WAILUKU >> When Molokai resident Nancy Gove got into the salt-making business in 1999, she was one of a handful of local artisans crafting the condiment. Her backyard-cultivated sea salt filtered from Molokai waters eventually turned into a thriving operation and gained national recognition.
Sixteen years in, business is still booming, but now the market is, too, as more people begin to pick up on the trend of gourmet salts.
“It’s a niche market that’s actually gotten pretty tight, and it’s still growing,” Gove said.
While the trend may be recent, the tradition has deep roots.
Pulling pa’akai, or salt, from the blue waters of the Pacific stretches back to the early Hawaiians, who valued salt not only for its flavoring in food but also for its medicinal purposes and use in sacred ceremonies. People in a handful of places still gather salt in the ancient tradition, such as the hui of families on Kauai who have harvested salt from Hanapepe’s shallow clay pans for several generations.
In most countries, salt makers can collect and sell the tasty crystals straight from the rocky coast or salt pan of origin. The U.S. is the only place where salt products must meet federal health and consumption standards, said Gove, a self-made salt master who’s spent years combing through materials on the science, history and business of salt.
Gove’s business, Pacifica Hawaii, creates a variety of products, from kiawe-smoked salt to warm Koloa rum salt, as well as salt enriched with the minerals of red alaea clay and activated charcoal, popular flavors among local vendors.
Pacifica Hawaii sales representative Kathy Tschoerner, who’s been in the field for 25 years, said that she’s noticed the gourmet sea salt market rising in the past couple of years.
“If you introduce something successful, everybody jumps on board,” Tschoerner said. “Sea salt is such a huge category all over the world right now. It’s taking the market by storm.”
Tschoerner attributes the growth in the market to people wanting fresher, more “farm to table” style ingredients in their cooking. Many visitors also see it as a unique gift from the islands, she said.
In a crowded market, vendors are doing what they can to stand out.
“(Businesses) are going for fancy packaging,” Tschoerner said. “They’re trying to find new recipes and new flavors. I see a lot of people doing rubs and things like that.”
Perhaps the biggest pull of Gove’s product is that she produces her salt by herself and through Molokai contractors for whom she has provided training and equipment. It’s a claim few local companies can make, as many buy salt and personalize their own blends. Gove’s Kaunakakai yard is an elaborate setup of boxes and tanks where ocean water is filtered and dried.
Other companies get creative with their sourcing — Kona Sea Salt pulls ocean water from depths of 2,000 feet to make its salt.
Gove — whose company produced 50,000 pounds of salt in 2014 — said that one way she hopes to adapt to the competition is by expanding to the Mainland. The majority of her company’s sales have been in Hawaii, but Gove also has received inquiries from Mainland and international buyers. She said she’s noticed a growing number of salt companies on the East Coast to which she could market her product in bulk.
“It’s the perfect time because we’ve gotten the accounts put in place, the products put in place, and the website is up and renewed,” she said. “We’re all fresh and ready to roll.”
Others vendors, like Haiku resident Sommer Tarro, are focusing on a signature flavor. Tarro’s business, Hot Mama’s Sommer Salt, began around four years ago and produced 260 pounds of salt in 2014. It specializes in salt and Hawaiian chili pepper recipes, handed down from a “mama” who used to grind the spicy salt for the Kipahulu community where Tarro once lived.
“I feel like as soon as I came out with the spicy salt, about three or four other local ones came out at same time,” Tarro said.
While probably “the smallest player in the game right now,” Tarro said that her product is sold in multiple Maui markets as well as a couple of Mainland restaurants and bars.
“I don’t have the largest customer base but I know my customer base is 100 percent loyal,” she said. “I’m stoked about that because that’s important to me.”
Hot Mama gets its salt from Molokai and its chili peppers from an organic farm in Huelo. Tarro infuses the salt with the peppers within 24 hours of picking them.
While vendors see more customers turning to gourmet sea salt over table salt, Gove doesn’t foresee people completely replacing the latter with the former in their diets. Whole sea salt is packed with more minerals than single-element table salt and has a more complex flavor, Gove said, but what really matters is getting the recommended daily intake.
She pointed out that all salt is technically sea salt. Even mines in the mountains had to have been touched by seawater.
“It’s the most simple thing on the planet and yet it’s so complex,” Gove said. “You have to eat it to live, but if you eat too much it will kill you.”