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How a college student’s hobby turned into a $40 million hot honey empire

Mike Kurtz, the founder of Mike’s Hot Honey, never planned to start a condiment business. He was just a college student who loved to cook and experiment with different flavors. But his passion for spicy honey, which he discovered in Brazil, led him to create a product that has taken the pizza world by storm.

The origin of Mike’s Hot Honey

Kurtz was studying abroad in Brazil in 2004, when he stumbled upon a pizzeria that had jars of honey with chili peppers on every table. He was intrigued by the combination of sweet and spicy, and decided to try it on his pizza. He was hooked.

“I thought it was amazing,” Kurtz tells CNBC Make It. “I had never tasted anything like it before.”

He brought back some of the honey to his college apartment in New Jersey, where he started to make his own version with local honey and chili peppers. He experimented with different varieties and ratios, until he found the perfect balance of heat and sweetness.

He shared his homemade hot honey with his friends and family, who encouraged him to sell it. But Kurtz had other plans. He wanted to pursue a career in music, and moved to Brooklyn after graduating from college.

How a college student’s hobby turned into a $40 million hot honey empire

The breakthrough at Paulie Gee’s

Kurtz landed a job as a pizza apprentice at Paulie Gee’s, a popular pizzeria in Brooklyn, where he learned the art of making Neapolitan-style pies. He also brought in a bottle of his hot honey to show his boss, Paulie Giannone, who was impressed by the unique topping.

Giannone decided to put Kurtz’s hot honey on one of his pizzas, called the Hellboy, which featured soppressata and fresh mozzarella. The pizza was a hit, and customers started to ask for more of the hot honey. Kurtz began to make larger batches of his honey in the pizzeria’s kitchen, and sold them in squeeze bottles at the counter.

He also created a label for his product, using his own name and a simple logo. He called it Mike’s Hot Honey, and registered it as a trademark in 2010.

The expansion of Mike’s Hot Honey

As the demand for his hot honey grew, Kurtz realized that he had a potential business opportunity. He decided to quit his job at Paulie Gee’s in 2013, and focus on scaling up his production and distribution. He rented a commercial kitchen in Queens, where he hired a small team to help him make and bottle his honey. He also partnered with a co-packer in Pennsylvania, who could produce larger quantities of his honey with consistent quality.

He started to sell his hot honey online, through his own website and Amazon. He also reached out to other pizzerias, restaurants, and retailers, who were interested in carrying his product. He got his first big break when Whole Foods agreed to stock his honey in its Northeast region in 2014. Since then, he has expanded to more than 10,000 locations across the U.S., including Walmart, Target, Kroger, and Costco.

He also diversified his product line, adding new flavors and formats, such as hot honey peanuts, hot honey vinegar, and hot honey packets. He also collaborated with other brands, such as Shake Shack, Popeyes, and Chobani, to create limited-edition products featuring his hot honey.

The success of Mike’s Hot Honey

Today, Mike’s Hot Honey is one of the leading brands in the U.S. honey market, which is worth more than $1 billion. Kurtz estimates that his company will bring in more than $40 million in revenue over the next year, and has a 2.5% market share. He attributes his success to his passion, persistence, and creativity.

“I think the key is to find something that you love, and that you’re good at, and that you can share with the world,” Kurtz says. “And then, just keep working hard, and keep innovating, and keep having fun.”

He also credits his loyal customers, who have supported him from the beginning, and have spread the word about his hot honey. He says he still enjoys giving out bottles of his honey from his “Pulp Fiction” inspired briefcase, which he uses as a marketing prop.

“I think there’s something about briefcases. You don’t see them around too often,” Kurtz says. “So whenever you do, there’s this subliminal message sent out to the people around you that whatever’s in the briefcase is of value. It’s gotta be important if you’re carrying it in a briefcase, right?”

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