Usually this column is about someone who, at some point in life, finds a new and different path — a second act. But today’s installment is no mere second or even third act. Heidi Feldman’s story has more sequels than “Lord of the Rings.” Spoiler alert: It has a happy ending.
Heidi has been a big city banking software project manager — which she says was B-O-R-I-N-G — an early implementer of online retail software, an IBM staffer, then a wash-ashore local bank staffer (at two banks), layoff casualty on the anniversary of what should have been her retirement plan vesting date, a brief unemployment collector, computer tech service manager, law firm digital systems consultant, edible flower gardener, farmers market vendor, shitake mushroom grower, business gal Friday on Mondays through Thursdays, and, ultimately, sea salt entrepreneur.
Heidi’s story goes back to 1991, when she and her soon-to-be-husband, Curtis Friedman (they met in Boston, though they grew up within miles of each other in Connecticut), came to the Island for a weekend with friends, which became an annual event, which eventually led to their honeymoon on the Vineyard in January (yes, January, proof they loved the Island). Not long after, they bought a piece of undeveloped land with the hope of building a house on it, having a small farm — later named Down Island Farm — and escaping big city life; as Heidi puts it, “getting off the gerbil wheel.”
Over the next few years, and next few career changes, Heidi and Curtis commuted. Curtis, a designer turned expert carpenter, left his job with Classic Restorations in Boston to custom-finish what began as a modular home in Tisbury; Heidi came on weekends, and finally, in 2002, they made the move permanent. Curtis went to work for South Mountain Builders, and Heidi took a job at one Island bank, then at a second one, neither of which worked out ideally. “It was like stepping back in time. I’m coming out of the software environment, where everybody was your equal and we worked as a team to make the customer happy, as opposed to local banking which, back then, was male-dominated and traditional,” she laughs, “and not in a good way.”
While banking was clearly not her calling, she did quickly connect with other kindred Vineyard spirits, “a population of Islanders who believe in the value of a dollar made from a hard day’s work with their body, not only from purely intellectual activity.” It led to her journey, an odyssey of jobs/hirings/firings/callouses/bruises, both psychic and physical. “Working at an up-Island farm, I remember coming home my first week, my hands were so swollen, I couldn’t even hold a fork.”
All part of her search for elusive personal fulfillment … a search she never gave up.
Heidi says the combination of “her multitasking and coming from a family of entrepreneurs” means she’s always looking at the next thing that’s possible and going after it. Finally — finally, by pure chance, of course — she found her calling. While munching a bag of potato chips outside Alley’s General Store, she had her a-hah moment — salt. Sea salt, to be specific. But wait, was there anyone else on the Island making and selling local sea salt? She ran back inside and asked the manager, Rhonda, who said there was one woman (whom Heidi happened to know — it’s a small Island) making something called By the Sea, but it was kosher salt blended with dried herbs and spices. Heidi spoke to the other woman, and they agreed Heidi’s product wouldn’t be a competitor.
Martha’s Vineyard Sea Salt was born — as an idea, but hardly a reality. “The only thing I knew about making salt was a story from my friend’s father, who said when he lived in a cabin, he heated it with a wood stove and the place would get really dry, so he’d get ocean water, put it in a pan on the wood stove and create humidity. What was left in the pan was salt for food. It was a quaint story.” Quaint, but not enough to start a business. Heidi and Curtis gave themselves a crash course in Salt 101. They watched endless YouTube videos on the process, and tried and failed and tried again until they got it right — from water collection filtration to evaporation time to salt harvesting, grading, blending, and packaging. “Ours is a very large natural crystal sea salt that is in no way touched by anything. I can’t give away my trade secret as to why it tastes so special.”
Today, it’s a real business. “We have 150 retail customers, a mix of gift, gourmet, and grocery, with a couple of liquor stores thrown in, all over New England. We sell on our website; and we sell at the Farmers Market.” She clarifies, “I don’t take a salary. So it’s a very different paradigm from the traditional business model. My real pay comes from the satisfaction that I get working the business.”
But make no mistake, Martha’s Vineyard Sea Salt is a success. It’s a true raw food product (meaning it’s not heated or dried above 115°), a category which is booming in popularity and authenticity. And the company shows a net profit at the end of the year. For Heidi Feldman, it’s been a long, circuitous, multipart journey, perhaps one that could only happen on Martha’s Vineyard. After all, only an island is surrounded by water, salt water, and that briny stuff was where Heidi found her “other self.” And now, Heidi and Curtis see this as their future. As Heidi says, “No one in my family set up a trust fund, so whatever we have is up to us to put in the bank.” Martha’s Vineyard Sea Salt will enable them — the pun is irresistible — to salt away their retirement savings.