Learning to rise

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Alum Mike Konefal turns his hot sauce into a growing business.

Northern Arizona University alum Mike Konefal began making hot sauce with a home kit as a hobby. While finishing his degree in public relations, he endlessly experimented with different kinds of habanero and spice, seeking to create the perfect blend of flavor and fire.

Today, his kit has grown into a full kitchen, and his hobby has grown into a growing business, now known as Rising Hy. 

Konefal started the business after a life-changing study abroad trip his junior year to Santiago, Chile. He explains his experiences there enabled him to grow as in individual and overcome the fears and doubts he had about starting his own business.

"Studying abroad was a huge life experience,” Konefal says. “It was just the interaction, from learning Spanish, to applying things you learn in classes, as well as using your street smarts, to size people and situations up. It taught me to eliminate my fears, not hold back, and just to go for it.”

After spending months writing a business plan during his senior year, Konefal says he made the difficult decision after graduation to open his own business. That is when the hard work and learning began.

“After choosing to start my own business, I had to adapt quickly,” Konefal says. “I knew nothing about grocery stores and how they worked in terms of distribution and shelf life and who does what. I had to be willing to learn and to be adaptable.”

Hot, habanero flavor

Beyond managing the business, Konefal needed to finalize the flavor that would come to define his brand. The main staple of Rising Hy is the flavor Habanero Hot, which Konefal says is very similar to the prototype sauces he served his friends as a student. He says the secret ingredient is actually a lack of one.

“The secret is that, unlike most hot sauces, we don’t use vinegar as a preservative,” Konefal explains. “Vinegar overpowers and jeopardizes the flavor of food. It also means that our sauce has lower amounts of sodium and is gluten-free.”

Many local restaurants in Flagstaff use Konefal’s sauces—there are now five products in total—in creating their menu items. Konefal says business is booming; he recently reached an agreement with the Arizona-based Bashas’ Grocery chain to carry Rising Hy on their shelves throughout the Southwest, and several other grocery chains in Arizona now sell the sauces. One of his sauces is served by NAU Campus Dining.

Building on their recent success, Konefal’s company purchased The Tortilla Lady, another local business that had existed for years, but had recently been struggling. This decision, too, required him to be willing to take risks and make changes.

“I had a business plan and I set fire to it two years ago with the purchase of The Tortilla Lady,” Konefal says. “Nowhere in my business plan for Rising Hy was it written, 'I'm going to buy a tortilla business two years from now.' It’s just not something I planned for at all.”

Teaching others to rise

Konefal has never been far from Northern Arizona University since graduating – his business sits only a few blocks away from the campus. He says he loved his time at the university, and has enjoyed watching it grow in the years since he left.

“I love Northern Arizona University,” Konefal says. “It's great to see how it's developed and grown since I was here; it's a gorgeous campus. I think it's a great place for people to learn.”

Recently, he visited a business class to talk to current students about the complexities of being a small business owner.

“If I could help a student, whether it’s forming an idea or having the confidence to go out and do something, I want to do it,” Konefal says.

During his talks, Konefal provided the students with some direct advice—be prepared to work.

“I'm not joking—I work 12 to 14 hours a day, six to seven days a week,” Konefal says. “Even on my day off, it's not a day off, because I have people calling me and sending me e-mails. I work for myself. You have to be self-disciplined.”

Konefal wants to take his hot sauce to bigger places—he talks about continuing to expand the brand throughout the Southwest and, eventually, across the nation. His latest success, however, was successfully contracting with Campus Dining Services to bring Rising Hy to Northern Arizona University’s dining halls.

He hopes that his success story inspires current students to take the leap in developing and opening their own businesses.

“You don't know everything when you’re a college student,” Konefal says. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don't be afraid to not know, and to seek out answers. For me, being at Northern Arizona University was about growing up and learning to move past the things that held me back.”