Three former college roommates are living the dream down in Sea Isle City.
Brian Ruxton, Matt Pittaluga and Josh Jaspan founded Hank Sauce based on a recipe for hot sauce Ruxton used to cook up in their dorm at Flagler College in Saint Augustine, Florida. At the time, they were adding it to everything, but suddenly realized there was a business venture sitting in their refrigerator when Pittaluga designed a professional bottle for a graphic-design project.
They officially incorporated Hank Sauce, which comes from Ruxton’s college nickname, in 2011, right as Pittaluga was graduating and joining the other two in the workforce. With Jaspan having graduated in 2009 and Ruxton in 2010, the crew moved back to their native New Jersey to open up shop.
“(Ruxton) was making the sauce for his own enjoyment and our buffalo chicken cheesesteaks in college, but it wasn’t until Matt had to do his graphic design portfolio project that they came up with the original concept,” Jaspen said. “I was roommates with them and thought they might need a little help on the business end, and I quit my job down there in Florida.”
After making the rounds at farmers markets and retail outlets around southern New Jersey, the company reinvested the profits back into the entity. With a small line of credit, the trio opened a Hank Sauce restaurant in Sea Isle City in March 2012. After a few years of selling hot sauce, American fare cuisine and apparel, the company is looking to reinvest again, this time on the manufacturing end of its business.
“We make it by hand at our restaurant, and it’s a really slow process,” he said. “It’s more making a craft product than manufacturing at this point.”
But after looking at the cost of rent and quality of available space, the most promising solution may seem like the most unlikely at first glance: building their own manufacturing facility.
“We’re looking into different factory lines and pursuing our own manufacturing by purchasing land and building something from the ground up,” he said.
Co-packing? No packing
As Hank Sauce struggled to find an existing manufacturing location that met all its needs, another possible option was always on the table: co-packing facilities, which are often owned by a company that packages another company’s product under contract.
“There’s a whole industry of mostly privately held companies that do co-packing, but Rutgers has two food processing plants where people can go and rent space and equipment,” co-founder Josh Jaspan said.
The option of co-packing, though, meant compromising certain aspects of Hank Sauce’s product that makes it unique.
“Our square bottle doesn’t really go down your average product line, so there needs to be some serious retooling done in order to get a square bottle down the line,” Jaspan said. “There’s different pros and cons to dealing with someone who’s going to package your product.”
The company recently purchased land in Millville that will be the future site of its plant, which it plans to finance with a combination of reinvested profits, working with the Small Business Association and “equity from family and close friends, just to keep it close to home,” Jaspan said.
“We’re going through the process of looking for who’s going to build it, what equipment manufacturers we’re going to work with,” he said. “We’re in the process of discovery right now; it’s something new for me and my business partners that we’re learning as we go along, how that whole process is done from buying the dirt plot of land to setting up the plans, getting them approved and then building the whole thing from foundation to roof.”
That process of discovery has been mostly learning what not to do and allowing that to pave the road of following this new project through to completion.
Mostly, it’s been a struggle to find a place that meets all their needs.
“If there was somewhere to move into in our general region that was ready to move into and didn’t already have hosts of problems already,” Jaspan said, “but we’ve had a couple of factories we visited that were perfect, everything about it, the price and location, but then we discovered it was a toxic site with old gas tanks in it that were releasing benzene.
“There seemed to be a bunch of that.”
After a series of what Jaspan refers to as “strikeouts,” the option presented itself: “We have to do it ourselves,” he said. “A lot of the advice we’ve been getting from people is that it’s not such a bad idea.”
But, as the colloquialism goes, nothing worth doing is easy.
“Of course it entails its own challenges, but for us it’s a risk that we have to take,” he said. “We can’t just keep making it by hand and expect to grow.”
But no matter how the company grows in the future, it has its eye on one thing: keeping the quality of its craft product.
“It’s classic stuff in the food business and you hear about it a lot when companies get bigger: They lose quality and that’s when you lose the customers,” Jaspan said. “You have to keep everything the same and not dilute your product.”
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