Think you could start a successful business from scratch in thirty days with a $5k investment? That’s the very challenge that Bushwick Kitchen’s Casey Elsass accepted two and a half years ago when his friend Morgen asked. Within thirty days, Bushwick Kitchen was up and running with its Bees Knees Spicy Honey—chile-infused wildflower honey from the hives of a husband and wife team in Upstate New York. Within ten months, more than $170,000 in revenue had rolled in from that one product alone, a story of excellent taste skyrocketing entrepreneurial success.
In addition to Bees Knees Spicy Honey, The Savory Panty stocks holiday limited-edition Gingerbread Maple Syrup, Bees Knees Meyer Lemon Honey, Bees Knees Salted Honey, Trees Knees Spicy Maple Syrup, Trees Knees Cinnamon Maple Syrup, and Weak Knees Gochujang Sriracha. Just read those descriptions again and feel the flavors roll over your tongue.
From Bushwick’s Brooklyn kitchen, Casey shared the story of the company’s beginnings: “My friend Morgen had left for Europe and other pursuits. Based on the fact that Bushwick had taken off in a pretty surprising way without a lot of effort, I’d decided to leave my job at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. I was 27 and single with no kids and no mortgage, so it seemed like a great time to make a change and take on the challenge.” About this time, Morgen departed and Ted and I became partners. Ted had gone to business school, so he added a lot of needed expertise. I was renting shifts in a commercial kitchen in Brooklyn where there were more makers than space or time slots. I worked all night on an 8pm to 2am shift, then physically hauled the products down, then hauled them up again to my walk-up apartment. It was exciting but exhausting.”
Then, a break. Casey shared a lesson that while persistence is key, its results can also be terrifying. “I’d emailed the producer of the TODAY Show five times with no response. Then, I got a response . . . a little more than two weeks before Christmas. They said bring the honey on Friday and the show will air on Monday. As I watched the segment air, I had goosebumps because it was that moment in which things could really blow up exponentially for us. Or, they might not. As I watched the orders roll in I was thrilled, but then I was hanging my head in my hands because fulfilling them all just seemed impossible. It was amazing but terrible. My apartment became a warehouse of product and packing materials. We hardly had time to sleep, and this would go on day after day leading up to Christmas. Ted basically moved into my apartment to keep us moving, but it still wasn’t enough, and fulfilling all the orders seemed an insurmountable task. We were at the point where we almost decided we’d just have to disappoint customers and cancel the orders we couldn’t get out the door. Then, we realized we just couldn’t let customers down right before Christmas. We called in a few friends to help in exchange for beer, pizza, and our eternal gratitude. Together, we got it done and shipped everything out. By the end of that first December, we’d sold more than 9,500 bottles of spicy honey.”
“After that feat was behind us, Ted mentioned the introduction of a new maple product. I firmly said no new product until we can move this out of my apartment. My sanity was starting to slip away. It was full shifts just for honey, so how were we going to add maple? It seemed physically impossible. We ended up finding space just down the street from my apartment, and we were able to grow from there.”
“We learned invaluable lessons that first year. Because we got through it, our next year was funded, and we’ve been able to continue to grow in that way with one year’s sales funding the next year. We’ve never taken a loan or a credit card. This has become a self-sustaining business model. We’ve carved out our roles in the partnership. Ted manages all of wholesale accounts, brings in retailers, handles the accounting and legal issues. This frees me to focus on production, product development, and marketing. Two of those friends we offered beer and pizza still work for us, so they’ve seen the business from then to now. Two and a half years later we have five employees and are finally staffed up in a way that we have lives again. We have a robust enough bank account to order ahead and to make strategic plans for the future versus just trying to keep up. Life has started to normalize and this has become a well-functioning business where we can leave at 6 or 7, and have weekends and vacations.”
When I asked Casey about his relationship with food, he shared, “I’ve always been my most relaxed and comfortable in the kitchen. After a long day, I love to chop. In my family, we cooked in a way that was reactionary to the things around us, versus using recipes. I see recipes as ways to get new information. They are suggestions of you might do. They are an outline of the primary components that make up a dish. They’re a way to keep dictionary nearby while you start speaking language on your own. I feel proud that we’ve got a strong trio of projects out now all based on the three pillars of honey, maple, and sriracha. These basic tastes are so versatile.”
And what’s it like to be a maker in the booming creative mecca of Brooklyn? “Brooklyn is such an incredible place to be right now because there’s a great energy among food producers here. I have lots of friends who are making really interesting food products, and we area community all feeding off of each other’s creativity and drive. And it feels good to be able to use New York products. Our maple syrup comes from the Catskills. Our Gochujang Sriracha is made from ingredients we get in Flushing, Queens.”
Casey’s favorite days are those when he arrives at the kitchen before anyone else and has time to organize. “I square away my email, build a to-do list, organize my desk. It makes me feel more productive when I have that quiet alone time at the beginning to get ahead of my day. Most days don’t go like that, but I try to make that time as often as I can.”
What can we expect next from Bushwick Kitchen? “We are awaiting the arrival of our first automatic bottler! The industrial revolution is coming. It will do in an hour what we can now do in a whole day. We hope this will help us consider new products and we’re likely to bring more hot sauces into the mix. However, we don’t want to commit to overproducing and risk losing the confidence of our customers. We won’t put products out there until we know they’re awesome.”
Aside from the bottles that you’re sure to carry out of The Savory Pantry as soon as you taste them, the Bushwick Kitchen story certainly offers many other inspirational takeaways. “We are very pro taking risks and love tackling things that feel really big and impossible and pushing ourselves to go farther than we think we can. We’ve learned that although getting to this point has been lot of hard work—giving up weekends, vacations, missing birthday parties—there are a million paths to success and no step-by-step guide. You just have to be willing to keep persisting and sacrificing if you believe in your business. And if something doesn’t feel like it’s working, you have to be willing to see that it isn’t and adapt. ”
We’re sure glad that the hard work and ingenuity of Casey, Ted, and the Bushwick team have brought these inspired tastes to our table. From pancakes, to cheese boards, to fruits, to cocktails, nibbles and sips are just a squeeze away from spectacular.