As consumers continue to become more aware of where their food comes from and how it is grown and prepared — think organic tomatoes, fair trade coffee, locally distilled spirits — their eyes are also being opened to the exotic colors, intriguing flavors and fascinating textures of good old sodium chloride.
SaltWorks Inc. of Woodinville is carrying the artisanal banner high. The 13-year-old company sells 110 salt varieties with names like Snowflake, Pacific Blue, Pure Ocean, Cyprus Flake and Hiwa Kai. There’s a Smokehouse Collection of all-natural, wood-fired sea salt available in three levels of hotness: Bonfire, Wildfire and Hellfire. There’s also an artisan line of all-natural Fusion sea salts with taste profiles like Spanish Rosemary, Lime Fresco, Espresso Brava and Habanero Heat.
You can buy it by the jar, by the truckload or in multiple oceangoing containers. SaltWorks’ customers range from individual consumers and restaurateurs to grocery chains, food processors and salt-mill manufacturers.
Founded in 2001, SaltWorks now has 70 employees and has become the largest gourmet salt business in the world, with revenue this year expected to reach $22 million. The co-owners of the privately held firm, Mark Zoske and Naomi Novotny, continue to seek new customer relationships and taste innovations as they consider expanding yet again in the next five years.
“People are more educated about the food they eat,” Zoske explains. “They’re reading labels. They want to know where food is coming from. People are finding out that quality salt makes food taste better, taste different [and that] there can be a crunch to it.”
In Seattle’s University Village, Mrs. Cook’s kitchenware and culinary supply store has been selling SaltWorks items since 2009. Shoppers seem to like its new take on an old ingredient, says buyer Amy Pomp Lorette. “You really can develop a palate for the differences in taste and texture,” she says.
Among the better sellers at Mrs. Cook’s are Salish Alder Smoked Sea Salt, for its Northwest connection, and Fleur de Sel, as an all-round finishing salt.
From the start, SaltWorks has been a leader of the artisanal salt movement, says Mark Bitterman, Portland-based author of Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral. Bitterman has said no food is “more potent, more nutritionally essential, more universal” than salt. Describing the mineral compound as “a revelation,” he asserts, “No other food displays salt’s crystalline beauty, is as varied or as storied.”
In the hands of Zoske and Novotny, Bitterman observes, salt is well curated and well presented. “Mark and Naomi are among only a handful of pioneers,” Bitterman says. “They excel at what they do.”
Bitterman sees growing interest in gourmet salt as part of a huge culinary swing in the past several decades away from a focus on cooking technique, à la Julia Child, toward ingredients “that have a story and a history.”
Saltworks’ own story has it starting out as Zoske’s hobby. Consumer interest in innovative products and high quality persuaded him that there was a business model to be honed. Energetic customer service and aggressive marketing have set the company apart, say clients, and today, the company retails, wholesales and exports gourmet sea salts as well as bath and spa salts. It also harvests its own sea salt from the waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and offers an all-natural line of smoked and flavored salts with no additives or anti-caking agents.
“We have our ear to [salt] trends around the world,” Zoske says. “Customers do reviews for us; they tell us about some magical thing a chef did at a restaurant. … People started telling us that they were barbecuing with our salt. That’s how we came up with the Smokehouse Collection.”
At the other end of the customer spectrum, SaltWorks (seasalt.com) has several large clients Zoske cannot name because of nondisclosure agreements. Among them, according to a recent Evening Magazine story on KING-TV, is a “large” Seattle coffee company, which reportedly uses a SaltWorks product for its salted caramel mocha. Evening Magazine also mentioned La Panzanella Artisanal Foods Co. and Sahale Snacks as SaltWorks clients.
Zoske, 49, started SaltWorks from his house, using a loan from his brother. “We got a website going and it wasn’t long until we realized this was going to be a real business,” he notes. “We’re busy. There’s always something new going on here. This is way more than shoveling salt.”
Zoske and Novotny, business partners since 2002, married four years ago. He is CEO, she is president; together, they now focus on mechanizing both their processing and shipping operations at the 130,000-square-foot site not far from Woodinville’s wineries and tasting rooms. The company has already expanded once, but annual revenue growth of 35 to 40 percent has the couple looking for a larger site where they can build a 250,000-square-foot headquarters and plant.
“Five years from now, we’ll still be in Woodinville,” Zoske vows. “… We’re kind of a fixture here.”
Saltworks’ rapid growth could be further enhanced by the continuing trend among large food companies toward using sea salt as a key seasoning agent. Wendy’s sells natural-cut fries with sea salt. Kettle Foods has sea salt and vinegar potato chips. Most high-end chocolatiers offer some sort of sea-salt-and-caramel pairing. Zoske predicts that McDonald’s could soon put sea salt on its French fries.
Because sea salt can only be harvested at a certain time of the year, Zoske strives to keep an inventory of 6 million pounds of salt on hand, ready to ship from SaltWorks’ climate-controlled facility. “I think we changed the industry by reducing [order] lead times from up to seven months to seven days anywhere in the United States,” he notes. “At any given time, we’ve got 80 to 100 different salts on the shelves.”
The company continues to grow its customer base of retailers and bulk buyers, who may use SaltWorks salt as an ingredient or may repackage and label certain varieties for resale as their own.
“When we started, 80 percent of our sales were direct to retail consumers, with 20 percent going to wholesale and bulk buyers,” Zoske notes. “Now, 80 percent goes to ingredients or to those who want to resell our product. We basically give them a business in a box to sell our salt.”
Ron Rebman, co-owner of the Orcas Village Store on Orcas Island, is among those customers. “We like their racking, the packaging and the variety of salt products,” Rebman says. “We really like their free shipping. That’s a big deal for us.”
On its website, SaltWorks offers dozens of gourmet salt items priced from $12.95 for a 2-ounce jar of Snowflake Salt to $139.50 for the Ultimate Salt Collection of 12 of the most “unique and rare gourmet sea salts available.”
And while competitors may try to copy its products, Zoske and Novotny remain confident of SaltWorks’ place on the salt pile. As Zoske says, “No one could copy our love of salt.”