A snack became the germ of an idea that changed Heidi Feldman’s and her husband Curtis Friedman’s lives some 10 years ago. Feldman was happily munching away on a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips at Alley’s General Store when the idea struck her to create a business with her beloved condiment from the Island’s ocean waters.
The start of Martha’s Vineyard Sea Salt was not the couple’s first venture. They had a successful business supplying local shitake mushrooms to Island restaurants until a caterpillar blight decimated the oak trees on which the mushrooms grew. Feldman did her due diligence, undertaking a business plan to project how many gallons they could get into their evaporator given the Vineyard’s seasonal calendar and climate, which determined, more or less, the harvest in pounds. Turns out, 275 gallons of seawater makes about 60 pounds of salt.
The process of producing the native product begins with a drive to the Island’s south shore very early in the morning. “We take a truck with two or four large tanks on the back to the beach and use a small pump at the ocean’s edge to draw in anywhere from 550 to 1,000 gallons of water at a time,” Feldman explains. “Then we come back up to the farm and reverse pump the water out of the tanks into a building similar to a greenhouse, using a filter in between that we wash frequently because we pick up such things as sand and little shrimp.” The water goes directly into the solar evaporator where the sun beats down on the panels creating moisture and the solar panels on the roof run the fans inside the evaporator to slowly convect out the moisture. Then somewhere between three weeks to three months later, you have sea salt left that slowly turns from clear to opaque to blotchy then solid, forming piles of crumbly crystals. When a crust forms on top, it is ready to harvest as finishing salt.
Then it is time to create their blend, which features the majority of ingredients coming from their Down Island Farm or locally grown. The alluring choices include Lemon Verbena and Dill, Local Smoked Oak, Blueberry Honey, Sumac, Paprika and Garlic, Turmeric, Cranberry and White Pepper, and Naughty (advertised as a sexy and healthful blend of MV Sea Salt and activated charcoal). Two new varieties are Porcini Mushroom and Herbes de Provence. Their website offers all sorts of intriguing recipes if you are looking for inspiration.
As we learn on their website, Feldman and Friedman aren’t the first to make salt from the ocean off the Island, although it is the first to operate in nearly 200 years. According to the “Dukes County Intelligencer,” the first known salt works here began in 1778. By 1807, salt manufacturing was the Island’s second-largest industry. It appears that the Vineyard’s last operating salt works had stopped production by 1850.
For a time, salt was critical to the Island community not just to make food tastier but for its ability to preserve food before refrigeration and its use in tanning hides and packing fish — all important to the Vineyard’s economy.
Feldman reflects that business during the pandemic was a little weird, “We were masked and gloved and disinfecting. But our consumers still went to the stores and went shopping. There was a mandate for food producers to keep producing food. Like the Farmers Market still made it happen. We kept doing business.” But now, she shares, “It’s crazy busy all the time. Post-pandemic there is this hyper-consumerism. There used to be this fantastic drop-off in the fall that would happen so you knew you could look ahead or this subtle sort of crescendo toward the spring. That’s just not happening now.”
Feldman explains, “Fortunately, we have a really solid business plan and without limiting ourselves, we know where we want to be in the marketplace — we want to be the premier, leading sea salt for New England.” In looking to branch out, they are ruminating on adding new brand names. The names right now possibly include the Salty New England or NE Sea Salt (with “NE” standing for New England). “We have an affinity for the Island, and we have a huge population, but in order to keep the business growing we need to reposition ourselves to reach other populations,” Feldman says. “Our parent company is Down Island Farm and so we have the luxury to create all these assorted brands under our business name and have them tie back to the farm and not Martha’s Vineyard Sea Salt.”
But rest assured, Martha’s Vineyard Sea Salt is not going anywhere. In fact, for their tenth anniversary in 2023, Feldman says, “You’ll see us doing some fun things like a giveaway.”
Also, as always, Feldman urges customers to give them feedback and send in recipes. As she says, “We want the consumers to tell us why and how they’re using it.”
In turn, what Feldman wants people to know is, “Basically, we’re about creating memories and an affinity for the Vineyard and the ocean.”
For more information, visit mvseasalt.com/about-us/.