Friends launch business harvesting the sea for salt
ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY FEB. 2 - In this Monday, Jan. 20, 2014 photo Heather Ahearn holds some freshly harvested sea salt along the coast of Cape Ann, Mass. The location of the harvest is a secret because Ahearn and Alison Darnell, founders, senior executives, and cooks for Atlantic Saltworks, want to keep it that way. (AP Photo/Gloucester Daily Times, Desi Smith)
ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY FEB. 2 - In this Monday, Jan. 20, 2014 photo, Alison Darnell, left, and Heather Ahearn, right, gather five-gallon buckets of salt water along the coast of Cape Ann, Mass. The location of the harvest is a secret because Darnell and Ahearn, founders, senior executives, and cooks for Atlantic Saltworks, want to keep it that way. (AP Photo/Gloucester Daily Times, Desi Smith)
ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY FEB. 2 - In this Monday, Jan. 20, 2014 photo a package of Atlantic Saltworks salt rests on a rock along the coast of Cape Ann, Mass. The location of the harvest is a secret because Ahearn and Alison Darnell, founders, senior executives, and cooks for Atlantic Saltworks, want to keep it that way. (AP Photo/Gloucester Daily Times, Desi Smith)
They go down to the sea in shifts, doing business in great waters, as Gloucester’s iconic Fisherman’s Memorial suggests, but Greenfield-raised Heather Ahearn and Alison Darnell go down to the sea with buckets.
What the waterproofed, double-gloved women haul back is saltwater, 25 to 30 five-gallon buckets, which they drive to a shared commercial kitchen in Amesbury and boil down for its salt, 10 to 15 gallons at a time, much like the maple sap that’s being boiled at sugarhouses right now.
Their Atlantic Saltworks startup business, launched last August, is starting to make waves among retailers and restaurants on the North Shore and beyond, all after a spontaneous experiment by the two friends who met as University of Massachusetts freshmen in Amherst.
“If you’d told me six months ago that we’d be selling in as many stores as we are and planning a Kickstarter campaign to open our own production facility, we would have told you you were nuts,” says the 1992 Greenfield High School graduate who went on to study sports management and manage public relations for the U.S. Olympic Ice Hockey Team for a decade in Colorado.
It was a lark when Ahearn and Darnell — both Babson College master of business administration graduates who’d resumed their friendship after Ahearn moved back east a few years ago — met one afternoon at Ahearn’s home facing Salem harbor for a dinner cooked from ingredients at the local farmers market.
“We’re definitely not foodies, but we like to buy local,” Ahearn says.
After their meal, they realized, “Wow this is pretty cool: Everything we have here was sourced locally, except for the salt,” she says. “And we just walked across the street and filled a gallon jug with water just to see if we could make salt, just to see what would happen.”
They stuck the ocean water in a pot, boiled it down on the kitchen stove, and “It was almost the most magical thing we’d ever seen in our lives. All of a sudden, there was salt. Since then, it’s been a passion.”
The two women, who both have full-time marketing jobs, had talked about starting a business and dabbled in different ideas, but had no elaborate plan when they headed down to the water that day.
Then they began testing “recipes,” driving separately from either end of the North Shore — Ahearn heading south from Newburyport, Darnell starting from Swampscott, sampling water from spots along the way, and then tasting both the water and the salt they boiled down from it.
All of the salinity was about the same, but not the taste, mostly because of different mineral concentrations.
“It all tasted good, but we really homed in on the Gloucester area where we liked the taste of the salt the best,” she says. “It’s unreal. It was really a fun process.”
Obviously, she says, they steered clear of boat ramps, beaches, treatment plants, tires and other areas where water quality might be an issue. But boiling the filtered ocean water “kills anything,” according to Ahearn, as does the high salt concentration from the evaporation process that yields about 3 ounces per gallon.
What’s not killed, for sure, is the taste, says Ahearn, adding that unlike commercial-grade salt, their “hand-harvested” salt doesn’t have chemical aftertaste from bleaching or anti-caking processes.
Because they boil the salt in small batches, rather than the more common solar evaporation process for extracting sea salt, the end product is a “nice flaky, crunchy, very delicate” salt rather than the large crystals that need to be ground up. Instead, when the flakes precipitate to the bottom of the pan, the salt makers scoop it out to let it dry for a couple of days.
“It’s time intensive and a more labor intensive process than we thought it would be, lugging salt from one place or another. There’s still a learning curve, and it’s crazy how much chemistry it is, with the nuances of how turning down the heat on the water depending on the salinity really affects the final product. The untrained salt connoisseur might not know the difference, but it does make a difference.”
What has come easy has been selling their gourmet product. Since November, it’s been done entirely by word of mouth.
“We haven’t picked up the phone yet to make a sale,” said Ahearn, whose customers include Provisions in Northampton and whose salt is sold on the business’s website. “We want to sell our product everywhere and have it appreciated by the finest chefs but also by the meat and potatoes family who recognizes it’s still a wonderful, everyday addition to your food.”
Buoyed by an Associated Press article, the sea-salt startup gets a boost every day from potential customers who Ahearn says they have to fend off.
“We’re just validated every day, that we’re doing the right thing and doing it well,” she says. “We’re on a mission now. We’re amused by it as much as the next person. We still can’t believe we’re making salt.”
You can reach Richie Davis at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269