March 2016: Small Business Success

Maine-ly business with some extra salt

Sarah O'Connell

Sarah O’Connell

This is part two of my 1,500-mile solo road trip through New England to visit a small entrepreneurial venture way up in Down East Maine. The story begins when it seemed that everyone I knew started touting “Pink Himalayan Sea Salt.” I don’t exactly possess the palate of a gourmet, so I’m thinking, “Isn’t salt just salt?” Because basically, all salt was originally sea salt, whether it’s mined from deep beneath the earth or extracted from the ocean. But connoisseurs of salt believe that there are big differences in taste, mineral content and processing, and they are willing to pay the big bucks to have their condiment transported 7000-plus miles.

My thought was, surely somewhere in the United States you can get domestic sea salt that compares, and so I jumped on Google. The result of that quest was the Maine Sea Salt Company, a small enterprise in Marshfield, Maine, population 518 in the 2010 census. There are other sea salt companies on both coasts, but I picked this one because it was reachable by car and because Steve Cook was just so friendly when I emailed him about making a visit.

Marshfield is about 80 miles east of Bangor and a couple of hundred miles northeast of Portland. I got there in the early afternoon. Another group of visitors, a couple from Connecticut and their friends from Colorado, had just entered the store, so I immediately lost the “distance farthest traveled” prize. They were there to shop but when they heard that Steve was going to give me the grand tour, they came along, too.

Steve first told us how he got started. He was between jobs in 1998 when he spotted a jar of sea salt in a coastal shop and thought, “I could do that.” He began with small packages of salt to be used when cooking lobsters and marketed it to the fish markets in his area. As the business grew and he needed more processing space, he and his wife, Sharon, moved the operation to Marshfield.

So this is how it works. Between April and October, Steve drives his tanker truck 15 miles to the ocean, fills it up and brings the salt water back to a series of plastic covered evaporator houses and pours it onto wide concrete troughs. As the water evaporates using just the power of the sun, he transfers the remaining, increasingly saline fluid into other enclosures until it finally reaches the crystal stage. He then dries it between linen towels and grinds it to different levels of coarseness. Some he flavors with other spices (like garlic or herbs), others he flavors with hickory or apple wood in the large smokers out back. Then it’s packaged and sold all over the country to health food stores, restaurants, and individuals. I think Steve told me he sells about 30,000 pounds a year. After the season ends — because he can’t get to the ocean on wintry roads with his big tanker — he and his wife spend the winter in Florida.

I just loved his story. He came up with his first niche in the local fish markets, and then expanded and diversified to where his products are sold today, in gourmet shops, health food stores, and fine restaurants. We talked a lot about marketing, the different products he sells alongside his salts, the addition of the handy grinder dispensers, Internet sales, Facebook (he admits he doesn’t use it as much as he should), opportunities to expand his wholesale business and more. I came back to Northern New York with a collection of amazing salt products and an inspiring story for my clients about how one guy with a little idea came up with a business venture that feeds his family and spices up other people’s lives. To learn more about Steve, visit his website at maineseasalt.com.


The New York Small Business Development Center at JCC offers free, individual, confidential counseling to new or existing business owners in Jefferson and Lewis counties. For more information, contact 782-9262, sbdc@sunyjefferson.edu. St. Lawrence County residents can contact their SBDC at SUNY Canton, 386-7312, sbdc@canton.edu.

Sarah O’Connell is a certified business advisor with the New York State Small Business Development Center at Jefferson Community College. She is a former small business owner and lifelong Northern New York resident. Contact her at soconnell@sunyjefferson.edu. Her column appears bi-monthly in NNY Business.