Casey Elsass | Bushwick Kitchen

Casey Elsass, founder of Bushwick Kitchen, was always passionate about food. From picking herbs to play sous chef in his mother’s kitchen to making his own hot sauce as gifts for friends and family, if he can make something from scratch, he will.  

When approached by his friend Morgen a few years ago with an experimental idea to try and launch a business in only thirty days, he was intrigued but never intended on becoming a full time entrepreneur.

Heading into the third year of business while launching six new products, a custom line for Williams-Sonoma and a cookbook, we met recently to talk about everything from his early struggles to his profound respect for bees. 

“It’s important to me that we are aligning ourselves with producers that are taking this as seriously as we are.”

Let’s start at the beginning. Where did your passion for food come from?

I grew up in a family that loved to cook. We had a vegetable garden in the backyard. Some of my happiest childhood memories are being in the kitchen with my mom and her asking me to run out and grab some herbs or pull a carrot or pick a tomato… having that real connection to food. 

That’s a trickier thing to do in New York, I’ve learned over the years, but I’ve always liked the process of cooking, especially starting from scratch. If I can make my own ricotta, I will. Or making my own bread and making my own jams.

Enter Bees Knees. But, stepping back from the honey for a moment, what about launching a business in 30 days was appealing to you?

Morgen, who had the initial idea for the project, was moving to Europe and I was very happy at my job. We had a thought that if we could automate some of the business, maybe we could earn a little pocket change on the side but that of course didn’t work out. Four months in, I couldn’t keep up with the demand and by trying to just stay afloat, I was sacrificing so much at my day job that I had to quit. 

I didn’t go to business school and don’t have any sort of business background. I was working at the Metropolitan Opera and never fantasized about being an entrepreneur so I think my naiveté might’ve helped there because probably anyone would’ve said I made a bad decision by leaving my salaried, health-insured day job.  

But, when I hit that crossroads, I thought, “I don’t have kids, I don’t have a mortgage, when else in my life am I going to make that sort of reckless decision?” To just walk away from a very comfortable life to go and do something that half-thrilled me and half-terrified me at the same time turned out to be the right decision.

In those first 10 months, we did $170,000 in revenue and that first December, we’d sold 9,500 bottles.

I do think a big part of starting a business is that you need to listen to your intuition. I think that’s a common thread that most entrepreneurs have with one another. To the outside world it might not look like the right decision but we see that potential.

So talk to me about 30 days – the idea of starting a company rather than starting a company.  

Yeah it was kind of meta. (Laughs)

But then you really did start a company! The idea was an experiment but your passion is what kept you invested. You are the cook and the creative; during hard times, how were you inspired to keep going, can you define that?  

I should be clear, it was a long road from our $5,000 investment to the $170,000 in revenue. Most of that road was dark and terrible and grueling and without sleep with a sore back; all of those things that come with starting a business.

But I’ve always been someone who was very decisive. Once I’ve decided on something there is nothing turning me back from that decision. I think in my head, just in those early months, in that early response that we got, I felt something.

As soon as I made the decision, the idea of what it could be became so alluring to me, that even when I was hauling honey, I could see what this could eventually become.

Inevitably we romanticize that early hardship.  

Well, I should also say, I can just now barely start romanticizing it. It was so traumatic that first year. Especially that first Christmas, for months and months after I couldn’t even talk about it. It was so terrible but I do think you have to go through that and it gives me appreciation for everything we achieved because I really put every particle of myself into achieving it.  

No free passes, I did this with my blood, sweat and tears and I can be proud of that.  

What are some of the other struggles you’ve had over time and how have you overcome them?  

Well, we’re about to celebrate two years of being a business and we’ve made it this far without taking a credit card, a loan or any outside investors. And we’ve been able to because the business was profitable almost immediately. However, that came at an enormous sacrifice, including me prioritizing many things over giving myself a salary.  

Up until this month, I’ve been living on just enough to pay my rent, my student loan, my phone bill and a very small stipend for food. It was important to me to build this way and we were able to move into a new space and launch two new products purely through a self-funded business.  

Now, going into this year, my wonderful production assistant is now finally full time, my newer partner out in San Francisco is handling wholesale, we’ve added a few additional employees and we’re launching 6 new products still just on that self-funded account.  

A dark day was when that self-funded account, fairly recently, literally got down to $250 two days before the rent was due. It was scary, heart stopping and one of those moments when you understand why people scramble for funding. But then, the pendulum swung back and we had $50,000 in the bank.

That’s been the trickiest thing to figure out is how to balance a bank account while you’re trying to expand but you’re also figuring out when your retailers are actually going to get around to paying their checks. Are we spacing out when we’re buying bottles and raw materials correctly? Now I’m learning to not do big orders near the end of the month because that’s when rents and salaries are due.

The money is ephemeral and it flows in and out so a big goal for this year is to try and maintain an even chunk at all times. We want to look at $40,000 as our zero this year. If we try to stay above that and maintain our emergency fund, instead of walking on a high-line without a net, we’ll be covered in case of… well, who knows what happens? A product recall, God forbid, or sickness if one of us needs a replacement. Just the idea of having it in place ourselves for those emergencies that hopefully won’t happen.

Tell me more about the early days, how did you land on Bees Knees and what was the process like of developing the first product?  

Probably the greatest piece of advice I have maybe ever gotten in my life was from one of our friends, a really brilliant designer who has worked with a lot of app companies, etc. He said, “just simplify.” Don’t do two products if you can just do one.

In retrospect, that was totally correct because one product was journey enough.  There were some spicy honeys out there before we launched but no clear leaders in the category.  

We wanted to bring in a honey that was really well defined and really thoughtful in its ingredients. And again, it was an experiment but one that we took seriously so we sought the best in the Hudson Valley for our honey.

We’ve been with the same supplier from the very start, Honeybrook Farms in Pine Bush, NY, and they are incredible. It’s a husband and wife team with their daughter and their daughter’s boyfriend and they are so deeply responsible with how they take care of their bees.

I’ve gone up to help Todd, the husband, build hives and they live in this crazy field of wildflowers that used to be an orchard. Their full radius is mountains so they don’t hit any pesticides or herbicides and they don’t use sugar water. He’ll sacrifice his yield if it means the bees don’t have enough honey…all of these things that are contributing to the demise of the honey bee’s health, they just don’t participate in that.  

And, to be honest, it’s at a great cost to us. We pay a lot for that honey, but it’s just not something I’m willing to compromise on.

People that know honey and taste ours can tell its something really special. Even looking at the number of our colonies, the national average for colonies last year was 50 – 60% drop-off and ours was only 5% drop-off.

It was important to me that we were aligning ourselves with people doing things right; the same with our maple syrup provider. They are a multi-generational business made up of a father and son that run it up in the Catskills. Their family were early settlers to the area and started out as tanners then moved into the maple syrup business. We have centuries and centuries of knowledge of maple syrup going into each bottle by working with them.

It’s really important to me that we are aligning ourselves with producers that are taking this as seriously as we are.

How has that affected your price point?

It’s been tough. We are a high-priced product. I think e-commerce is a very different thing and people are willing to spend a little bit more online. At retail, we’ve done incredibly well, we’re already in 500 locations and we’re only two years old.  

But certainly if we had a cheaper product, we could have had conversations with national grocery chains sooner than we are now.  

We don’t make a huge margin on the honey or the syrup and that’s why it was important to launch the Weak Knees. It’s still got great ingredients but a lot cheaper so we can get a higher margin and make up the difference that we’re not getting on the honey and the syrup.

I’m sure that our price point slowed what could’ve been an explosive first year of retail to a really great second year but delaying that success for one year because we chose to have better honey is fine by me.

Also, you’ve built brand equity. You’ve instilled the premium nature of your product in people’s minds. The market responds to local and quality and history.  

Well the allure of national distribution is thrilling but are we going to buy some boiled, filtered, mass-produced honey just to meet the price point of a grocery store? Absolutely not! No, thank you.  

We’ve never tried to make this an urban product. We are Bushwick Kitchen and we operate in Brooklyn but our ties are really upstate with our producers.

It’s something that I’m just starting to appreciate now that I have more time to think about it but I think telling a story can do more for your company than having a great sale price. That does more in the customer mind than a price point.

You have a real passion for honey. Do you think you found your calling?  

My favorite day by far was the first time I built beehives. I’d never worked with bees before and it changed my life and my perspective so much. It is absolutely the most meditative thing. Collecting honey can be a little treacherous but building the hives is incredible.

The bees come in these crates and the queens come in these little boxes with a sugar cube at the tip of it. You build their hive and you put all their frames in then you take a box of bees and pop the top off. They are so psyched to get out of that box and you dump them into their hive. They are such funny creatures because they are just programmed to work. They get out and immediately start swarming the whole area.

Then, with the queen’s box, you poke a little hole in the sugar cube and the nurses start chewing their way through slowly so by the time the bees have gotten through, the hive is used to the queen’s pheromones and recognize her as the queen.   

The process of creating a hive is absolutely a set in stone, multi-step process with no shortcuts and no going out of order. As the human element of building these hives, you kind of lose yourself in it because there is no thinking about it. You do this part then you do this part and you do this part and so on.

The sound of all the bees buzzing around you becomes melodic. You start hearing the variances in their flight patterns or in their movements and the bees in the hives starting sounding different than the ones flying around you. I felt so lucky to be able to do that and have that relationship with my supplier where I was invited to do that and those hives were only for us.

From the hive directly into our bottles, having that was really special. That’s the kind of stuff that no matter how big the business gets I’ll always be able to do. That’s what I enjoy.  

Besides the ingredients, what do people love about your product?

I think, actually I know, because we’ve gotten this feedback over and over, the packaging design really won people over for us. We owe so much of our success to having a really well thought out and well designed bottle. Ras is a friend, a great friend and will hopefully always be our designer. He just envisioned a really clean, beautiful looking honey product that doesn’t look like – you know the honey bear or those really opaque squeeze bottle things. I think that helped a lot but of course our customers wouldn’t come back if they didn’t enjoy what was inside too.  

Quality packaging and ingredients are a great start. From a marketing perspective, what are some things you have found effective to raise awareness of the brand? Did you have a plan going in?  

Our first year was I would say, 90% press driven.  

That was also me with a lot of hard work and pitching. And it was ultimately a numbers game. I pitched 70 publications for gifts guides and we ended up in 3. Granted, great outlets - Vanity Fair, Esquire and Bon Appétit - but that was a roll of a dice. And two weeks before Christmas, we were on The Today Show but that was 5 emails to a producer into the abyss and her first words when she finally called me were, “you are quite persistent.”

And then it turned out we got almost no press in the second year, a huge swing in the opposite direction.

Our margin is so much better in e-commerce over wholesale. We have to ask ourselves: How do we catch a customer? How do we contain a customer? How do we make sure we are catching more customers?  

We wanted to embrace education and entice people to find ways to use it all day everyday through beautiful imagery and recipes. We also started with Facebook ads, then trying trailing ads. Investing a little bit more money in these basic forms of advertising, the ROI has been great.

Any one thing that gave you the best return?  

Probably the trailing ads, I’m interested to watch that progress. We’re only five or six months into it so I’m interested to see if it works out in the long term. The click through rate leading into holidays was great, that was without any discount, purely an ad so that was incredible.  

You seem to have your process down and put so much of yourself into the business, why bring on a partner?

Ted came in as Morgen was planning his exit. He’s awesome and, unlike me, he did go to business school, which is nice. As much ownership as I feel over the business because I started it and physically make the products, it is so welcome to me to have someone I view as an equal to collaborate with. 

Some people love flying solo but I think it’s very important to have that other set of eyes, or brain or an ear to talk to that you can really lean on. I appreciate my time with Ted so much; he’s a really great partner.  

Anything that keeps you up at night now; times you want to throw in the towel?

The things that keep me up at night are all the really small little things that I forgot to do. Its never big picture, I feel enormously confident in the direction of the brand we’ve built in two years. Its more like did I remember to turn the honey machine off to tell Nicole not to do that thing or did I include that customer’s note in the box that they’d ask for…I’ve been able to relax and have confidence in the business so now it’s the naggy things versus big.

That first year, I was alone in a commercial kitchen at 2:00 AM and miserable thinking of hauling and shipping and sure, the thought of throwing in the towel crossed my mind, but there has never been a moment where I seriously considered doing something else. I absolutely would not go back to a desk job and work for someone else.

What’s your vision for the future?

Coming into our third year, we’re starting to think, what are the next 5 years going to look like and starting to make branding decisions that work towards that.  

We feel it’s important that while we’re gaining steam with retailers, we expand horizontally on their shelves, launching products under the Bees Knees, Trees Knees and Weak Knees lines, where each name starts to be become synonymous with honey, syrup and hot sauce sections. 

Then, after this year, we’ll start moving away from that and start exploring other ideas that aren’t necessarily condiments but still fall into food. All still things that can be found in the grocery aisles but we’ve got plenty of ideas that aren’t limited to a squeeze bottle.

OK last two questions, any mentors?

Does it sound egotistical to say no? No, not really. I don’t know if this is good or bad but this is just my way. I sort of insulate myself from the business world and the food world.

For me, at least, the most deadly thing is comparison so I try to avoid that at all costs. For me, its better to just see what’s going on right in front of me. I don’t get too much into the philosophy of things; I’m a pretty straightforward type of person.  

Ted and I talk about something, workshop it and then if it gets to a good place, we try it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t then we adjust from there.

Finally, any advice for others?

I can’t give universal advice about starting a business but I would say that it’s great to have a great idea and great to be excited about that idea but you need to understand what you’re going to be sacrificing.

If that doesn’t scare you then yeah, go for it. If you are ok giving up your social life, giving up an income, giving up a full night’s sleep and giving up your weekends then, absolutely, do it, why not?

There’s never going to be an ideal time. Don’t wait for two years to save up paychecks, just do it right now.