“You can only really be creative when it comes to you. Very rarely can you sit down and say, ‘Okay, I’m going to have a great idea right now!'”
Even the best ideas can’t take flight unless someone is willing to take a risk. Sometimes, taking a classic and putting a twist on it can result in a fresh, new way to enjoy an old favorite. Such is the case with Bushwick Kitchen, founded by Casey Elsass.
What started as an experiment is now a fully-developed business that satiates the creative and professional life of its maker. Starting out with a single product, Bee’s Knees Spicy Honey, made by hand in a humble kitchen in Bushwick, Brooklyn, the company has expanded to carry not only honey, but maple syrup and Sriracha sauce in retailers like Whole Foods and Williams-Sonoma.
We spoke with Casey about his journey to entrepreneurship and why taking the leap to start a business was the most exciting thing he’s ever done. Fulfilled in a career that he created with his hands in an environment that he’s always loved, it seems he’s got it all figured out.
Casey recently partnered with Short Stack Editions to publish his first cookbook, Maple Syrup. As a special treat, find a recipe for a Spicy Hot Toddy created by Casey after the interview.
WHAT’S THE STORY BEHIND BUSHWICK KITCHEN, AND HOW DID YOU TAKE THE LEAP TO START YOUR OWN BUSINESS?
I started Bushwick Kitchen [formerly Mixed Made] two years ago. The whole company started with a question. Could we create a business from scratch in thirty days? What began as purely an experiment pretty quickly started rolling with or without me. Four months after starting, I had gotten to a crossroads where I was sort of sacrificing myself at my day job and also not keeping up with the demands of the company. I quit my job with my salary, health insurance, and vacation days, and threw myself into Bushwick Kitchen. It wasn’t the most sensible decision I’ve made in my life, but it certainly was the most exciting.
I was 27 at the time. I didn’t have kids, I didn’t have a mortgage. When else would I have been able to make that kind of decision? For me it was a pretty easy choice when I saw the potential and to go chase after that. It was the scariest and most exciting decision I’ve ever made.
Ten months into the business, just with the one product at the time (Bee’s Knee’s Spicy Honey), we did a massive amount in revenue during the holiday season. It was an explosive first year. Definitely by the end of that first year, I felt like I made a good decision.
WHAT IS YOUR BACKGROUND? HOW DOES CREATIVITY PLAY A ROLE IN WHAT YOU DO AT BUSHWICK KITCHEN?
My background up until this point was always sort of aimless. I put myself through college here in New York City so I was always working a hundred different jobs. One of those jobs was an an usher at the Metropolitan Opera. Graduation came up and I still wasn’t really sure what I wanted my career to be or what kind of path I wanted my life to take. After four years of ushering I knew so much about opera and loved working there, so I transitioned from the usher staff to the administrative staff.
I was working at the Met when I started Bushwick Kitchen. My work there had always been really exciting because I would get to do big projects that no one else had the bandwidth to manage. We went on tour to Japan and I was the tour manager. The music director had a big 40th anniversary year so I edited a coffee table book about his career. My final job there was running an art gallery in the lobby of the Met. We would pair up a contemporary artist with the repertoire from that season, and they would create a new work inspired by the opera. They had always been fun, creative jobs with a lot of administrative responsibility too… balancing budgets, managing staff. So I think in a way that was a nice preparation for this.
Even though I didn’t go to business school and had never dreamed of being an entrepreneur, it felt like an easy transition. I get to be creative with Bushwick Kitchen. I make all the products. I oversee all the design and photography on our website. But that is such a small portion of my day, because everything else still needs to be tended to.
It feels like a treat when I get all my work done and I can sit and conceptualize an ad campaign or think about what the next week on Instagram will look like. If one of our retailers wants a special cocktail recipe for a promotion they’re doing, I get to come home and play around in the kitchen.
WHAT INSPIRES THAT CREATIVITY AND WHAT MOTIVATES YOU TO KEEP MOVING FORWARD?
There’s a great book by the choreographer Twyla Tharp called The Creative Habit. She talks about how creativity can be so ephemeral. You can only really be creative when it comes to you. Very rarely can you sit down and say, “Okay, I’m going to have a great idea right now!” She talks about ways to make a space or make a time for yourself that starts to train your brain. That when you’re in that space or when that time is happening, it’s your time to activate that creative part of you that’s always lingering under what you’re doing all day.
I try very consciously to build into my day a period of time where I close my email and turn off my phone. I stay at my desk in the kitchen. I find that I work very well at my desk. Turning off those outside distractions and “closing the door” helps me focus in a bigger way.
WHAT DREW YOU TO WORKING IN FOOD, OF ALL THINGS? YOU SAID YOU JUST WANTED TO START A BUSINESS IN THIRTY DAYS.
The most practical answer, I guess, is that we felt that a condiment would be the most deliverable product in thirty days. What inspired that idea was that I had already been making hot sauce of my own for friends or for personal use. I didn’t have any intention of selling it.
I grew up in a family that loved cooking. We also grew a lot of our own vegetables in the backyard. We belonged to a food co-op. It was always something that was around in my life. My mom loved being in the kitchen. I always loved being in the kitchen to help, or being sent out to the backyard to cut some chives, pull some carrots, or pick tomatoes. Watching how a meal could come together without a recipe but just looking at what’s around you and creating something with that is my approach to cooking in my personal life. I’ve always loved being in the kitchen and have been comfortable experimenting. I’ve certainly had friends over and served things that were not successful but I think that’s part of learning.
What are first steps to developing a recipe?
A lot of it is just sort of what I’m eating or drinking. Sometimes it’s driven by the calendar. We’ve done wings recipes for the Super Bowl and in summertime we did a recipe for a margarita. I try to keep it seasonal. I also want to offer recipes that are easy and approachable and that make sense. I want people to be able to make these over and over with the products.
A big part of making a product like spicy honey and spicy maple syrup is that there’s a big responsibility on us to educate the customer. Maybe they understand and can conceptualize what spicy honey would taste like. It’s a bigger leap to think, “Well, what would I use this on?” Certainly, it’s great as a condiment, perfect on cheese, great on top of pizza. It’s also great as an ingredient. That’s what we try to get people to think about. Don’t just drizzle it on top of things. Keep it next to you while you’re cooking and if you feel like those greens need a little something extra, drizzle some spicy honey on them. If the brussels sprouts are looking pretty good but they need a kick, put some spicy maple syrup on them. Start thinking of it as a part of your arsenal of what you’re using in the kitchen.
What advice do you have for someone who is pursuing (or trying to pursue) a creative and entrepreneurial role like the one you’re in now?
I always get asked this question, and I always feel a little unqualified to answer. I can only answer from where I am at this point. I know what the first two years of owning a business looks like but I don’t know anything beyond that. What I will say is that being an entrepreneur is as terrible as it is wonderful. You give up a lot when you make the decision to start a business.
My words to someone who would be considering starting a business is to do it. Know what you’re getting into. Know exactly what that’s going to look like for the next couple years. If that doesn’t scare you away and you still feel committed, then absolutely go for it. Because it’s not going to be an easier decision in six months or a year or twelve years, or when you have “X” amount in your savings account, or when you move into a cheaper apartment.Make the decision and your life will fall into place around it.
Finally, what’s your favorite way to use Bee’s Knee’s Spicy Honey?
We said it already! Spicy honey on pizza is the absolute best. I cannot eat pizza without spicy honey.
How to Make a Spicy Hot Toddy:
- 1 1/2 ounces bourbon or rye
- 1 ounce Bees Knees Spicy Honey
- 2 dashes orange bitters
- 4 ounces hot water
- Lemon wheel, whole cloves, and cinnamon stick to garnish
Add the alcohol, honey, and bitters to a mug. Stir in the hot water to dissolve honey. Stud the lemon wheel with the cloves, insert the cinnamon stick in the center, and float on the drink surface.
Thursday, March 3rd: RSVP to Casey’s Book Launch Party for Maple Syrup by clicking here.