For the crew at Hank Sauce, life and business are simple. Both are those "less is more" kind of things.
Operated by four college friends from Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla., Brian Ruxton, Matt Pittaluga, Joshua Jaspan and Max Kiser, all 25 years old, each bring something special to the table at Hank Sauce Restaurant in Sea Isle City, besides the quartet of namesake hot sauces available to use at will.
"Our whole thing is just being different," says Jaspan about the business they have created, making hot sauce and running their own restaurant.
Ruxton made the first version of his sauce about eight years ago, never really thinking that it was anything special.
Pittaluga gave the group the kick in the butt they needed to get started by suggesting they bottle and sell the sauce.
"I'll make you a label, and yada, yada, yada," Pittaluga says.
Since Pittaluga was taking a class where he was learning how to design a product from the ground up by creating a product, designing a logo and making the packaging, he thought they were in the right place at the right time. Pittaluga spent a few months putting in hardcore time on the project, getting to use all of his graphic design skills. Together they were learning how to build a brand.
"When people started dousing it on themselves, we knew we had something," Pittaluga says.
Now they know that once you come in and try their sauces on something from the menu, you will want to take a bottle home with you.
"I went to school for art, and now I'm making burritos," Pittaluga says.
While the menu at Hank Sauce is simple, you just may need a chart to understand how all this came together. Some of the members went to Dennisville schools together, and all of them attended college together, although Kiser met the group through Pittaluga, when they both played in a band together.
All are surfing enthusiasts and describe themselves as "world-traveled surfers" after the many places they have visited to satisfy their other passion.
The pinchos they make are an inspiration from a surfing trip to Puerto Rico. A man they met was cooking on a flat-top grill outside his grandmom's house.
He brushed everything with BBQ sauce, then cooked it, serving it on a piece of toasted bread to absorb sauce and juices alike. Hank's version is sauteed in Hank Sauce and served on a skewer with a slice of seasoned bread at the bottom. Easy to eat and loaded with flavor.
Made with marinated chicken or shrimp, the kitchen sometimes offers a special scallop version, seasoned with cayenne, garlic and more. Pinchos are a good alternative for those who don't like tacos.
The menu at Hank Sauce is small but interesting, offering tacos, burritos and some special wraps, rolls and sides, along with the pinchos.
Tacos can be ordered hard or soft, filled with iceberg lettuce, diced tomatoes, sour cream, Monterey Jack cheese, fresh cilantro and your choice of chicken, pork or beef for $4 each, shrimp or mahi mahi for $5. Burrito portions have twice the amount of protein, served in a warm tortilla filled with Jasmine rice, black beans, sour cream, salsa, iceberg lettuce, diced tomatoes, Monterey Jack cheese, cilantro and chicken, pork or beef for $8 each or $9 for shrimp or mahi mahi filling. Pinchos are $5 for the chicken and $6 for the shrimp versions.
The guys at Hank Sauce believe all their tacos are good, but that the mahi mahi in particular is "huge," although any item with fish or seafood seems to sell well. For the kitchen it is about fresh ingredients all across the board.
The ahi tuna burrito roll really sparks people's interest. It's cut down to look like a sushi roll with the tuna inlaid, creating a really nice design.
"It's my favorite thing on the menu and I think it is the coolest thing that we offer," Ruxton says.
"It's a piece of art," says Pittaluga about the colorful specialty in a habanero orange wrap with mango salsa inside, iceberg lettuce, Monterey jack cheese and wasabi aioli. There is nothing average about it.
Other specials include The Philly, a soft taco wrapped around a hard taco, stuffed with cheese whiz, steak and Hank fried onions. The Buffalo Chix is the same soft and hard shell combo, with Hank marinated chicken, Monterey jack cheese, Hank fried onions and a touch of blue cheese. Either can be ordered as a taco for $5.50 or a burrito for $8.95. Guacamole, tomato salsa and mango salsa are all made from scratch.
When Jaspan, a business administration major who gravitated to the front of the house, claims to have picked up some of that Southern hospitality from his time spent in the South, he is not necessarily referring to his time in South Jersey.
Originally intending to have customers order at the counter, they now have servers in the restaurant..
"It's a little more calm, not so in your face when you order your food," Jaspan says.
The dining room has been decorated in the same "less-is-more" style. The wooden picnic benches were assembled, sanded, stained and sealed by the partners. They painted the walls, too.
"Not only is it a different menu from other restaurants, it's a different atmosphere," Kiser says.
How best to describe the atmosphere? Laid back, relaxed, cool, mellow and yet serious about the food and sauce.
Don't be surprised if the server, the owners or anyone at the counter engages you in a serious conversation about Hank sauce and its subtleties.
"Even the hottest of the sauces is meant to have good flavor, and that is the whole point that seems to really resonate with people," Ruxton says.
The fact is, these hot sauces ($6.50) have great flavor, not just heat, something hard to explain to those who believe that a good hot sauce should leave you choking, coughing and sweating. Hank Sauce has nuance, each a little different than the next.
In their kitchen, the chefs marinate food in Hank Sauce, cook with Hank Sauce and combine it with other condiments to make a better-tasting one.
"Mayonnaise isn't the same to me anymore because I always pour a little bit of Hank's Heat in there," Jaspan says.
A ham and cheese sandwich will never taste the same once you've tried it his way.
The kitchen produces four homemade hot sauces on a regular basis but invents special sauces as fancy takes over.
The original sauce is called herb infused, smoothly balanced with garlic, basil and cayenne pepper. The packaging, which is hand-produced, suggests that while this sauce may not burn a hole in your tongue, you may be surprised how quickly you burn through the bottle.
Cilanktro, with a hefty dose of cilantro, works well as a marinade on a wide variety of foods.
Camouflage hot sauce has that hidden heat that sneaks up on you later but is still not too spicy, a notch up in temperature from the other two.
Hank's heat uses sauteed habaneros, along with the cayenne peppers to create a sauce with a good amount of heat that still has plenty of flavor. "Pepperheads" all claim to enjoy the various flavors in each sauce.
Open since the third week of March, Hank Sauce plans to remain open year round with limited hours.
As for the nickname "Hank" that Ruxton picked up in college, there is no big story. Everybody just started to call him that, and it kind of stuck.
If four wet suits aren't seen hanging outside behind the restaurant, you may not find the boys inside cooking or packaging their passion.
Hank Sauce is available in local tackle shops, liquor stores, surf shops and on their website.