It started with a wager. “I run my mouth off on business ideas all the time,” confesses Andrew Shepherd. One wild notion Shepherd, a former chef, mentioned to a friend was making sea salt in Canada for the growing locavore food market.
The friend, who came from a family of entrepreneurs, scoffed. If you could efficiently harvest sea salt from our chilly waters, he insisted, it would have been done years ago. “We ended up with a bet,” Shepherd recalls. “He figured I could boil water all night on the beach and I would have nothing to show for it. So we stayed up all night drinking beer, and we had four pans of salt in the morning.”
Seven years later, Shepherd’s company, Vancouver Island Salt Co., is producing half a ton of salt a week for some 450 restaurants, bakeries and retailers, with plans to double capacity this winter.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Canada has neither the climate nor the cheap coastal real estate to extract salt the usual way, by leaving seawater to evaporate in the sun. So Shepherd had to come up with a method for taking the salt out of sea water with boilers and kettles but without incurring the bloated carbon footprint of fossil fuels, which would betray the green ideals of his customer base. He tried wood-fired boilers and then recycled vegetable oil, but both fuels tended to destroy his equipment. Today the company works with a bio- and fossil-fuel blend, which Shepherd insists is still kinder to the environment than importing salt from overseas.
Then there’s the flavour. “I’ve become a bit of a salt geek,” says Shepherd. Sea salt tastes subtly different, depending on where it comes from, and while “nobody’s ocean is perfectly clean,” Shepherd says British Columbian sea water is among the least contaminated you can find. Its salt has a magnesium-rich, almost sweet aftertaste. That distinctive flavour profile—and innovative offshoots like Spanish paprika and roasted garlic—has allowed Vancouver Island Salt Co. to sell its product not just here at home but also to find export markets in the U.S., Japan and Europe. And it’s attracted other beachside harvesters— today, there are a dozen sea salt producers in Canada. Shepherd, who’s delighted to have competition, estimates the nascent sector has annual sales of $1.75 million collectively. He’s working to cultivate a national brand for sea salt, like Canadian smoked salmon or rye whisky. “It’s now far surpassed what I thought was possible,” he says. “The future’s really bright for all of us.”