Talking hot honey, scale and how to create a buzz with Mike Kurtz, founder of Mike’s Hot Honey

This is part of a series at Food Dive of Q&A’s with iconoclasts in the industry doing interesting things and challenging the status quo in the food industry. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Name: Mike Kurtz

 

Where do you live: Brooklyn. NY

Occupation:  Founder, Mike’s Hot Honey

Spiking sweet golden honey with a dash (or more) of sizzling hot chili pepper might never had occurred to Mike Kurtz, 41, but for a student trip to Brazil, where he stumbled upon a pizzeria offering up bottles of the spicy-sweet nectar to drizzle across their pizzas. One bite and Kurtz was hooked. 

Upon his return to the states, Kurtz eventually moved to Brooklyn and started a career in the music industry, while experimenting with different honey—and pizza—recipes at home. Like most New Yorkers, Kurtz also enjoys a good slice and convinced the now iconic pizzapreneur Paulie Gee to give him a shot in the kitchen so he could try out some of his experiments in a real pizza oven. As pizza-making skills improved through his apprenticeship, Kurtz brought some of his honey into the restaurant, eventually concocting the now classic Paulie Gee’s Hellboy.  

Kurtz, who had been giving bottles away to friends, eventually started selling it in the pizzeria. The demand convinced him that he could make a go of it, and Kurtz eventually dropped his day job and devoted himself to Mike’s Hot Honey full time. The winning combination is a blend of Brazilian peppers and locally grown wildflower honey and is available everywhere from Walmart to Whole Foods to tiny pizzerias across the country. Along with the availability expansion, Mike’s is entering into partnerships with other CPG brands. Kurtz sat down with us to explain what’s up with his beloved hot honey and where he sees the brand going next. 

FOOD DIVE: What was the first job you ever had?

MIKE KURTZ: I was a dishwasher at Amherst College Dining Services. That was the first of several jobs I had in food service. I used to cook a lot with my mom growing up, so I was always into food, but that was my first job. You know when you go into the college dining hall and put your dirty tray through that window and it goes on the conveyor belt—that was my job. I eventually got promoted to French Toast. So I had this giant flat top grill and I would make the wash for the toast and then I would do like 60 pieces of French toast at a time on a flat top grill. I’d just flip all 60 of them.

Optional Caption

Permission granted by Mike’s Hot Honey

 

FOOD DIVE: What inspired you to focus on your current work?

KURTZ: I had been making Mike’s Hot Honey as a hobby for about seven years, when my passion for pizza led me to Paulie Gee’s, which is a Neapolitan-style pizzeria in Brooklyn. I’d been making a lot of pizza at home and I met Paulie when he was first opening the pizzeria. and I was eating there and came by the table and he started chatting about his dough recipe and his oven and could tell I was really interested and he invited me to become a pizza apprentice.

So I started working there, going after my day job, learning how to work the oven and make pizza and eventually I was fast enough that he put me on a dinner shift. 

I brought a bottle of honey in for Paulie to try and he liked it and asked me if I could make it for the restaurant to drizzle on the pizza. So they started using it there and it just became a hit. 

It became this bucket list menu item and I got pulled into the business. I had people coming up to me, asking me where they could buy bottles, and I wasn’t bottling it or selling it. 

So it was something that really was born out of a demand for the product. People just seem to love it and it organically grew that way. I still worked my day job in the music business,  but eventually I transitioned into a full time honey business role. But for you know, for the first few years, it was a combination of working in the music business, working at the pizzeria making pizza and bartending, and slowly building Mike’s Hot Honey.

FOOD DIVE: What is the biggest change you have seen while working your current role?

KURTZ: For the first few years, I kept on hearing that hot honey was the biggest trend. You know, it’s this trend and hot honey is trending. And you just hear that over and over again. And I think at this point, now it’s become an established category in the supermarket. So we’ve gotten beyond this idea that this is just a trend, and it’s really here to stay. And the honey aisle, which was virtually unchanged for like 50 years, and now hot honey is now this new subcategory in that aisle. So it’s gone from what the media and people were calling a trend to an established category over the course of this business.

FOOD DIVE: What was harder than you thought it would be? What was easier?

KURTZ: The part that was easier than I imagined was just creating demand, building demand for the product. I was very fortunate to have this thing that people loved. And they loved it before there was even packaging on the bottle. So that was a very good sign. 

When I was working at Paulie Gee’s, people kept on asking for bottles. So I knew if I built a brand around it, it could be really powerful. There are many great products in the CPG space that people love, but they don’t they don’t tend to share them or talk about them. And I think because our product is novel, something that people both love, but also want to talk about and share, that created this organic growth that has been behind the growth of the brand this entire time.

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