People are occasionally taken aback when they meet Mike Kurtz of Mike’s Hot Honey.
“I think sometimes think people I’m older than I am, or they have this idea that I’m like Bob from Bob’s Red Mill,” Kurtz told The Takeout. “And then when I meet them they’re like, ‘What? You’re Mike?’”
Kurtz, 41, guesses that people are surprised by his age because the packaging of his namesake honey is “a bit retro.” Maybe it makes people think it’s an age-old recipe, passed down through generations. But Mike’s Hot Honey, which can be found on grocery shelves at major retailers across the country, began as a condiment Kurtz made for himself after encountering something similar in Brazil. At a pizza place, he saw a jar of honey with a chili pepper stuck in it. It was on the tables to drizzle on pizza.
“I tasted this honey with chili peppers on the pizza and I was blown away by the combination of flavors,” he recalled.
People have sometimes reported on hot honey as a Brazilian tradition, but Kurtz says it’s not. It was just something the owner of that pizza place decided to do (the owner, as it turned out, was Swiss.) And the product in that fateful jar wasn’t exactly the same as the hot honey Kurtz would come to create.
“It was more pure honey with chili peppers seeping in it,” he said. “It wasn’t quite as hot, not the same intensity.”
Nevertheless, it inspired him. Kurtz was living in Amherst, Massachusetts at the time, where he grew up and went to college. It was there that he got to work making his own version of the hot honey, specifically so he could drizzle it on pizza.
“I tested a lot of different chili peppers, varietals of honey, and techniques for infusion,” he said. “I landed on the recipe we still use today in 2004, during my senior year of college.”
Kurtz won’t talk about the type of chili peppers he uses, nor the varietal of honey, but he says that until 2020, the honey was sourced exclusively from upstate New York. Now, it comes from a few places, including New York, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay.
After college, Kurtz moved to New York City, where, among other pursuits (he worked for a record label and later the talent agency ICM), he got a job at Paulie Gee’s, a renowned pizza spot in Brooklyn. Kurtz had continued making his hot honey for personal use, and at some point, he introduced it to slice shop owner Paulie Gee by drizzling it on some pizza. Gee asked him to make it for the restaurant, and it was incorporated into a pizza called the Hellboy, still an offering on the menu today.
In time, Kurtz started selling jars of his creation to restaurant guests, in jars he filled himself in the back of the restaurant. Then, for five years, he was a one-man show. He sold the honey, bottled it, and shipped it—even delivering some jars himself.
“I was using the kitchen at Paulie Gee’s to make the product and my apartment was full of bottles, caps, stickers,” said Kurtz. “I used to drive around the city in my 95 Geo Prism filled with honey. I was personally making deliveries to all these places.”
All the while, he was gaining a customer base that included some heavy hitters, Williams-Sonoma and Whole Foods’ New York locations among them. At some point, he realized he needed to scale up, so he found someone to help with bottling; eventually, he entered into a partnership with Matt Beaton, who is now CEO of the company.
In recent years, the company has grown exponentially as it places a dual focus on retail and food service. Food service, Kurtz said, allows people to experience the hot honey out in the world, often while doing something special. A Mike’s Hot Honey–branded chicken sandwich stand at Madison Square Garden, for example, operates as a big gate of introduction for will-be Mike’s Hot Honey fans.
“We find tastemakers in food service who become beacons for the brand, and then they expose people to the product, and people have a special experience tasting it on their food,” says Kurtz.
The other side of the business, of course, is retail, which is strongest in markets where the honey is being served in restaurants. People try the stuff at a restaurant, love it, and then they’re excited to learn they can buy it at the store for at-home use.
Pizza and chicken sandwiches aren’t the only ways to use the honey. Kurtz says it tastes good on ice cream or in hot tea, and it can even soothe a sore throat (I tried this out myself last week, and I concur). His favorite way to eat it is drizzled on goat cheese.
And those applications barely scratch the surface of what you can pair it with—foie gras and cocktails are both fair game, too. Everywhere Kurtz goes, someone wants to show him what they’ve concocted with the honey or some new food they’ve topped with it. He always takes at least a bite of their creations. A bug enthusiast even put Mike’s Hot Honey on ants, the flavor of which Kurtz has trouble putting into words.
“The sweetness of the honey tempers the sour taste of the ant, I guess?” he said. “I don’t have a lot of experience eating ants, so I couldn’t tell you what ants taste like without it.”
Once I bought a bottle of hot honey for myself, like clockwork, I started noticing it everywhere. I purchased it at a tiny upscale grocer in the Hudson Valley—the kind of place that plays exactly the right type of jazz to convince me I should spend, like, $50 on a few bits of cheese. Given the setting where I first encountered it, I figured it was a speciality item. But I soon saw it at Walmart and Target as well. In fact, Mike’s Hot Honey is available in speciality stores and big-box stores alike. It’s everywhere.
“We can meet people wherever they are, no matter what they’re into,” says Kurtz. “We’re the hottest thing in the honey aisle, quite literally.”