How 3 College Roommates Created a Hot-Sauce Business Down the Shore

They sell Hank Sauce out of their Sea Isle City restaurant of the same name, as well as in stores around the state and country.

Brian "Hank" Ruxton, Josh Jaspan and Matt Pittaluga show their “Core Four” of sauces: Herb Infused, Cilanktro, Camouflage and Hank’s Heat.
Brian "Hank" Ruxton, Josh Jaspan and Matt Pittaluga show their “Core Four” of sauces: Herb Infused, Cilanktro, Camouflage and Hank’s Heat. Photo courtesy of Hank Sauce

Once upon a time, your choice of hot sauce was Tabasco or Tabasco Green or Frank’s. Then the Internet exploded, and “pepperheads” started talking and collaborating.

Three of them were Jersey “bros” in college together in St. Augustine, Florida. Brian “Hank” Ruxton and Matt Pittaluga had grown up together in Dennis Township way down near Cape May. Josh Jaspan, from Haddon Township, was their college roommate.

Today, these three guys from Jersey run Hank Sauce, which is sold in stores around the state and country and also out of their Sea Isle City restaurant of the same name.

Here’s their story, as told by the company’s co-founder and marketing bro, Matt Pittaluga.

How did Hank Sauce come to be?
Matt Pittaluga: First of all, there’s actually a Hank. Brian “Hank” Ruxton and I met in fifth grade at Dennis Township Elementary in Cape May County. We’re 36 now. We became best friends and we both went to Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. I majored in graphic arts and fine arts, and Hank was studying liberal arts.

Sounds artsy. Where does hot sauce come in?
Hank would make his own hot sauce in the apartment we shared sophomore year with our Flagler classmate, Josh. I wasn’t a big fan of hot sauce because it was too one-note. But the sauce Hank made had a lot going on. It had other flavors besides chilies and didn’t take over the food. It enhanced it.

So how did you “go pro” with the sauce?
The year was 2008 and the hot sauce craze was breaking out. For a design class, I wanted to “brand” Hank’s sauce. He wanted to call it Hank Sauce. No apostrophe. I created a label, logo, and bottle, all of which we still use. We started to give the sauce to people we liked, and everyone loved it.

Hank Sauce

Hank Sauce sells for $6/bottle on the company’s website. Photo courtesy of Hank Sauce

Did you start selling Hank Sauce then?
Our St. Augustine buddy Max Kaiser was a cook at Mojo’s Taco in town. He put some Hank Sauce bottles out on their condiment rack, and people started swiping them. That told us something. Then a food writer for a lifestyle magazine in [nearby] Jacksonville, who’d tried Hank Sauce at Mojo’s, did a comparison of hot sauces and gave Hank Sauce five stars out of five for flavor. That got some buzz going.

What happened when you all graduated?
l spent an extra two years at Flagler for a second bachelor’s degree, in fine arts. But we all kept a sauce business in mind. In 2011, I moved back home to Sea Isle, and Hank was already here. Josh moved here that year too and became Hank Sauce’s finance guy. Max came up a year later.

Was Sea Isle City a strategic choice?
I did want our headquarters to be Sea Isle. My family goes back generations here and we know a lot of the restaurateurs and businesspeople. Sea Isle has been a very welcoming environment for what became Hank Sauce.

Hank Sauce bottle on the beach

Hank Sauce’s newest variety is called Exit 17, with green serrano peppers and tart tomatillos, which is named for the Parkway exit to Sea Isle. Photo courtesy of Hank Sauce

What were Hank Sauce’s baby steps?
We worked hard! We developed our continuing “Core Four” of sauces: Cilanktro, Camouflage, Hank’s Heat, Herb Infused–that was the sauce that started it all, back in St. Augustine. I like every one, but Cilanktro is my favorite. It’s so fresh-tasting, and amazing on tacos, guacamole and seafood.

We started our website in 2012 and we opened a casual restaurant early that year to showcase the sauce. The restaurant is also called Hank Sauce. It’s still thriving, and we keep expanding its calendar. It’s now open almost year-round. After Labor Day we go to Thursdays through Sundays, and we close from mid-October till before Thanksgiving.

What kind of restaurant is it?
Hank Sauce restaurant is American-Caribbean fusion, with tropical touches on good, familiar food. It’s a large menu. Burgers, tacos, burritos, salads, wraps, bowls, grilled chicken, baked wings, Buffalo chicken. The burgers are half-pounders with toppings like bacon and habañero jack cheese, on a brioche roll from Atlantic City’s Formica Freitag Bakery. Our pinchos are shrimp, tuna or chicken on skewers with French bread. Various Hank Sauce flavors are served with many of the dishes, and bottles are for sale to take home.

That’s good marketing. Did you advertise your sauce at first?
No, it was all word of mouth, grassroots, and mainly still is. We’ve always wanted to grow our business organically. We went in person to events like beer festivals, seafood festivals, farmers’ markets–not just in Jersey but from Florida to New Hampshire and over to Chicago. Our reputation and our sales grew.

About how many stores retail Hank Sauce now?
Four thousand. Ace Hardware is a big seller. Supermarkets in New Jersey that carry Hank Sauce include ShopRite, Acme, Giant and Kings. We’re sold in a lot of places–chains, independent stores, specialty markets—up and down the East Coast and in Chicagoland. Our website sells single bottles and combinations of Hank Sauce. The variety packs are popular for gifts. We also offer our two spice rubs and cool Hank Sauce apparel like hats, T-shirts and hoodies.

Does Hank Sauce still have a presence at Jersey events?
A lot of fans first try Hank Sauce at Jersey events, which we enjoy. We do seafood festivals, farmers’ markets, the Atlantic City Beer and Music Festival, Ocean City Block Party, Cape May Oktoberfest. Right here in Sea Isle, Hank Sauce is at the Skimmer Fest and the Sea Isle Fall Family Festival in September.

How do you meet the demand for Hank Sauce?
We opened Myrtle Packaging, our big new production facility in Millville, in 2018. It has several 200-gallon stainless-steel kettles and smaller kettles for test batches. My brother Pete, who’d gotten involved with Hank Sauce earlier, is in charge of operations and the plant. Max is the head batch chef and sauce maker. But we call him our “sauce monger.”

What are Hank Sauce’s latest flavors?
We have around a dozen varieties. Our newest is Exit 17, with green serrano peppers and tart little tomatillos. It’s named for the [Garden State] Parkway’s exit to Sea Isle. Skedatil is a nod to our product’s roots. It’s a twist on our original product, Herb Infused Hank Sauce. [Skedatil incorporates Datil hot peppers, which are cultivated in St. Augustine.]

I see some collaborative sauces on your website.
Yes, we’re doing that too. One collaboration is with Atlantic City’s Ocean Casino Resort. This variety has red Fresno peppers, agave, pineapple and a dash of tequila. It’s called “Across the Boards” not only to reference the boardwalk but because it’s good with everything.

Another current collaboration is two flavors with Aaron Stasiak, a Jersey boy [from Shamong in Burlington County] now living in North Carolina. He’s a sailing influencer known as The Qualified Captain. Those two sauces, a fruity, gingery red and a peppery green, are sold as a duo called “In the Channel.”

It sounds like the Hank Sauce crew is busy and happy, like a successful family business.
We are. And all our wives work with us. My wife, Randi, whom I met in sixth grade, shares the marketing with me. Josh’s wife, Monica, is part of the team and so is Brian’s [Hank’s] wife, Kaitlyn. His dad, Craig, is in the business, and so is my dad, Peter, as well as my brother, Pete.

How do you feel at the end of the day?
We all agree that we do very fulfilling work. It’s awesome to feed people for a living, especially with something as good and as fresh as our all-natural sauce. Running a business is fun. It’s not the easiest, but we’re all aware of our own strengths and weaknesses, and at the end of the day we feel great about Hank Sauce.

Hank Sauce restaurant: 8605 Landis Avenue, Sea Isle City; 609-486-5132

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