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Big Island salt company hopes for rebound

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                                A variety of flake and furikake sea salt from Kona Sea Salts.


    A variety of flake and furikake sea salt from Kona Sea Salts.

If the minerals that turn into salt can survive the trip to Hawaii in ancient deep sea waters that originated off Greenland 900 years ago, what’s a little pandemic?

That was the thinking of Sea Salts of Hawaii owner Sandra Gibson when she decided to buy Kona Salt Farm this year, which was facing a shutdown by its former owners.

Gibson said she has always thought of salt as a symbol of good luck and blessing. Still, she knew that she would be taking a strategic risk if she wanted to preserve the Kona Salt Farm, which is one of only two commercial salt farms in Hawaii.

“The current economic environment is an incredible challenge, but we hope the eventual support of Hawaii’s culinary community will allow us to sustain the salt farm’s operations,” Gibson said. “From Day One I had been sourcing salt from the two farms. When I heard the Kona Salt Farm owners were going to discontinue operations, I felt a calling to keep it alive. I felt we would be stronger together.”

Gibson said she purchased Kona Salt Farm on July 1 for an undisclosed price.

The purchase included taking over the Kona Salt Farm operation, its lease with the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority and all of the responsibility for the equipment and facilities. The 7-acre oceanfront salt farm sits on the NELHA campus at Keahole Point on the Big Island, where ancient Hawaiians began to populate the district known as Hoona about 1,000 years ago.

“A big portion of our business was people purchasing gifts, both visitors and kamaaina as well as corporate accounts and trade shows. That kind of all went away at once when people stopped traveling,” Gibson said. “But ultimately, we really believe in Hawaii and Hawaii’s ability to recover. We also have a strong belief in the quality and uniqueness of our salt. There’s no other salt on the planet that comes from the same deep ocean waters that our salt comes from.”

The deal unites Sea Salts of Hawaii, Kona Sea Salt and Astafactor, which Gibson said will all keep their own brand identity and specific Hawaii connections, while building diversified business interests.

Respecting the Hawaiian sense of place has always been important to Gibson, who had roots in tourism and restaurants before she started Sea Salts of Hawaii about nine years ago. She launched the business in 2012 at the Made in Hawaii Festival. The idea was inspired by a gift of Hanapepe salts that she received while she and her husband, longtime hotelier Jerry Gibson, were living on Kauai.

Sandra Gibson said Kona Sea Salt’s roots go back to 1992 when a team of university researchers founded a startup venture, Aqua­search Inc., to explore the uses of micro algae as a clean energy source and salmon feed additive.

Gibson said Kona Sea Salt was the first company to make Astaxanthin available as a consumer nutritional supplement under the Astafactor brand The product was quickly embraced by Kona’s marathon and running community, who valued the product because it helped with athletic recovery and provided protection from UV rays, she said.

Sea Salts of Hawaii’s early focus was built around developing and selling flavored gourmet sea salts, although the company recently started selling Hawaiian soaking bath salts.

With the purchase of Kona Sea Salts, Gibson has expanded offerings to include flavored Hawaii sea salt under the Kona Sea Salt brand as well as flake Hawaiian Sea Salt, furikake Hawaii sea salt and Nigari, a byproduct of harvesting salt used as a coagulant in making tofu. There’s also Astafactor, a nutritional supplement.

Gibson hopes her investment in Kona Sea Salt will lead to additional business returns; however, she said she also wants to preserve the operations of a special place that’s rooted in Hawaii’s traditions and offers possibilities for its future.

Despite current challenges, Gibson has kept up the company’s 2012 pledge to give 1% of all proceeds to the Papahanaumokuakea Marine Debris Project. Sea Salts of Hawaii also uses Lanakila Pacific, a vocational training program for those with challenges, for most of its production.

Gibson said salt master Mel Kelekolio, who has been managing the Kona Salt Farm’s operations since 2004, will continue to use both traditional Hawaiian knowledge and modern technologies to hand-harvest the salt from the ancient deep sea waters.

Kelekolio said salt is made by drawing mineral-rich deep ocean water from more than 2,000 feet below the surface and pumping it into solar evaporation beds. She said the deep ocean water comes from glaciers in the north that are so heavy that they sink and are carried to other parts of the world via streams on the bottom of the ocean.

“The deep ocean water has higher mineral content than sea water that is gathered from the surface, where there are a lot of organisms that consume the nutrients that are available,” Kelekolio said. “The salt made from deep ocean water has higher amounts of other trace minerals, so it has a lower sodium content and a sweeter taste.”

“Drawing from both Hawaiian salt harvesting traditions and modern technology, a lot of knowledge goes into setting up conditions just right for the beautiful crystals to form by unhurried solar evaporation in which happens to also be one of the sunniest locations in the Hawaiian Islands,” Gibson said. “Equally important is knowing the precise time to hand-harvest it for a perfectly balanced and mild taste.”

Kelekolio said hand-harvesting at the three- to four-week mark typically produces light, flaky salt, but the timing depends on the quality of the sunlight and the time it takes to move the correct amount of moisture out of the product.

If the salt is left too long, the magnesium inside it will start to crystallize and can leave a bitter taste.

“Since the start we’ve been evolving the flavor profile,” Kelekolio said. “It’s the best salt I know. You can even use a light sprinkling on lettuce as a replacement for dressing.”

Chef Joseph “JJ” Reinhart, who is currently on furlough from Hilton Hawaiian Village, said he’s been enamored of the salt since his first visit to the farm, where he was blown away by its “blindingly white brilliance and clean flavor profile.”

Reinhart said he likes to infuse the salt with specialty flavors, which it holds well due to its higher moisture content.

“It’s a great finishing salt. It’s got nice large crystals and a bit of a crunch,” he said. “It doesn’t have the surface pollution of salts that come from the top waters. There’s a great story about where it comes from and how it’s been harvested. It’s an incredible product not only because it has that rich history and it’s made here, but also because it represents what Hawaii is all about.”

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