Hank Sauce is heating things up from Sea Isle to South Philly
By Catherine Murray
Whether you’re in Sea Isle, Stone Harbor, or South Philly this summer, Hank Saucewill be within easy reach. This local hot sauce business is continuing to grow in popularity and is well on its way to becoming a national brand. Keep your eyes peeled for the square bottles with fish logo and dig in. It won’t disappoint.
Co-founder and designer Matt Pittaluga calls Hank Sauce “hot sauce for people that don’t like hot sauce”. It’s well balanced between sweet and spicy with the right amount of heat that doesn’t set your mouth on fire. Instead of adding just a few drops like you would with other hot sauces, devotees will put Hank Sauce front in center in their dishes. The low heat sauce builds such fantastic flavor that Hank Sauce now has a recipe section on its website.
The business traces its humble beginnings to Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida where Pittaluga met co-founders Hank Ruxton and Josh Jaspan. All three hail from Sea Isle, New Jersey. As a graphic design major, Pittaluga was looking for projects for his advertising class. His long-time friend and roommate, Hank, was always barbequing and cooking for friends. Hank made a mean hot sauce. Pittaluga was instantly hooked and began to create the branding, logo, and product “out of thin air” in collaboration with Hank and Jaspan.
With combined experience in restaurants and hospitality, their product evolved quickly. They received positive feedback from friends, professors, and the public. (So much so that bottles of Hank Sauce were being stolen from a local taco shop). Pittaluga further refined the product in his senior portfolio class in the fall of 2011. It was then that he landed on Hank’s current vertical logo that pops out on its square shaped bottles.
Around that same time, Pittaluga came back to Sea Isle for a wedding and passed out samples to friends and family, where it gained a devoted local following. (Years later, couples are still opting to include mini bottles of Hank Sauce in gift bags for weddings.)
In 2012, the founders made decided to move back home to Jersey. While it was difficult to leave Florida, they recognized the value of the Philadelphia market and their proximity to other East Coast opportunities. The three longtime friends rented a house together and ultimately found a pizzeria that was closing on 86th Street in Sea Isle. It became their flagship store and restaurant.
“Fans did a lot of the work for us” in terms of getting out the word. Most devotees spend part of their summers down the shore and hail from Delco, Montco, and Bucks County. In the early years of their business, Hank Sauce quadrupled its online sales in November and December as a result of their customers buying the sauce as holiday gifts.
Their unique, square-shaped bottle proved challenging for them when they wanted to expand. Co-packers turned them down, so the founders make the decision to build their own production facility in Millville, New Jersey. Distribution-wise, “before this year, big box shops weren’t realistic,” Pittaluga revealed. All of the bottling was done on site at their restaurant in Sea Isle, which didn’t allow for high growth. Until recently, Hank Sauce was available in about 30 Acmes and 30 ShopRites and numerous mom-and-pop shops. With the new bottling facility, their potential for growth is exponential. After a months-long conversation with Giant Food Stores, Hank Sauce is now on the shelves of 65 stores. They recently got the green light to move forward with Whole Foods Market.
Hank Sauce is committed to steady growth – while the company has been around for eight years, the founders still hustle like they did in the early years. The tight-knit threesome pay themselves like ground-level employees, invest money back into the business, and regularly promote Hank’s at big events and festivals up and down the East Coast. Pittulaga sees the value in every sale and views events as a way to reach a “handful of customers who will stay with you for life”.
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