If hot honey’s a hot seller for your pizza shop, you can thank two beloved Brooklyn pizza shops for setting the trend in motion: Roberta’s Pizza and Paulie Gee’s.

The New York Times recently called hot honey “the king of condiments,” noting that Google searches for the term have increased tenfold in the past 10 years, hitting a peak in February 2024.

Loaded with umami flavor, hot honey took its first bow on the pizzeria stage at Roberta’s in 2009. Paired with spicy soppressata on the company’s famed Bee Sting pizza, the housemade blend helped propel Roberta’s to new heights.

Related: What’s your pain point? Get the solutions from experts at PMQ’s upcoming Pizza Power Forum, September 4-5, in Atlanta

Long before that, however, Mike Kurtz, founder of Mike’s Hot Honey, was tinkering with recipes for chili-infused honey in his college apartment. That started in 2003 after Kurtz spent time studying Portuguese in Brazil.

“On a weekend trip to a national park, I hiked into a little valley with some friends, and there I found a tiny pizzeria that had jars of honey with whole chili peppers steeping in it for drizzling on pizza,” Kurtz told Business Insider. “I just was blown away by the flavor, and I kept on thinking about it.”

Mike Kurtz introduced Mike’s Hot Honey to the pizza industry when he was working as an apprentice to Paul Giannone at Paulie Gee’s. (Mike’s Hot Honey)

He eventually nailed down his own recipe, sourcing the honey from domestic beekeepers as part of his commitment to sustainability. As Kurtz once explained to the MyRecipes blog, “There was never a specific moment when I consciously decided to launch a hot honey company. Mike’s Hot Honey was something I made as a hobby for years before it became a business. I used to make it for friends and family around the holidays

Then, in 2010, he went to work as an apprentice for pizza industry icon Paul Giannone, learning the craft of Neapolitan pizza making at Paulie Gee’s Brooklyn location. He took a chance and asked Giannone to sample the hot honey on a pie. “He liked it and asked me to make enough for the restaurant to drizzle over pizza,” Kurtz told MyRecipes.

The sweet-and-spicy concoction soon became a star ingredient on Giannone’s Hellboy pizza. “Once it was on the menu, it just took off,” Kurtz recalled. “Folks would come up to me and ask if I was the hot honey guy and where they could buy some. I could see first-hand that people really enjoyed it, and eventually enough people were asking for it that I started bottling it and selling it off of the bar at the restaurant. From there, things just snowballed.”

As Kurtz told PMQ in 2020, he turned hot honey into a national sensation through old-fashioned perseverance and pounding the pavement. “For the first five years of the business, I was a one-man operation, personally producing and delivering the product to customers,” he said. “I would pack cases of hot honey into my car and drive around New York City, making deliveries to our early restaurant and retail partners.” 

By 2014, Whole Foods had become the first large grocery chain to carry Mike’s Hot Honey. It’s now available in 3,000 restaurants and 30,000 to 40,000 retail stores. As QSR Magazine has reported, demand for the ingredient on restaurant menus grew 187% between 2016 and 2020. In 2023, market research firm Datassential found that sweet-and-spicy menu pairings went up 38% in the last year, and hot honey was expected to outpace nearly every other culinary and beverage flavor by 2027.

That same year, major pizza chains like Donatos PizzaMarco’s Pizza and Grimaldi’s Pizzeria debuted specialty pizzas teeming with hot honey. In April 2024, Old Scratch Pizza, headquartered in Dayton, Ohio, with four locations, took hot honey in a new direction with its own housemade creation boasting Calabrian chiles, cayenne, crushed red pepper and garlic, and introduced it at a local gourmet grocery chain, Dorothy Lane Market. “Our Hot Honey has been a staple on our menu since day one, and we’re excited to see it take on a life of its own beyond our restaurant walls,” Old Scratch owner Eric Soller said at the time.

Khanh Nguyen, CEO of Dallas-based Zalat Pizza and a featured speaker at PMQ’s upcoming Pizza Power Forum, told Business Insider that one of his company’s hot-honey pizzas, topped with salami and a bacon-onion jam—has seen sales soar recently since it was added to the menu in 2022. And in May 2024, Myke Olsen, owner of Myke’s Pizza in Mesa, Arizona, shared with PMQ readers his own recipe for spicy honey, which includes fresh jalapeños.

Mike’s Hot Honey has inspired other brands but remains the go-to vendor for pizza chains, bordering on iconic status now. “I drizzle Mike’s Hot Honey on the Mike’s Spicy Supreme pizza right when it comes out of the oven,” Michael Vakneen, pizzaiolo at Pop Up Pizza in Las Vegas and co-owner of Truly Pizza in Dana Point, California, told PMQ in January 2023. “The sweet sauce against the salty pepperoni and sausage gets intensified by the combination of the pickled jalapeños and spiciness of the honey.”

“Customers also like to use the honey dip cups to dunk chicken tenders and the packets to drizzle on pizzas,” Vakneen added. “The spicy honey combo—an initial sweet flavor with an extra-hot kick on the back end—is not only fun for customers but helps round out a perfect umami flavor explosion, putting our slices on the cutting edge versus the competition.”

Food & Ingredients