Morgen, a career entrepreneur who had worked on start-ups before, set up a meeting with Casey at the Metropolitan Opera last November, where Casey worked full-time. Sitting in the cafeteria at the Opera, they briefly discussed the idea of launching a hot sauce product, since that’s what Casey had already mastered, but quickly decided that the hot sauce market was too saturated. They didn’t want to be just another brand in an already competitive market. “The only thing that we established at that first meeting was that we were going to do something with food,” Casey told me. And they wanted to do something spicy.
It seems like everyone has been talking about Bees Knees Spicy Honey. Our guest Insta-Takeover photographer documented the fact that she was steadily consuming a bottle of this chili-infused honey last week. A friend, who lives in and found out about Bees Knees all the way in Manhattan, confessed to me that she plans to make a hot toddy with it. I may or may not have bathed an entire eggplant in a Bees Knees Spicy Honey marinade just last night. It is sweet and spicy and oh so addictive. Bees Knees is figuratively – and, yes, literally – the newest, hottest thing in condiments. And behind this legitimately successful product, stands an even more awesome, Bushwick-based story.
It all began when Bushwick resident Casey Elsass was approached by his friend, Morgen Newman, who asked if Casey would want to join him on a new business project. “He wanted to see if it was possible to start a business from scratch in thirty days,” Casey told me from his seat at the table in his cozy, brightly hued kitchen. Casey grew up cooking and has become known amongst his circle of friends for his gifts of homemade foods – hot sauces, pickled veggies, you name it. This hobby was why Morgen thought of him. “The reason Morgen approached me was I’d been making my own hot sauce for a while,” Casey explained.
Where it all began: Casey’s apartment in Bushwick.
With that in mind, Casey and Morgen decided to take some time to let the ideas simmer. In late January, they sat down for their first “official” meeting at Casey’s kitchen table in Bushwick with a pizza from Roberta’s and a bottle of whiskey – and that was the beginning of the project. Day one of Mixed Made, the umbrella company for Bees Knees Spicy Honey. “Initially we came up with two ideas – spicy honey and another product – which we were going to launch in tandem,” Casey said. But they received invaluable advice from a friend: “The biggest mistake people make is that they don’t simplify…Do one product.”
Over the next thirty days, which they documented on their Startup Journey Blog, they focused on creating one product with the help of their friends and other local businesses. They tracked down a beekeeper in the Hudson Valley who was interested in the project. “We wanted to use honey that was absolutely the most pure and untouched and unchemicalized. And we wanted to tap into…more of a historical community of beekeepers.” They also found a Bronx-based company who could source their chili peppers for them. The beautiful packaging was designed by their friend, Rasmus Zwickson; the shape of the bottle, font-work and chili pepper were all his ideas.
Rasmus initally presented them with many options for Bees Knees’ packaging. They went with a version of the one second from the left.
Because they had never started a business together before, and certainly not in thirty days, they had to tackle hurdles as they arose. According to Casey, “The business officially is Morgen and I, but it’s actually a lot bigger than that. It’s our community, and our friends and we’ve called in a lot of favors from a lot of people.” When a magazine asked to see high-res images of the product, Casey frantically called his friend and photographer, Miguel (who, gratefully, was able to reschedule his plans for that night) and they put together a last-minute Bees Knees product shoot.
Despite the challenges, just thirty days after that first meeting at Casey’s apartment, fifty bottles were sent out the door. “It was an intense thirty days, but so productive, because there was no room for lagging. We just needed to make decisions and commit to them and keep going. And what we learned was that it’s better to be active and make a decision, even if it’s maybe not the right one – at least we’re making a move and then we can recuperate from that.”
Up close and personal…
Retailers began to call in with requests to carry the product and orders started coming in from all over the world. By June, five months after the project began, the demand was getting to the point where Casey couldn’t keep up with both of his jobs at the same time. “I think the initial feeling was that this was an experiment – this wasn’t supposed to go the way it has – so I was still at my job. Morgen was still working on side projects, and then it pretty quickly took on a life of its own,” Casey said. Casey put in his month’s notice at the Metropolitan Opera and left at the end of July to work with Mixed Made full-time. “What started out as me making five gallons at a time on my stove has turned into me making 50 gallons at a time in a commercial kitchen…And that’s even now not lasting us as long.”
Nowadays, Casey helms production and outreach for the company, and Morgen handles the business systems, accounting and new accounts from London, where he moved in June.
Casey makes the Bees Knees in a commercial space, but he ships the product out from his Bushwick apartment.
Mixed Made will celebrate its first year anniversary in January, at which point they’ll launch a second product – the product that they’d originally thought of launching in tandem with Bees Knees. Bees Knees has picked up retail partnerships in Brooklyn and Manhattan, with online retailers Good Eggs and Mouth, and they continue to spread across the nation. They recently inked a deal with Whole Foods, a huge business victory.
You can order a bottle online via the Bees Knees website for $14, or pick up a bottle at Hops & Hocks (although we’re told it’s a bit more expensive there – at a $18 price point). Bees Knees has an unlimited shelf-life.