Martha’s Vineyard Sea Salt is a Down Island Farm product conceived when Heidi Feldman was happily munching her way through a bag of sea salt and vinegar potato chips at Alley’s General Store in 2011. She was struck by the idea of harvesting sea salt directly from the Vineyard’s Atlantic Ocean. And thus, Martha’s Vineyard Sea Salt was born from a snack, and proved to be the venture that replaced Feldman’s and her partner Curtis Friedman’s previous successful business of supplying local shitake mushrooms to Island restaurants, until a caterpillar blight decimated the oak trees on which the mushrooms grew.
Feldman began the new sea salt venture with a business plan. She and her partner Curtis, she recounts, “projected how many gallons we could get into our evaporator, given the Vineyard’s seasonal calendar and climate, and that determined, more or less, the harvest in pounds.”
They hit a stumbling block in 2013, the first year. Feldman notes, “We were way off on our projections, because our building wasn’t ready yet. Once our evaporator was up and running, we’ve been hitting our numbers pretty consistently. Actually, this past year, in line with our business plan, we’ve doubled our production. We are going to do the same number of cycles but doubling the water. It’s about six to 10 cycles in a given calendar year. When we started, about 750 pounds a year was being solar evaporated. Now the yield is between 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of salt, depending on the weather.”
Feldman explained how her packaging the sea salt in small and large containers was directly related to both satisfying and increasing her market, “Salt, as you know, can go a long way. We felt as though by packaging it in small amounts, we would both create the optimal packet for travelers, but also create a product consumers would use more quickly and, thus, generate our market.”
Martha’ Vineyard Sea Salt is very intentionally an Island-centric business, reflecting the company’s commitment to the community. Its target market, says Feldman, “is visitors and, obviously, the folks who live here.” She is aware of the geographical and seasonal restrictions, but has taken steps to maximize the opportunities of both. The pricing reflects the care taken to produce a quality product, including growing some of the ingredients themselves such as lemon verbena, dill, and garlic, and using professional services of Island residents for everything from construction to branding and labeling. Although the ocean water may appear to be “free,” there are licensing, certification, and insurance expenses as well.
The sea salts are a high-end item. Asked about how she determined their price point, Feldman says, “When I was performing market analysis of other sea salts, I was finding other artisanal sea salts were in the price range we eventually chose. I also found that other companies were not producing the sea salt, but buying it in mass quantities and repackaging and labeling it as their own. I shopped the pricing I thought Curtis and I could actually generate an income from with several retailers. For example, I went to Cronig’s Market and talked to Steve Bernier, who is a proponent of all things local. He said, ‘Listen, you can always go down in price, but you can never go up.’ Martha’s Vineyard has plenty of people visit or live here who know that they only need to use 50 percent of the salt that they would normally use to get even better flavor. Knowing that Martha’s Vineyard Sea Salt is responsibly sourced means they are willing to pay the price. And, sure enough, that has proven to be true.”
Feldman went on to say, “Across the product line, all our blends are the same price. For example, it takes us an additional six hours per five pounds to produce smoked oak, let alone grinding; we don’t add that to the price.”
Price also factored in about where Feldman decided to sell the product: “Given the appearance, packaging, and pricing, we selected retail stores that attract someone who is willing to pay a little bit more money. For example, LeRoux and Morning Glory were early adopters, as were Black Sheep and Larsen’s. Our demographic tends to be 28- to 55-year-olds, both men and women. We also sell wholesale, and direct retail at the farmer’s market, and special events. On a small Island, it is important to cover the broadest base of selling opportunities. Martha’s Vineyard gets about 1 million to 1½ million visitors a year. Those visitors are in our restaurants, our retail stores, and attending special events. Martha’s Vineyard Sea Salt is used by a very select group of chefs in fine restaurants, and product producers. We also sell retail directly to consumers because we get the margin, and that helps our bottom line.”
Feldman explains that when they send the products off Island, “We drop-ship from here using the U.S. Postal Service Priority Mail. Taking advantage of their flat-rate boxes for regional delivery costs somewhere around $5 to $9 per box. This especially works for us because we are a regional sea salt product. Our goal is to become ‘the’ sea salt of choice, not only on Martha’s Vineyard, but on the Cape. Western Massachusetts and the New England states offer fantastic growth potential. We really want to hone in locally, because the Island brings in so many prospective customers. We feel that trying to spread ourselves nationwide would take out the magic of the product, some of its allure. Visitors see how rugged we have to be to live here and make a living, and that people like Curt and I really put our hearts, heads, and souls into creating an authentic product. It is the people who buy the sea salt and take both the product and our story back home to, say, Illinois, California, Ireland, or Japan and then reorder through our website who make up about 25 percent of the revenue.”
The company doesn’t currently have the resources to focus on the Internet and social media. With the built-in customer base here on Martha’s Vineyard, Feldman notes, “When visitors come here, they love the local newspapers! And we’re a small Island, yet we have two local newspapers plus supplements. There is a huge audience who at home don’t normally read a newspaper, but they come here and read both cover to cover. So we spend a large portion of our advertising budget on newspaper. There are a lot of people who would pooh-pooh that, but for me and my demographic, it makes sense.”
When asked what her biggest obstacles were in the beginning, Feldman candidly says, “Self-doubt, assessing the local food market wants and needs, and sizing our efforts on social media relevant to prospective income.” When she was stressed, Feldman says, “I turned to my partner, Curtis Friedman, for help, as he is the infrastructure! Professionally, I reached out to foodies and business people alike, including but not limited to Mark McGlynn, who dries salt on his wood stove every winter, Susie Middleton, who collaborated on recipes for the website, as well as both of my accomplished sisters, who are successful entrepreneurs in their own right — Ellen Ornato of the Bolder Co. and Sharon Rowe of Eco-Bags Products. SCORE, the Chamber of Commerce, Island retailers, and other salt companies have been very helpful.”
If you are looking for a taste of the way local businesses are using Martha’s Vineyard Sea Salt, visit mvseasalt.com for a listing, or wander over to two fantastic local businesses who use Heidi’s & Curt’s salt: Enchanted Chocolates at New Moon Magick in Oak Bluffs and Not Your Sugar Mamas in Vineyard Haven. In terms of dining, Martha’s Vineyard Sea Salt is on the menu in fine dining establishments. On a final note, Heidi believes, “The essence of the Vineyard is in the salt air and water. Taking Martha’s Vineyard Sea Salt home, wherever that may be, is a rare opportunity to relive some of our best experiences on the Island through food, and don’t we all love food?”