Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
In May 2013, a small group of people gathered around a new wellhead on a farm in Malden, West Virginia. Water spewed airward; a man on the drilling team collected some in an empty Gatorade bottle. Nancy Bruns tasted it. "I told them to dig deeper," says Bruns. "It wasn't salty enough."
But at least, thank goodness, it was salty. "When we hit it, we knew we could relax," says Bruns. That single sip of saline proved that her dream of reviving a 200-year-old family business could work. And an industry that had once made West Virginia's Kanawha Valley famous--in a very small way--was back.
Nancy Bruns is CEO and co-founder--with her brother, Lewis Payne--of J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works, a maker of artisanal salt. J.Q. Dickinson, which has two employees and expects revenue of $225,000 in its second year of operation, bears the same name and operates from the same location as a company started by the siblings' ancestors in 1817. Younger generations routinely refresh existing family businesses. To bring such a business back from the dead and reinvent it for modern times, though, is a more challenging proposition.
The original J.Q. Dickinson served a basic need. In pre-refrigeration America, the salt produced by Bruns's ancestor William Dickinson and his brother-in-law Joel Shrewsbury was used to preserve meat and fish. In today's food-obsessed culture, Bruns's vision is less prosaic. Her product, which retails for $5 per one-ounce jar, is finishing salt: a dash of crunch and sparkle that puts fine food over the top.
Bruns also is among the very few salt producers using sustainable techniques, such as separating H2O from NaCl with solar power. Her approach is applauded by Mark Bitterman, author of two books on salt and owner of the Meadow, a gourmet store with locations in New York City and Portland, Oregon.
"Nancy understands that her resource is more than just a well with salt water and a family name," says Bitterman. "She's investing to create salt using all-natural, renewable energy where once her family burned inordinate amounts of coal to achieve the same thing. She is taking the high road."
Excavating the family tree.
Salt is not the natural resource people most associate with West Virginia. But once, salt was to this state what lobsters are to Maine. An ancient ocean--the Iapetus--lies beneath the Appalachian Mountains, largely dry but still feeding groundwater springs. In the early 19th century, settlers erected furnaces on both sides of the Kanawha River to boil brine down to salt, which they sold locally and later exported west.
Bruns's cousins now own the 50 acres of farmland in Malden where Dickinson and Shrewsbury first drilled for brine, pumping fluid into the wells through hollowed-out tree trunks. (Back then the territory was still Virginia.) Bruns grew up in nearby Charleston and, as a child, visited the farm often. "I knew we had been in the salt business a long time ago, but it was not a big part of family culture," she says.
In 1988, Bruns left West Virginia for culinary school in Vermont. Afterward she worked in food-related businesses--at a startup charcuterie, a catering company, and the food service at a University of Wyoming sorority. Eventually, Bruns and her husband, Carter, bought a restaurant called Wild Thyme Gourmet, in Highlands, North Carolina. They sold it in 2008.
At that point, Carter Bruns returned to school to pursue a doctorate in American history. While enrolled at Western Carolina University, he wrote a master's thesis on the salt industry in West Virginia. "He looked at how they exported the salt to Cincinnati and further west," says Bruns. "He was trying to buck the idea of this insular Appalachian mind frame."
The more Carter dug, the more he encountered J.Q. Dickinson. The family business was resilient: rebuilding after Union troops wiped out the salt works in the Civil War, and again after a big flood swept through the valley, taking much of the company with it. By the early 20th century J.Q. Dickinson had diversified, producing salt for dust control on roads and medicated blocks for livestock. In 1945, facing increased competition from larger scale, cheaper providers, it abandoned salt entirely, instead selling minerals extracted from the brine to large chemical companies. By the mid-1980s, J.Q. Dickinson had itself evaporated.
The farm, which still houses the original company office, proved an embarrassment of primary-source riches. "In our family we don't throw anything away," says Bruns, who prior to launching the startup was helping small nonprofits with strategic planning. "We have receipts that my great-great-great grandfather wrote bartering corn for tobacco. We have records of all the transactions. Everybody they sold salt to. The employee payroll. All the correspondence. And lots of old pictures.
"We started talking about the family history in a totally different way," she says. "That's when I had the aha moment."
Drill a little deeper.
Fundamentally, J.Q. Dickinson in 2015 doesn't operate all that differently from J.Q. Dickinson circa 1817. Pump brine from the ground. Evaporate the water. Sell the salt.
Worried about contamination from corroded iron pipes, Bruns and Payne rejected the existing seven or eight wells that still dot the family property. Instead, they spent $10,000 to dig a new one. In the old office they found numerous jars containing samples of materials--coal, sandstone, limestone--excavated from those early wells and marked with the depth at which each material was found. "From that we knew we would hit brine at around 300 feet. And we did," says Bruns. "Then we went a little deeper." The saltier the water, after all, the less time it takes to evaporate.
Bruns's forefathers boiled the water using large furnaces stoked with coal and timber. Her reboot of the business relies on solar. Once every three weeks, workers run the pump to fill a 2,500-gallon holding tank. They then pour the brine into long wooden beds inside hoop houses, structures made of metal hoops with plastic stretched over them. Once the water evaporates, the residual 600 pounds of salt is pumped into beds in a greenhouse, where it crystallizes. The process takes five weeks.
For several months before launch, Bruns and Payne experimented with different temperatures, bed dimensions, and other variables, assisted by an intern from the chemistry department of a local college. They wanted to speed up evaporation. "But first and foremost we were going for flavor," says Bruns. "For example, we found out you have to get the calcium carbonate out at a certain time or else it makes the salt bitter."
Other minerals are more salubrious. Just as wine has a "terroir" imparted by the climate and geography of its origin, so salt has a "merroir" imparted by the water in which it is diluted. J.Q. Dickinson's salt includes magnesium, potassium, and more than a dozen other trace minerals. That's what gives it its particular flavor, Bruns says.
"It has a very vivacious texture--crunchy and unexpected," says Bitterman, who sells J.Q. Dickinson products at the Meadow. "It gives you these syncopated pops of salt that glisten and shift with every bite you take. It makes food more flavorful, and does it with elegance and pizzazz."
The company is on track this year to sell 7,000 pounds of salt, about half to small retailers and consumers who buy direct online. The rest of its clients are chefs, primarily adherents of the farm-to-table movement. They include some with national reputations, like Linton Hopkins of Atlanta's Restaurant Eugene and Shawn Brock of Husk, in Charleston, South Carolina. "Our margins are lowest selling bulk to the chefs," says Bruns. "But they are also our best educators, and they really get the word out."
Rich history, both good and bad.
While the best way to deliver the brand message might be through kale salad and caramel sauce, the company's backstory is a close second. Every jar of salt comes packaged with a card recounting seven generations of J.Q. Dickinson history. "It's important we communicate that this is not a commodity," says Bruns. "When you buy our salt you buy a little bit of our family heritage."
Not all aspects of that heritage burnish the brand, however. Last year, as the company began attracting press, a local historian complained on Facebook that its owners had failed to mention that the original J.Q. Dickinson--like the rest of the early West Virginia salt industry--relied on slave labor. (Other than J.Q. Dickinson, salt production is now gone from the area.) "It's not that we were hiding our slaveholding past," says Bruns. "But it is a little hard to get into all that when you are trying to market a product." Nonetheless, she wrote a post for the website acknowledging the role played by slaves in the history of the family business. "We are happy to talk about it," says Bruns. "But we are not going to get into an argument about it."
Other parts of the story resonate favorably with locals, who are pleased to learn their region has a claim to fame beyond coal. "People are always telling me that their great grandfather worked in the industry, and they are so glad to see it back," says Bruns. "For West Virginians, salt is a source of pride."