he named Hellboy, and asked Kurtz if he could make it for the restaurant.
“When Mike came to work with us and introduced the product, I wasn’t sure where he would go with it,” says Paulie. “However, when I saw that he had a huge vision for it and wasn’t letting anything get in his way, I was certain that it would become a widely used product.”
Hellboy became the most popular pizza on the menu, drawing crowds of people who would wait two or three hours to eat at the pizzeria every night. Having seen people’s reactions to tasting his honey on their pizza, Kurtz started selling it, initially in little unmarked containers out of the back of the pizzeria. Later that year, after an artist friend designed some professional packaging for his first serious bottles, he sold them off the pizzeria bar.
Mike’s Hot Honey was now officially a business, launched out of demand for the product but without any solid plans for how he would grow it. Production was already outgrowing the capacity of Kurtz’s modest home kitchen.
“It was difficult to scale up because there was no template for how to do it,” he says. “Honey is messy and sticky, while chili peppers can irritate the skin. I needed a production line that already handled honey and had honey-specific filling equipment. Still, none of the companies I approached wanted to risk running my product that could cross-contaminate other products with chili peppers.”
Eventually, he moved production to Stiles Apiaries in New Jersey, relieving himself of the manufacturing burden, unlocking larger-scale distribution and freeing up his time to grow the business.
In 2015, Kurtz’s best friend and former fellow student came on board as a partner, bringing the traditional business experience and insight that Kurtz lacked. The food service side of the business was boosted when Kurtz signed a deal with a chain of fast pizza restaurants called &Pizza. Other restaurants used chili honey on everything from fried chicken and cheese to charcuterie and seafood.
He says: “We work with over 3,000 restaurants across the U.S., and that is the core driver of brand awareness for us. That’s where most people discover the product, start talking about it, and want to share it.”
Mike’s Hot Honey is making inroads overseas with sales in Canada, Mexico, Korea, Japan, Kuwait and UAE. Kurtz recently went full circle by opening a production line in Brazil.
A more recent development was a move into licensing agreements with other retailers. “People loved what was inside the bottle, so we have focused on the core product, but we’ve licensed the brand for collaborations in different store categories,” says Kurtz. “We did a hot honey Dijon mustard with Maille, the French Dijon mustard brand that’s been making mustard since the 1700s; we have a beer that’s just about to come out and a snacking stick with the German meat brand Schaller and Weber.”
Mike’s Hot Honey recently partnered with potato chip brand Utz. “When we do these collaborations, there’s a rubric for which ones we say yes to, and Utz checked the boxes for several reasons,” says Kurtz. “Their potato chips are sold in places where our honey isn’t, for example, in gas stations. That creates a big billboard for the brand right there on the bag.”
Korlin Serauskis, Vice President of brand marketing at Utz Brands, Inc., says: “We are very happy with how consumers have responded to Utz Mike’s Hot Honey potato chips. It’s a winning combination that answers the call for more flavorful snack food options. The introduction has already generated sales four times higher than similar introductions and nearly 75 million earned media impressions. Thus, we’ve recently announced that Utz Mike’s Hot Honey potato chips will be a permanent item in our portfolio.”
The business has secured $12 million in venture capital investment, including a Series A round led by Fifth Down Capital in 2017 and a Series B round in 2020 via Piper Sandler Merchant Bank.
Seven years ago, the company was turning over $100,000 annually. Revenues for the next 12 months are predicted to exceed $40 million. Unlike many consumer brands that rely on massive advertising campaigns, Kurtz’s brand growth has been based on creating a niche, building a fanbase and capitalizing on that support.
“The fact that people talk about the honey has always been the fuel behind the brand and continues to grow the brand today,” says Kurtz. “People love sharing it. It’s that word of mouth that brings communities of people into the family.”