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Artisan sea salt business explores wholesale market

Katie Tabeling
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Dave Burris collects salt water in Lewes in a gallon bucket every day, and eventually reduces it to natural sea salt. The one-ounce packets are now being sold to select wholesalers. | DBT PHOTO COURTESY DAVE BURRIS

LEWES — An independent sea salt maker is now exploring wholesale accounts with restaurants and retail locations on a limited basis, as the startup company looks to grow revenue and operations to meet booming sales.

Seven months after opening for business online, Henlopen Sea Salt is now found in six retail locations in the Lewes area and can be found seasoning three restaurants in the region. The business opened a small round of wholesale accounts in early June and offered a waitlist for other interested businesses.

The goal is to slowly branch out to business-to-business opportunities in a way that will not push handmade sea salt production to the brink, Henlopen Sea Salt owner Dave Burris said.

“The worst situation we could be in is to offer an account and have the sea salt sell out, and the business orders more and we can’t fill it,” Burris said. “It’s a good problem to have, but there has to be a balance.”

Henlopen Sea Salt is made directly from the Atlantic Ocean and filtered twice before being boiled down to a brine. Next, the brine is transferred to a temperature-controlled vessel which evaporates the rest of the water. 

Recently, the process was refined to create a flaky sea salt, also called “fleur de sel.” The business also sells rubs and blends.

Henlopen Sea Salt has changed its process to produce eye-catching large salt flakes. | DBT PHOTO COURTESY DAVE BURRIS

Burris has been making salt for the last decade or so, offering the seasoning as Christmas or office gifts. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he decided to develop this hobby into a business.

“You started to see a lot of people become conscious about how they got their food, and invest in small markets,” he said. “It hits a lot of buttons. It’s artisan, it’s hand-made, it’s from the beach and it’s natural. From the time we first opened, the demand was huge.”

The first batch of 1,200 salt packets were sold within two hours. The second batch of 1,300 units sold within one hour. The third batch was sold within 15 minutes — and 57% were returning customers, Burris said.

“The foodie community is very tight-knit and this just spread like wildfire,” he said. “They love the look of this giant, flaky sea salt as it finishes a dish.”

Henlopen Sea Salt’s commercial accounts include Lewes Gourmet, Shore Marketplace, Patty’s Deli, Paul’s Kitchen, Italian Market & Brunch in Lewes, the Backyard in Milton and Chesterfield Heirlooms in Pittsville, Md.

It can also be found on dishes at Heirloom in Lewes, The Diving Horse in Avalon, N.J., and Oyster Oyster in Washington D.C. All three restaurants focus on serving dishes with ingredients from the local food shelf.

As the business continues to grow, Burris is looking to expand into a small manufacturing site, ideally 1,200 square feet in size but close to the water. While the salt-making business requires a small kitchen set up — Burris currently runs it out of his property in Lewes — the idea is to allow for more room to slowly ramp up production and distribution as sales continue to grow.

“The struggle right now is the real estate market, he said. “The average for a small manufacturing set up is 15,000 square feet, and that’s still too big. Real estate is at a premium, even more so than where it was six months or even a year from now.”

Even with the startup’s success, Burris said the goal is to keep Henlopen Sea Salt a local product. But he notes that even with an online presence, the “local” reach can span as far as a 150-mile radius. His closest direct competitor is Long Island, N.Y.

“The thing is, when I talk to other foodie writers in Philadelphia or New York City, they describe this as a ‘local product’ because to them, Delaware is local. It’s just a short drive away,” Burris said. “You’ll never see this on Amazon, and it remains to be seen how we’ll handle distribution in the long run. But we’re planning to need space.”

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