The “funk is in the fermentation” as Michael Killik (BS ’97, M.Ed. ’02) brings the flavor and heat to your table after his brush with death.
If you have ever wandered through the aisles at Giant Eagle, West Side Market, Meister’s Foods, or Dave’s Supermarket, you likely have stumbled upon Killik’s Hot Sauce nestled amongst the giants — Frank’s, Louisiana, and Tabasco brands.
The story of how Michael Killik’s sauce went from idea to mainstream likely dwarfs them all.
After earning his B.S. in elementary education at CSU, Killik became part of a special urban fellows’ program, working with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s middle school, math, and science teachers. He later earned a master’s in curriculum design at CSU and taught middle school science in Cleveland. Somewhere along the way, the teaching position enabled him to discover the scientific process of fermentation, something he didn’t realize would later come in extremely handy. Killik then changed career paths, dabbling in the restaurant business, but nothing would prepare him for what would come next.
Killik experienced a life-altering event 8 years ago when he had a heart attack the same week as his father. Sadly, his father passed away, but Killik was given a second chance.
At that time, he decided to use the opportunity to create a second career, where his experimenting as a science teacher came back into play.
“Some chef friends of mine had begun fermenting for their restaurants and were teaching me about it,” he said. “Then I saw a recipe for a Fresno vinegar in a magazine, tried it, totally screwed up, but that was the start of my hot sauce!”
Following the heart attack, Killik completely altered his diet, eliminating salt. One of his vices was hot sauce, but most of the sodium content in the ones he enjoyed hovered around the 8% mark or higher. Looking to create a healthier alternative, Killik continued to tinker with his sauce, eventually sending a sample to a lab. The results would show that he had accomplished his goal of creating a hot sauce that packs a punch in flavor but is much better for the diet. “It came back at 1% sodium,” he said. “I thought [to myself], this is my hook…a healthy hot sauce that tastes great!”
With the plans in motion, Killik’s Hot Sauce Company got off the ground right before Covid-19 had swept the nation. Admittedly, while the first year was a little bumpy, Killik credits small stores locally who religiously kept his product stocked at their establishments. As a result, the business grew exponentially, gaining recognition around the area, netting “Best of Cleveland” in 2020, a Good Food Awards winner in 2021 and this year being named 101 dishes to try before you die: The Ultimate Cleveland Foodie Bucket List by Cleveland Magazine.
His hot sauces have expanded nationwide, with plans to go worldwide. “Last year, the company made three times as much as the year before,” he said, adding he has dealt with growing pains as part of that expansion, but “it’s the best job I have ever had!”
Sales of his “ETA” (a poblano and jalapeno Verde), “DELTA” (the “original”- a mild, yet flavorful, hot sauce), “ZETA” (habanero-based hot sauce), and a limited edition “MU” (combination of Fresno, jalapenos, habaneros, ghost, and Carolina reaper) sauces have been steady, even spawning the release of a unique fermented vinegar, all of which feature natural ingredients, and are vegan, gluten, and preservative free.
Killik credits his past, saying experiences he has personally faced have helped pave the way for future successes. “All the knowledge [from my past] occupations have set me up perfectly to run this hot sauce company,” he said.
“Not every company was helpful to me when I started, so I promised to help everybody that came after me, even if it was just to listen to what they had to say.”