Steven and Natalie Judelson (pictured) turned their passion for making sea salt at their home on Long Island into a business, Amagansett Sea Salt, focused on distilling the essence of the seaside.
The pair, both former lawyers, found healthy demand for the fruits of their longtime hobby: The company has increased production from 500 pounds of salt in 2010 to almost 4,000 pounds four years later. The next goal: ramping up to 40,000 pounds in two a half years.
Small-batch salt making is an age-old business, but one that, like many staples of the food landscape, has fallen by the wayside in the face of industrial production.
“Our real goal is to take what was a hobbyist, artisanal product and recreate an industry that left this area in the 1850s,” says Steven Judelson.
The Judelsons found that chefs and home cooks are eager for salt that tastes of the sea instead of chemicals. Judelson designed and built evaporator trays, in which filtered seawater turns into pure white salt crystals over 7 to 10 days in the sun and wind.
“Salt is not just a product of the water, but also the process,” says Judelson. “We strongly believe in the solar, evaporative process, which is outdoors. It’s a beautiful, clean environment that we have.”
Judelson knows that emphasizing the natural pedigree of his product his vital, but says that figuring out how to make, market, and sell it most effectively has been the result of trial and error. The key is not to avoid mistakes but to make mistakes and learn from them.
“In essence, what we’ve been doing for the last four years is a large-scale experiment,” he says.
The strategy for deciding to commit to such astronomical expansion is as much guesswork as it is science, but the couple looks closely at their historical business data to determine where to go next.
“We try to understand where our growth has come from and use that metric to see where that could go,” says Judelson. For example, the company has seen its wholesale restaurant trade triple in the last year due to aggressive marketing and networking, and they figure they can expand that more with increased effort.
Early on, the duo also realized it would be important to create a range of products instead of limiting business to simple white finishing salt. They developed flavored salt blends named after Long Island towns, such as Montauk (sea salt with lemon zest) and East Hampton (sea salt with herbes de Provence).
“We look at the blends not as a way to make more money in increased margins, but as a way to sell our current customers more,” says Judelson.
The Judelsons see the effect in action at local farmers markets. A customer who might have spent only $10 on plain salt will be likely to spend $30 on a few jars of salt blends. Judelson emphasizes how important it is to get face to face with customers and observe how they make buyoing decisions, for which he depends on the farmers market because the business lacks a brick-and-mortar storefront.
“I used to develop real estate in New York City, so I knew how to sell a $9 million condominium, but I had no idea how to sell a $9 jar of salt,” he stays. Talking to his customers at the markets taught him how. Plus, he finds the farmers market fun — a factor he says is central to business success.
“My advice is to get involved in something you have an interest and a passion with, and that you enjoy,” he says. “If the passion isn’t there to start, I don’t think it gets better just because you’re making some money. I can’t overstate the importance of doing things you like.”