By Donald WittkowskiIt was impossible for him to know back then, when Hank Ruxton was plucking vegetables from his dad’s backyard garden for the ingredients for his homemade hot sauce, that he had found the recipe for what would become a booming Sea Isle City business.“It was easy to take fresh ingredients from my dad’s garden and make something I enjoy,” Ruxton recalled of the early versions of his self-named Hank Sauce. “Now, I’m glad that everyone else enjoys it.”But it was not until Ruxton joined up with two Sea Isle buddies, Matt Pittaluga and Josh Jaspan, when they were all students at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla., that Hank Sauce actually became a brand.As part of a college project, Pittaluga, a graphic design major, created the logo and label for the distinctive square-shaped Hank Sauce bottle. Suddenly, the hot sauce was ready to be marketed to the public.After college, Ruxton, Pittaluga and Jaspan moved back to the Sea Isle area and began selling the hot sauce at South Jersey farmers markets and retail outlets. Then, the three college students-turned-business partners reinvested the money they were making from their word-of-mouth sales to open a Hank Sauce restaurant in March 2012 in Sea Isle’s Townsends Inlet section.The logo and label for the distinctive Hank Sauce bottles were designed by co-owner Matt Pittaluga for one of his college projects.In a major expansion of their business this past May, they opened a manufacturing facility in Millville, Cumberland County, that allows them to produce enough Hank Sauce to meet the robust demand.“We realized how much we were selling, so we needed a place to make more,” Pittaluga said. “This is something that we needed for so long. It took us two years to build it. It’s definitely a game-changer.”The Hank Sauce brand is now found in 650 stores, mainly along the East Coast from New Jersey to South Carolina, but as far away as Seattle and California. That is double the number of stores that carried Hank Sauce just last year, Pittaluga said.Meanwhile, the restaurant at 8605 Landis Ave. has never been busier. The casual eatery serves up Angus beef burgers, Hawaiian pork tacos and other surf-inspired food flavored with – What else? – the popular Hank Sauce brand.“It’s been a great summer. Our biggest yet,” Ruxton said.Hank Ruxton gets ready to use his sauce to flavor a dish.The seasonal restaurant is open from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend during Sea Isle’s bustling summer tourist trade. This year, the plan is to cut back the hours after Labor Day, although the restaurant will stay open on some weekends in the fall, Ruxton said.Ruxton, Pittaluga and Jaspan, all 31 years old, have been talking about the possibility of opening a year-round restaurant, perhaps in Cape May. But that is only in the talking stages.“We would love to open a new place,” Pittaluga said.The three have combined their individual strengths to create the Hank Sauce enterprise. Ruxton, an accomplished chef, oversees the cooking and restaurant operations. Pittaluga specializes in marketing and social media to promote the business. Jaspan, a business major in college, handles the day-to-day business odds and ends.“If we didn’t all get along, we wouldn’t have made it this far,” Pittaluga noted of their friendship.The Hank Sauce restaurant’s dining room features a casual atmosphere.Their friendship was solidified when they were roommates at Flagler College. It was then that Ruxton started making his hot sauce for Pittaluga and Jaspan.Hank Sauce’s popularity stems from the fresh ingredients used to make it, Ruxton said. It is the same philosophy Ruxton adopted years ago when he picked fresh herbs and vegetables from his dad’s garden for his then-homemade hot sauce.There is one other thing to know, though. Ruxton’s formal name isn’t Hank. It’s Brian. Hank was the nickname given to him in college by Pittaluga and Jaspan, thus inspiring the Hank Sauce brand.“Hank Sauce has a nice ring,” Ruxton said, smiling.Hank Sauce restaurant is located at 8605 Landis Ave., Sea Isle City. For more information about the restaurant or Hank Sauce, call (609) 486-5132 or visit www.hanksauce.com.The restaurant opened on Landis Avenue in Sea Isle’s Townsends Inlet section in 2012. From left, co-owner Hank Ruxton, his wife, Kaitlin, and business partner Matt Pittaluga.