“I HATED hot sauce,” says Matt Pittaluga, one of the three partners who currently run Hank Sauce, a hot sauce company and restaurant in Sea Isle City. But Pittaluga’s anti-hot sauce stance slowly began to change when he tasted the sauce his college buddy and chef Brian “Hank” Ruxton created when they lived together at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. Ruxton’s sauce — a mild, flavorful pepper-based hot sauce was the opposite of many of the macho, burn-your-face-off styles that often make the headlines. So in a matter of a year, Pittaluga, Ruxton and another college buddy, Josh Jaspan — all of whom happen to be from the Sea Isle/Avalon area — would return to their home town as partners, working hard to promote the sauce Pittaluga describes as “hot sauce for people who don’t like hot sauce.”
The trio would hit local festivals and farmers markets selling their sauce, which was not easy. “It would be 90 degrees out in the middle of the summer and we are trying to get people to try a hot sauce at 11 a.m.,” Jaspan laughs. “That can be tricky.”
But their hard work paid off and, almost immediately, Hank Sauce began to make a name for itself. People brought it to barbecues to share with friends or give as wedding favors or gifts. By March 2012 they opened the restaurant on Landis Avenue in Sea Isle that would bear their name, mostly out of necessity.
“We needed a place to make the sauce,” Pittaluga says.
And so they did, initially bottling all their sauces in the back room of their restaurant, while simultaneously putting together a menu of surf-inspired Jersey Shore comfort foods such as pastas, fish tacos and their signature double-baked wings.
“We didn’t have space for a deep fryer here, so we had to get creative,” Ruxton says. “People think you can’t make a good wing if it’s not deep fried, but we always have people telling us these are the best wings they’ve had. And they’re baked, not fried.”
Many of Ruxton’s recipes were tried out on his partners when they were living together in college. “We ate like kings in college,” Jaspan says. “We didn’t really have to bribe Hank too much to cook for us. A case of Budweiser goes a long way,” he jokes.
The menu at Hank Sauce covers a lot of ground, from seashore classics like Hawaiian pork tacos and mussels du jour to their Ahi tuna burrito roll — a menu standout which is prepared with mango salsa, romaine lettuce, Colby-jack cheese and wasabi aioli all wrapped in a mild habanero tortilla.
Perhaps their most famous dish is their Hank Burger — a beast of a burger that incorporates seasoned angus beef, applewood-smoked bacon, sautéed shallots and habanero jack cheese on a brioche bun. The secret to the Hank burger may be the barbecue sauce — a special recipe that is currently not available in bottles, but adds a bit of kick to an already kicked-up burger.
The great thing about the menu is that just about any of the items on it can be enhanced simply by adding a bit of their signature sauce. Offering a variety of foods for folks to try the sauce on just helps to build their brand even more. And the location of their restaurant doesn’t hurt either.
“Sea Isle is a vacation town. We are blessed with millions of people who come down to our area. They go home and bring (the sauce) back to parties and football games and they give it out as gifts and word spreads organically. They do the work for us.”
It’s easy to see why Ruxton and his partners have been so successful. The sauce and the food at Hank Sauce are uncommonly tasty, but beyond that, there is something about the camaraderie among the three owners. It’s so genuine that you can’t help but root for them. They are friendly, laid-back guys that truly want to put out the best products they can at a reasonable price. And customers are not shy about professing their love for both the restaurant and the sauce.
In the midst of our interview, we were suddenly interrupted by a friendly gentleman who approached Ruxton and asked to shake his hand. “I’m from Pennsylvania and we don’t have your sauce out there, but my son lives in Sea Isle and he brings it to us and we love it. It’s hot but it doesn’t burn your lips. I’ve tried Texas Pete and Frank’s and they don’t compare,” says Rick Ramell of Harrisburg, Pa. Ramell went on to explain that his son was about to get married that weekend in Sea Isle. “We actually picked the venue because it was right near Hank Sauce,” he says.
“That right there is what makes it all worthwhile,” Ruxton says as he waves goodbye to a new friend.