Reviving a family business built around salt

Sep 13, 2019  | 4 min  | Ep4504

Multi-generational businesses are rare. The dreams of the next group can take the original mission off course. Other times the industry changes dramatically. 

 By the time the seventh wave of a family comes along, the original operation might need spicing up or the dream dies.

A brother and sister went back to the preverbal salt mines to reboot a dormant business as Peter Tubbs reports in our Cover story. Producer contact peter.tubbs@iptv.org

 
The 400 million year journey of this artisanal salt ends at a pair of tweezers. Impurities and debris are meticulously pulled from the product before packaging at the J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works in Kanawha County, West Virginia. 
 
Nancy Bruns, Partner, J. Q. Dickinson Salt: “It's been an amazing personal and professional journey to bring back this business of my brother and myself. And we really, um, you feel the weight of those seven generations kind of watching you."
 
Nancy Bruns is the seventh generation of her family to make salt in the Kanawha River Valley. The family business began in the early 1800’s by boiling water drawn from the ancient Lapetus Ocean. Sitting 300 feet below the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, the 400 million-year old brine is pumped into pools covered by hoop barns, and dried using energy from the sun. 
 
The trip from brine to jar takes five weeks with the brine being dried three times, the salt gathered by hand, and the crystals sorted and sifted into different sizes for packaging. 
 
The Bruns family has been exploring new markets for their product and taken advantage of the growing interest in specialty foods.
 
Nancy Bruns, Partner, J. Q. Dickinson Salt:  “Consumers and chefs around the country really wanted locally made high quality products. Um, the so-called farm to table movement as well as, um, there are very few salt makers in the U.S. who make it by natural evaporation, solar evaporation. And I saw a real opportunity there."
 
The salt industry thrived in this corner of West Virginia in the 19th century, and was the state’s biggest consumer of coal before the Civil War. Pork processors in Cincinnati were the primary destination of salt from the Kanawha River Valley.
 
Production of salt from West Virginia declined in the years after World War II as underground salt mining became more economical. The Dickenson family moved into mineral extracts to keep the company afloat until the 1980’s. Nancy and her brother Lewis revived the family business by targeting specialty foods in 2013. 
 
Nancy Bruns, Partner, J. Q. Dickinson Salt: “It's a really bright, bold flavor. You actually end up using less because it's a strong flavored salt. Um, and the texture of it is very unique. It's not hard like rock salt and it's not soft and flaky. It's got a nice crunch, but it's a delicate crunch and it really adds a nice pop of flavor in your food that's unlike any other salt in the world.”
 
The flavor and crunch found a fan base among chefs and food lovers across the country. The market is split between wholesale and retail customers, and consumers can purchase directly from the company.
Sales have increased at the same rate that production has expanded. The initial 400 pound test harvest has grown to an annual production of over 20,000 pounds of salt. The only limits to output are the number of sunny days in the Kanawha Valley between March and October.
Their over-the-counter business sees many of the same challenges faced by other niche food marketers including the need to convince customers to pay a price premium for an otherwise readily available product.
Nancy Bruns, Partner, J. Q. Dickinson Salt: “But you really, once people understand that a naturally made sea salt is better for you, the mineral content is good for you and the difference in the flavor it makes on your food. They don't go back. So if you can just get it in their hands and in their kitchens, they're really loving it and they don't turn back to the big guys."
 
To greater diversify their marketing plan, J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works is also a popular event space for weddings and gatherings, providing revenue when the business would otherwise be closed. The company also hosts a monthly dinner series with regional chefs that supports local non-profits, and a salt festival in September. 
 
Overall, reviving a business created by earlier generations has been a rewarding second career for the siblings.
 
Nancy Bruns, Partner, J. Q. Dickinson Salt: “And here we are on the same land where they made salt for so many years and it's, it's an unbelievable experience. And even though we're doing it very, very differently than they did it, it's, um, it's actually something that's brought our larger family together because we have this joint history and now it's alive again.” 
 
For Market to Market, I’m Peter Tubbs
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