Chances are if you’ve been around the neighborhood for a while, you’ve come across some of Bushwick Kitchen’s deliciously hot Bee’s Knees chili-infused honey on the tables and shelves of local establishments.
We’ve written about our love for this spicy stuff and its purveyors before, but with the holiday season and the coldest months of the year looming ahead of us, we thought it might be a good time to revisit the beloved project with this interview with Bushwick Kitchen founder Casey Elsass.
BD: How long has your business been in existence?
CE: Bushwick Kitchen started in February 2014.
BD: Have you always been a maker? Have you dabbled in any other careers or endeavors?
CE: I grew up in a family that loved to cook and had a thriving garden in the backyard. We always made meals based on what we had, rather than from a recipe, so I learned from a young age to be fearless and playful in the kitchen. I moved to New York after high school and that spirit followed me here; I love to throw dinner parties and if I can make something myself—bread, cheese, condiments—I’m always excited to learn and experiment.
BD: What led up to the creation of your business?
CE: Bushwick Kitchen began with a question: Could we start a business from scratch in 30 days? We ran the experiment and successfully launched our first product. We hadn’t really thought beyond that moment because it was just for fun and we didn’t think we’d actually be starting a business. But within weeks, Bees Knees Spicy Honey was taking off like a rocket and quickly getting out of our control, so I left my job to devote myself to building the brand. I gave a speech at last year’s Bitten: A Food Conversation about what those first 30 days were like.
BD: How did you develop your business name?
CE: We actually started out with a different company name, MixedMade, but it never felt quite right. We talked for a long time about re-branding the business, and floated a lot of ideas. But the one thing we kept coming back to was our first night, when we sat down to plot out the 30 day experiment, with a pizza and a bottle of whiskey at my kitchen table in my Bushwick apartment. The name Bushwick Kitchen felt like a perfect combination of our origin and our ethos.
BD: What roles do you and others take on for your business? What kinds of products do you make?
CE: My partner, Ted, and I take a divide and conquer mentality. He runs the entirety of our wholesale business and manages all of our finances. I’m in charge of production, marketing and promotion, and ecommerce. Then in the Venn diagram of our responsibilities, we have the overlapping area where we develop new ideas, set goals, and solve problems together. He lives in San Francisco, so we have a standing call twice a week to talk about big picture things, and then we email, text, and Gchat all day about the smaller things.
Our original product was Bees Knees Spicy Honey. In year two, we added Trees Knees Spicy Maple and Weak Knees Gochujang Sriracha. In February of this year, we added Trees Knees Cinnamon Maple and Trees Knees Mountain Maple. In April we launched Bees Knees Salted Honey and Bees Knees Hudson Honey and we made Bees Knees Meyer Lemon Honey for Williams-Sonoma’s spring collection. And in September, we’ll be adding two more srirachas to the Weak Knees line before buckling down for the holidays!
BD: Tell us about the concepts behind your products.
CE: Bushwick Kitchen starts with quality ingredients and adds a creative twist to make outstanding condiments. Simple things can sometimes be the most impactful, so we keep our recipes uncluttered and straight to the point for clean, delicious products.
BD: Tell me about what goes into making your products–ingredients, the general process?
CE: We source everything locally whenever possible. Our honey comes from the Hudson Valley and I spend quite a bit of time up there helping to build, maintain, and harvest the hives. Similarly, our maple syrup is from the Catskills, and I keep my calendar clear in early spring so I can be there when the sap is flowing.
Our gochujang in Weak Knees Gochujang Sriracha is made in Flushing, Queens and we source our sea salt in Bees Knees Salted Honey from Amagansett.
Other times, we go to further reaches when the product is really great, like this amazing cassia cinnamon from a tree farm in Indonesia for our Trees Knees Cinnamon Maple or the proprietary chili blends we use in Bees Knees Spicy Honey and Trees Knees Spicy Maple. But quality rules above all.
Our kitchen, office, storage, and shipping facilities are all on the same floor in a warehouse in Bushwick, so everything—ingredients, printed bottles, boxes—arrives here and my team is able to infuse, blend, bottle, and ship all of our products from one location.
It gives us an enormous amount of quality control and allows us to flow our production to demand more dynamically than if we used a co-packer.
BD: How do you think being based in Bushwick influences, informs, contributes to your business and what you make?
CE: I’ve been in New York for 11 years and living in Bushwick for most of that, so it’s a place and community that I hold close to my heart. Brooklyn in general is exploding with young people forging their own path, in food or otherwise, and it’s very exciting to be in the middle of that and to have found a new community of makers who are excited to share ideas and experiences.
But it’s important to me that Bushwick Kitchen is viewed as a name only, not as a specific representation of Bushwick itself. With such a mix of colors and flavors, sounds and art, experiences and generations, there’s no way any one thing or person could embody the full spirit of the neighborhood I love so much.
All photos by Angela Altus for Bushwick Daily.