Trailblazers: Hank Sauce heating up
Mar 29, 2016
by Bobbie Stewart
Risk-takers, trendsetters, adventurers. Whatever you call them, these Flagler College alumni are blazing their own unique trails to success.
For alumnus Matt Pittaluga, what became a thriving hot sauce found in more than 200 business across the United States started the moment he bit into fellow alum Brian “Hank” Ruxton’s homemade buffalo chicken cheese steak sandwich while the two were students at Flagler College.
“I couldn’t exactly put my finger on it,” Pittaluga, ‘11, said about the night in 2010 when he tasted Ruxton’s homemade hot sauce atop his sandwich. “There was something mysterious about it. People would ask, ‘God, what’s in that?’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t know, but it’s crazy and it’s awesome.”
Others thought so, too. When Ruxton, ‘10, gave St. Augustine eatery Mojo’s Tacos 32-ounce sampling bottles, they started to disappear from the restaurant.
“We watched our buddies eat a ton of this sauce,” Pittaluga said. “I thought, ‘Man, if I like this stuff — and I don’t even like hot sauce — and these kids are just crushing it, why wouldn’t others like it?’”
That led Pittaluga, Ruxton and Josh Jaspan, ‘09, to launch what they called “Hank Sauce,” which drew on each alumnus’ individual strengths for concocting powerful flavor combinations, managing a business, and developing a unique brand and look for the nine-ounce square shaped bottles.
After graduating, the trio returned to their home state of New Jersey where they began their official Hank Sauce journey — selling bottles at area farmer’s markets while moonlighting at odd jobs.
Pittaluga never missed a beat when it came to promoting the sauce. As a pizza delivery driver, he would throw one-ounce bottles into customers’ bags. “One day my boss, a big guy from south Philly said, ‘Yo, Pittaluga — you throwin’ promo bottles in the delivery bags?,’ ” the Flagler alumnus recalled. “And I said, ‘Uh … maybe …’ and my boss said, ‘I like that. I like that. That stuff’s gonna make it.’”
By the fall of 2011, Pittaluga, Jaspan and Ruxton acquired a commercial kitchen in New Jersey’s Sea Isle City to make the sauce, and while they were at it, decided to open a restaurant, also called Hank Sauce, at the same location. Last summer was its fourth season in operation (it’s only open between Mother’s Day and Labor Day weekends). The restaurant on “the shore” offers burgers, sandwiches, salads and appetizers — all privy to a dollop (or more) of Hank Sauce.
Much of what is today’s “Hank Sauce” actually began at Flagler. The bottle, brandishing its fish-inspired logo, came about because Pittaluga needed a product for a design course.
While Pittaluga handles most of the marketing and brand design, all three co-founders devote time to promoting the sauce at area festivals when they’re not serving it up at the restaurant. Jaspan, a graduate of Flagler’s Business Administration program in 2009, also handles product shipments and company finances.
“We are pumped to see it grow,” Pittaluga said. “I’ve always believed that if you work hard enough, you’re going to make it. People keep telling us, ‘You’ve got a great product. Just keep doing what you’re doing.’”