CLEVELAND — Michael Killik lives his life passionately, loudly, and with a sense of style that quickly gives insight into who he is. From the black and white bandana wrapped around his head, to his fingers, adorned with a slew of chunky silver rings, to a series of tattoos crawling up and down his arms and crowning the back of his head, Killik is equal parts entrepreneur and rock star.
Even when introducing himself, he shares his last name, Killik, as “two K's, two I’s, two L's, all trouble.”
In his production space in Cleveland, he and his team chop vegetables, blending and fermenting ingredients to create the products behind the Killik Hot Sauce Company - which sells four hot sauce varieties and a vinegar.
“I realized a long time ago that if I don't have a certain amount of chaos in my life, I'm just not happy. And this is the perfect gig for that,” Killik said of starting his own company.
Killik is a Clevelander through and through. The St. Ignatius graduate joined the Air Force and started a family before attending Cleveland State University and eventually becoming a Cleveland science teacher.
“All my experience being in the service, being a Cleveland teacher, when you have to talk to 140 sixth-grade students, I'm not afraid of anything,” he said.
While it may be hard to shake Killik, one experience in his past did. In 2004, while still a teacher, Killik suffered a stroke that, according to Killik, “left me with a hole in the base of my brain.”
Killik stopped teaching after that, taking time with his daughter and grandson in Florida. A few years later, he returned to Cleveland, starting a new chapter in the Cleveland restaurant scene alongside his friend, chef Eric Williams.
Killik was at work in a restaurant about eight years ago when he got a phone call no one wants to receive.
“I got a call that my dad had a heart attack,” he said. “So I went and got him taken care of, they put two stents in his heart.”
Killik took care of his father, not realizing that he would become the patient days later.
“I had a pain in my [right] arm, tightness in my chest, and I was sweating profusely,” he said. “And I looked up the symptoms of a heart attack, and they said it was your left arm. So I'm like, ‘Oh, it must be just a stress.’”
Still, he drove to the hospital the following day, only to receive a shocking diagnosis.
“They come back in, they're like, ‘Mr. Killik, you had a heart attack last night.’ And I'm like, record scratch, hold the phone. This is a different kind of ballpark,” Killik said. “I'm like, ‘Alright, man, this is the second time you've danced with the devil.’”
Killik was still recovering from his heart attack when his phone rang yet again; his father had died from another heart attack, alone at home. The news, combined with his heart attack, forced Killik to pause and reflect on his own life.
“I was smoking a lot of cigarettes back then, drinking way too much, wasn't eating right,” he recalled.
Specifically, the nurses and dieticians who cared for Killik in the hospital told him he ate too much salt, an ingredient commonly found in processed foods, as well as one of his favorite items, hot sauce.
“That’s the crux of my problem,” he said of the salt. “I love hot sauce, and people use salt for flavoring. It's everywhere, salt tastes good, right? That's just the gig. But it's not really great for us.”
Curious about how to cut back on salt and wanting to make his own hot sauce, Killik began experimenting with fermentation as a healthier way to add flavor to his beloved hot sauce.
“I sent it off to the lab at Kent State, and it came back 1% sodium, and I'm like, wait, this is it. This is my hook. A great-tasting hot sauce that's good for you,” he said.
Excited about his fermented hot sauce, he started asking around to find someone in the Cleveland food scene who could help teach him about production. He connected with Zac Rheinberger of Ohio City Pasta to learn the ropes, and began producing hot sauce, first in small batches and eventually growing.
Four years ago, Killik started Killik Hot Sauce Company. The first store Killik sold his product in, and the spot he still says is his best seller, is Lakewood Hardware. Since then, he’s grown, with his products now found in Market Districts and Giant Eagles across the state. He’s even going national through Sysco, a distributor.
Killik makes three hot sauces, Delta, Eta, and Zeta, plus special edition Mu, all with names inspired by his military background. He recently began making fermented vinegar, as well.
Reflecting on his journey, Killik is grateful for those who have been there for him, and said he feels “in tune with the universe,” explaining that what people call “miracles” happen to him frequently.
“People have just stepped up out of my past or people that I just meet in real-time who have just been - just blessings,” he said.
The journey, through every roadblock and heartbreak, every new chapter and success, has led him to build his own company. Killik said his father always wanted him to be in sales due to his personality, but Killik wasn’t interested. Now, his father’s wish has come true.
“My dad dying, me having a heart attack and then this whole hot sauce company, again, ironically got me into sales,” he said.
Killik has big plans to continue growing, wanting to take his company international and seeking investors. As he grows, he hopes to inspire others to chase their dreams and never give up, no matter what life throws at you.
“If a knucklehead like me can do what he wants, be successful without selling out, then I want to be that icebreaker for everybody else, for everybody else who feels different,” he said. “So if you want to love who you want to love, if you want to be different, if you don't want to conform, then don't. And use me as an example.”
More reporting from Isabel Lawrence:
EDITOR'S NOTE: The video above previously aired on 3News on Aug. 21, 2022.