Casey Elsass in his Brooklyn kitchen, studio photos by Rachel Orlow
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Casey Elsass at his workspace in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, where Casey and his employees prepare and bottle Bees Knees Spicy Honey. The operation is located in a food preparation complex featuring local culinary favorites and well-known names like Roberta’s Pizza and McClure’s pickles, so it was clear that Casey’s popularly acclaimed (dare I say alternative?) condiment label – MixedMade – was in the right league. As Casey welcomed us to his facility, my eyes were immediately drawn to two things: 1) his awesome beard and 2) the tremendous stock of honey in the room, and the tremendously large vat that in the next few minutes that honey would accumulate in. It was a beautiful and captivating idea, a vessel of liquid gold large enough to bathe in. But I don’t think the FDA would consider that an OK thing to do.
When the time came for Casey to crack the seal on one of the massive, 60 lb buckets of honey, a sweet and mildly floral honey smell filled the air. I wondered how he holds back – what’s stopping him from sticking his face in that bucket Winnie the Pooh style? As he prepared to dump the bucket into the huge, silver tank where the contents would get infused with chili pepper goodness, he filled me in on his story: “I’ve always been a foodie – that’s why I started this – but I was actually making my own hot sauce way before we decided to do honey. MixedMade started as our experiment to see if we could launch a condiment in 30 days, but hot sauce is a really crowded market. We kept the hot, lost the sauce, and Spicy Honey was born.”
But – it was clear that Casey had acquired a new-found knowledge and appreciation of honey. He sources all of his honey from a family-owned and operated farm upstate a ways in the Hudson Valley, and he frequents the farm to help out with harvests and build hives. “We actually built 30 new beehives exclusive to the company on my last visit – we’re lucky to have such a close relationship with them.”
Read on to learn more about the process behind Spicy Honey – from the hive to your home – Casey’s worst honey-related accident of all time, and what’s next for MixedMade.
Why is sourcing for your honey locally important to you?
The importance of local honey cannot be overstated. We’re only starting to gain a national awareness of how vital it is to have pollinators, like honeybees, at the center of agricultural and even urban environments. I’m proud that our product is sourced from a family-run, chemical-free apiary. Our bees are treated right: only fed honey, never sugar water, and free to roam throughout the Hudson Valley’s landscape. Additionally, it was important to us to look to New York State’s agricultural regions for a supplier, rather than turn to cheaper mass-produced honey in New Jersey or Pennsylvania.
What are your most essential ingredients and tools?
My Maxant bottling tank. In the beginning, I was bottling everything from these small buckets with spigots. It was fine in the start, but using it to fill 9,500 bottles in December almost killed me. As soon as the ink was dry on a permanent production space, the tank was my first purchase. It’s temperature controlled, so I can do the full infusion and bottling process in one piece of equipment, and needless to say it’s a lot faster than bottling by bucket.
Where does down time fit into a day?
I like to keep a very separate work-life balance, and I like to work a very focused day, so when I lock the door at 6 p.m. I can leave that behind and enjoy the evenings with a nice meal and time with friends. And while I do work most Saturdays, I do my best to keep Sundays clear. Of course, all of these rules go out the window around the holidays when I turn into a 24/7 robot.
What was the toughest lesson you learned starting your own business?
I wasn’t prepared for how personal it would be. That’s been the toughest thing to navigate. I can’t divorce myself from this business or this product, so the lows can be very low. I’ve started learning how to move past that and separate my emotions, but I think it’s a constant battle when starting a business.
What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
Well, this business is only a year and a half old, so me five years ago had no idea my life would take this unexpected turn. Even me a year and a half ago had no idea this was coming. Maybe I would go back in time and give myself a subscription to Inc. Magazine or something to subliminally get my brain ready to be an entrepreneur.
How do you set goals for yourself?
The first year of business was a mad scramble to keep up with a huge amount of demand and growth, so it was fairly recently that we started making strategic and forwarding thinking decisions in a big way. We started MixedMade in an intense 30 day experiment and that way of working still pervades to company: we set a goal and then break it down into concrete milestones on a timeline.
How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
I’ve only had two big celebratory moments so far: a round of picklebacks when we sent out the last holiday order and a prosecco-soaked kitchen warming party when I moved the company into this building. So booze is my preferred way, I guess.
What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you?
Something I think everyone should remember, in life, in business, in everything: “Success is the graceful execution of plan B.” Failure is inevitable, just find a solution and move on as fluidly as possible.
What is the worst honey-related disaster that you’ve ever experienced?
I haven’t really ever had a bad mishap… Oh wait, no. There was one time. Before I had my own space, I used to have to lug the buckets back and forth from a commercial kitchen to my apartment for storage. One morning, I was borrowing my friend’s car to move the goods, with the understanding that I was going to return it an hour later so she could travel upstate. I had packed a ton in the trunk and then more in the backseat and buckled into the passenger seat up front. I was so concerned watching the buckets in the seats that I wasn’t really thinking about the trunk much. So an entire bucket spilled in the trunk of my friend’s car. I had to get it back to her, so I threw a bunch of towels over it and said, “Don’t look in the trunk and give me the car as soon as you get back!” She knew, obviously. And that was the last time I borrowed her car. I haven’t thought about that day in a while, it was terrible.
Where does collaboration come into play?
From the start, this business has been bigger than just the people in it. We’ve been shameless about turning to our friends for favors, helping hands, advice, design work, photo shoots. And we’ve been so lucky to have a community of people eager to help push us along.
Are the specifics an industry secret?