Meet the Maker: Wellfleet Sea Salt
An Interview with Hope & Zak of Wellfleet Sea Salt
Photos by Jenn Bakos
Many things draw us to the folks we interview and photograph. We have met countless makers and craftspeople, as well as farmers and chefs. Sea salt seems to be up and coming as far as local produce and farming go, and we were excited to learn about the process of this important mineral. Hope Schwartz-Leeper and Zachary Fagiano were kind enough to take some time out of their busy schedules to show us their little (soon to be bigger!) salt farm station. They started their company while in their junior year of college. Now they run the company and live on Cape Cod and are dedicated to keeping things natural and local. We felt as though they were the perfect fit for the pages of Issue 06 - harvesting their product from the chilled depths of the Atlantic Ocean, the inspiration behind our latest volume.
Tell us a little bit about how Wellfleet Sea Salt started. Why salt?
When we were juniors at Skidmore College, we entered a business plan competition at school. My dad kept suggesting the idea of sea salt, which was just beginning to gain popularity in the food world. Zak's parents are food professionals and encouraged us to give it a try. We ended up winning a grant and have been doing it ever since!
What led you and Zak to sea salt and this endeavor?
Growing up, I went to Wellfleet nearly every summer, so the ocean has always been a big part of my life. Zak had never been. Both of our parents had a lot to do with it, and it gives us a great excuse to live on Cape Cod where most people only get to come for vacation.
What is a typical day like for Wellfleet Sea Salt?
Our days will vary greatly because our business is so weather reliant, which makes everyday something new. Usually it will start with Zak and I going to our evaporators before they get too hot; the lower the sun the less humid and hot they will be. We will harvest salt or fill the greenhouses with water and then return home where we will package salt into jars, smoke salt, or mix the ingredients for our citrus salt for most of the day. During the summer I go to a farmers' market four days of the week, which is a great way for me to speak with customers face-to-face. Zak will also go out and do deliveries all around the Cape.
How is salt harvested and made?
The harvesting process for salt starts with catching the ocean at just the right point before high tide. If the tide is too high, we won't have access with our truck to go get the sea water because the area will flood. If the tide is too low, we will have to wait for a long time until it's high and fresh enough. We use an electric bilge pump wired to our car battery to pump the water into giant tanks in the back of our pick up truck. Then we drive about two and a half miles to our evaporators, where we pump the water out and let it start evaporating. Eventually the water is gone and leaves us with salt crystals, which we put in piles to let the moisture drain out. We collect the salt and bring it home where we jar it.
How and why did you choose the Cape Cod coast to harvest your salt?
Cape Cod actually has a rich history of making sea salt. During the Revolutionary War, the British put an embargo on salt to the United States. Salt was essential for food preservation at the time so the colonies had to figure out how to make their own salt. A man named John Sears started the first salt works on Cape Cod and it took off. At its height there were hundreds of salt works all over the Cape and we are bringing back that tradition! We love the Cape and everything about it — from the beaches to the restaurants and everything in between, it's just the perfect place for us. Making salt here just makes sense.
What inspires you about the New England coast?
New England is a wonderful place and it's perfect for harvesting salt. The coast is beautiful and full of minerals which gives the salt a distinctive taste and color and is perfect for making a unique American salt. There's a reason why so many writers and other artists flock to the Cape; there is something indescribable about looking across the Atlantic Ocean from the top of a sand dune. I thinkpart of the charm of Cape Cod and New England in general is that you can almost feel the history. It is the first place that people settled from Europe, and the Native American history is incredibly rich as well.
You mentioned that you do a few farmer's markets. What farm markets do you sell your products at?
We sell our products at the Wellfleet, Harwich, Chatham, and Osterville
farmers markets. Next year we hope to add Truro and Orleans to our schedule.
What is your favorite way to use your salts?
Zak: My favorite way to use the salt is rubbing our smoked salt into a steak, burger, or chicken breast and slapping it on the grill. For me one of the best parts about sea salt is the texture — the added crunch that gives you the sense that your really digging into something special. I like to put the smoked salt on my steak not only for that smokey taste but also for the added crunch.
Hope: I like to use our salt to make something really simple and fresh. Even just stir-fried farmers' market veggies, or local summer corn with a little butter and salt is a great way to enjoy it. You get the pure briny flavor of the salt, which in turn helps to enhance to flavor of the produce in a really nice way. It's easy but delicious!
Where do you see your company in 5 years from now?
In 5 years from now we hope to have a full range of flavored salts as well as some food products that use salt, but aren't primarily salt focused, such as rubs and blends using other herbs. We see the company expanding into a multi-food business that can use local ingredients from all over the Cape and New England to deliver a full line of unique great foods made from local farmers.
What's the best thing about your job?
Zak: The best part of the job for me is being outside on the beaches and enjoying the nature and beauty of Cape Cod. I love to surf and this is the best way to mix work and play for me. Even when we are slammed and can barely keep up with all the work, being outside or focusing on something I love to do makes it completely worth it. Plus working with Hope each day is great because we work so well together. We have very different ways of thinking and it makes for the perfect business partnership.
Hope: I also love to be outside, especially in one of my favorite places in the world. One of the biggest perks is getting to go to farmers' markets because it never feels like work for me. I get to talk to the local farmers and producers, who are always the most friendly and interesting people. Some have grown up farming, while others got involved with it later in life. Other people have started really fascinating businesses and it's always fun to compare what we do and how we operate as small companies. The customers are always interested in learning about what all of us do and it's fun to chat with all of them.