The name “Killik” is a palindrome. Like “racecar” or “kayak,” it’s a word that is the same when read backwards as it is when read forwards.
It also happens to be a cool last name – perfect for the owner of a hot sauce company. Maybe too perfect.
“The only downside of the name is that everybody assumes the sauce is deathly hot because it has “kill” in the name,” says Michael Killik, owner of Killik Hot Sauce. “It’s not your heat-for-heat’s-sake hot sauce. It’s all about the flavor.”
There’s a reason why Killik didn’t develop his sauce to burn the mouths of customers. Six years ago, Killik and his dad both suffered heart attacks. The son survived but, sadly, his dad didn’t. So when he was told he needed to cut back on his sodium at all costs, Killik created his own healthy hot sauce. Now in 2021, Killik Hot Sauce has more than doubled its 2020 sales thanks to the founder’s commitment to bringing heat, flavor and health together.
“I didn’t plan to live this long, so I’m kind of winging it as I go,” said Killik.
Ups and Downs
Killik joined the Air Force in 1986, staying for four years and supporting his wife and newborn baby along the way. In this role, he gained a sense of discipline and a work ethic that he carried with him when he left in 1990 and enrolled at Cleveland State University to earn his degree and became a sixth-grade science teacher.
“That work ethic from the military helped me transition to teaching. It’s not easy to get the respect of kids, especially at that age, but I always spoke the truth to them and eventually it paid off,” said Killik.
As a gifted teacher, he was a cornerstone for many kids who were not born with financial advantages. Many parents took notice, as they would request that their children be placed in his classroom. It was a great career – and came to an unfortunate end when Killik suffered a stroke.
“It put me in the hospital for a month,” he said. It badly affected his vision. “To see clearly, I have to tilt my head down, which sends the wrong message when you’re a 300-pound, heavily tattooed guy,” said Killik.
While he re-adjusted to life, post-stroke, he moved to Florida to be closer to his daughter and new grandson. He was a fulltime grandpa until he felt well enough to return to Cleveland.
Killik’s friend, a restaurateur, asked for Killik’s help opening a new restaurant. “I didn’t ask too many questions. It sounded like an adventure so I said sure,” he recalls. The pair opened a Mexican restaurant, El Carnicero, in Lakewood. It was the start of a new career, as he helped open three more restaurants over the following eight years.
“I was always used to having a defined purpose, after being in the military, after being a teacher, after being a grandpa. The restaurant gig was great because there’s always something going on and always something you can impact in a big way,” said Killik.
Working in the restaurant business was also an extension of the lifelong love of food Killik shared with his family. Spicy food was included in that, but the high sodium levels in many hot sauces carried a significant health risk.
“6 years ago, my dad and I both had heart attacks a week apart. Hit him first, then hit me a week later when I was closing down a restaurant. I survived. He didn’t.”
Heat, Not Hurt
The doctors told Killik he needed to cut back on sodium and give up many of the foods he loved. Without salt, Killik had to find new ways to bring some flavor back into his diet. He experimented with techniques and stumbled upon a winning recipe for hot sauce.
“My boss at the time happened to be a James Beard-nominated chef. I liked to throw some of the foods I made at him and he was usually pretty critical, but this time he was in love.”
Killik realized he had something special and sent the sauce to a lab for a nutritional assessment. The big takeaway? 1% sodium – drastically below most of the hot sauces on the shelves.
“I was like, holy crap, this is working out!” he said. A few years of research and development later, he had three flavors of his fermented hot sauce. What next?
The first step was to figure out how to produce the sauce at a large scale. “The key is repeating it. Making good food is one thing, but making good food consistently for a lot of people is entirely different.”
Killik quit his restaurant job, sacrificing his steady income to go all in on the business side of the sauce. Managing the bottling and advertising took a ton of effort, which wasn’t made any easier by the high capital required.
“The first thing I learned in business: everybody gets paid before I do. The people who make the bottles, the people who help fill them, the people who make the labels. And if I put an ad on Facebook, they get their cut before I see any of it,” said Killik.
Killik tried acquiring funding from traditional lenders, but didn’t have much luck. Eventually, he talked with a friend who pointed him towards ECDI.
“Everybody [at ECDI] was super helpful. I could immediately tell that they specialized in this whole gig of helping out small businesses,” said Killik.
He secured funding through ECDI in 2019, which covered costs and freed Killik up to expand his audience. He already had a repertoire of 40 mom-and-pop stores carrying the sauce. He soon landed Giant Eagle, Dave’s Supermarkets and a few other major grocery stores around Cleveland. The exposure was great, but it wasn’t translating to income.
“If I sell a bottle at a farmer’s market, I get all the profit. But when I’m going through a distributor to get into these big groceries, so many people are taking cuts that I’m not left with much,” said Killik.
It’s an experience shared by many small business owners: sustaining your growth presents just as many challenges as your first steps towards entrepreneurship. In Killik’s case, scaling up to multiple grocery stores boosted his sales, but his income was hurt by all the costs it took to get there.
“Then in 2020, ECDI called me out of nowhere and told me they had more funding available through the SBA. It was perfect timing,” said Killik.
And suddenly his bottom line was covered again, freeing him up to pursue new stores, private labeling, trade shows, and more. The sauce is also on the cusp of entering markets outside Cleveland, as Killik looks to bring the heat to Columbus, Cincinnati and beyond. It’ll take time and capital to get there, neither of which comes easily. But Killik has experience adapting to what life throws at him. He’s survived a stroke and a heart attack, pivoting to new jobs along the way and pulling together a career as a veteran, father, teacher, grandfather, chef, and now, business owner. He’ll figure it out.
ECDI is proud to support Killik Hot Sauce.
Want to try the sauce at home? Find a store by you or order online!