Many centuries ago, salt was a form of currency.
Roman soldiers received salarium argentum, or salt rations, for their service, from which the word “salary” is derived. In ancient Greece, salt was traded for manual labor — hence the term, “not worth his salt.”
If salt still were considered currency today, Mark Zoske and Naomi Novotny would own a mint.
Since 2001, these partners in business and marriage have privately owned and operated SaltWorks, a company that started lean (and entirely online) in the couple’s Sammamish spare bedroom, and grew to become, by the pair’s estimation, the first and largest gourmet salt manufacturing company in the world.
The company’s success has coincided with consumers turning away from traditional table salt (think heavily refined and processed, and infused with an anti-caking agent) and leaning into more natural and flavorful sea salt.
This year, under the leadership of company CEO Zoske and company president Novotny, SaltWorks is expected to generate as much as $30 million in sales revenue and sell approximately 35 million pounds of salt, up from approximately 4.75 million pounds 15 years ago.
All this is done from the company’s Woodinville headquarters: a two-story building that fits comfortably and inconspicuously between the other warehouses that populate the city’s Industrial Valley, situated between the flow of traffic on State Route 202 and the flow of water in the Sammamish River.
The building’s lobby is a showroom of salt, with a bright wall-sized image of the company logo, and tables displaying company wares. Glass jars, glass shakers, and plastic pouches hold a varied kaleidoscope of sea salt: Australian Sea Salt so pure, it looks like fresh snowpack; cotton-candy-colored Ancient Himalayan Sea Salt; inky Black Hawaiian-style Sea Salt so dark, it belies the activated charcoal found in each granule; and Smoked Habanero Sea Salt, the taupe color of high-quality granola.
In total, SaltWorks produces 110 types of salt sourced from numerous countries around the world, such as Australia, Bolivia, Cyprus, France, England, Italy, New Zealand, Pakistan, and Spain. Its products are sold at specialty retail stores and on its own website, as well as wholesale to grocery stores and food manufacturers.
One recent weekday afternoon, Zoske, 53, settled into a conference room chair; twisted open a bottle of water; and discussed SaltWorks’ past, present, and future. In person, Zoske’s personality and enthusiasm are as colorful and vibrant as the salt his company sells.
That’s evidenced in Columbia Bank television commercials featuring the couple. While Novotny talks about how much her husband loves salt, and how the Tacoma-based bank helped SaltWorks expand, Zoske, in a span of 30 seconds, lists off a dozen different varieties of salt the company produces.
“That was my first acting gig,” Zoske explained in good humor. “I kind of hoped they would make me out to look like a genius. Unfortunately, they made me out to look like a goofball, which is pretty much who I am. But that’s fine.”
“Salt is Mark’s oxygen,” added Kaleen Skersies, Zoske’s executive assistant.
Aside from horses and deer, few creatures on Earth have an affinity for salt quite like Zoske.
“I put my entire life into it,” he explained. “There just was nothing other than salt. If my wife wouldn’t have been in it, we would have gotten divorced. I worked seven days a week for the first four or five years. I just was immersed in it.”
Priorities shifted a bit four years ago, when Zoske and Novotny became parents to a daughter, Olive. Novotny scaled back her work hours, and Zoske curbed the amount of time he traveled throughout the world sourcing salt and equipment.
Still, his passion for business is strong.
“People say, ‘You need to get a hobby,’” he added. “I do have a hobby. I come in here on the weekend to test and try things I can’t do during the week because we have other things going on.”
A ‘SALTAHOLIC’ FINDS HIS CALLING
How Zoske and Novotny landed atop a lucrative pile of gourmet salt still makes the pair marvel at the timing and opportunity that presented themselves.
In 2001, Zoske had spent much of his career designing water skis and wakeboards. Novotny, 31 years old at the time, was a business development manager for a software company. That year, Zoske happened to sample a pinch of Fleur de Sel — a sea salt known among some chefs and gourmands as the “caviar of salt” — and his interests (and taste buds) were piqued.
“Suddenly, I was a ‘saltaholic,’” Zoske explained. “I always thought Morton Salt was good. It was the same size. It was at every restaurant. What could be better than that? But then I discovered sea salt, and I thought, ‘Where have you been my whole life?’”
Today, you might take sea salt for granted because it seems ubiquitous. It’s sprinkled on chocolate, potato chips, French fries, and caramel mochas to elevate a flavor’s pedigree. But in 2001, sea salt was an exotic ingredient.
Zoske and Novotny borrowed about $1,500 from credit cards and Zoske’s brother to import 500 pounds of salt from France and resell it online to U.S. consumers.
“I was desperate, broke, and in debt,” explained Zoske. “I didn’t write a business plan to go into the salt business. The salt business was an opportunity to make some money until the next thing came along.”
It turns out that owning a gourmet sea salt company was the next thing to come along.
But it would take nearly two years before SaltWorks proved viable.
“There was no competition at the time, but nobody thought it would work,” Zoske explained. “I would tell people about it, and they would say, ‘So, you are going to resell Morton Salt?’ No. I’m going to find artisan salts from all over the world and bring them in. ‘Yeah, that’s not going to work.’ My dad was, like, ‘When are you going to knock this off and go get a job?’”
It wasn’t until 2004, when Novotny noted the pair had $250,000 in the bank after paying the company’s bills, that Zoske felt confident the business would survive.
“That was when the lightbulb went on,” Zoske noted. “We made a quarter of a million dollars selling salt? This is going to work!”
Between 2003 and 2006, SaltWorks’ sales increased 2,000 percent, with revenue topping $5 million in 2006. Sales revenue reached $10 million the following year, $23 million in 2015, and $24 million in 2016.
Similarly, SaltWorks’ payroll has grown from 65 employees in 2014 to 86 employees today.
The company’s physical operation has expanded, too. In 2003, SaltWorks moved out of Zoske and Novotny’s spare bedroom and into a 10,000-square-foot facility in Redmond, amassing a database of approximately 10,000 customers such as specialty grocers, wholesalers, retail stores, manufacturers, and repackers. In 2012, SaltWorks was on the move again, this time to Woodinville, where the company is headquartered in an energy-efficient, climate-controlled 130,000-square-foot warehouse large enough to store 6 million pounds of sea salt.
FINDING AN EDGE IN A CROWDED, COMPETITIVE MARKETPLACE
During a tour of the production facility, Zoske pointed to the company’s stainless steel machinery, which is built in a machine shop onsite by staff engineers and fabricators and comprises a proprietary process that he believes gives SaltWorks an edge over more established multinational salt companies.
An optical color sorter photographs each grain of salt from various angles, making sure the color in, for example, pink Himalayan salt is pink enough and meets the company’s high standards for quality. Impurities such as clay, metal, rocks, sand, and wood are removed.
From there, an aspirator blows and vacuums away lighter anomalies, such as fibers or anything else that is lighter than salt.
Rare earth magnets pluck residual ferrous fragments, a custom granulator reshapes salt crystals to desired sizes, and sieves remove salt crystals too large for consumption or too small for quality standards.
Finally, all of the salt is processed through a state of the art metal detector, which identifies and rejects metal pieces that are microscopic in size.
Meanwhile, wood from alder, apple, cherry, hickory, oak, and pecan trees is used to create the company’s line of smoked salt.
As for SaltWorks’ future, the company has outgrown its current headquarters building, which is 33 years old and was never designed to house a salt manufacturing company. According to Zoske, the company’s lease on the building expires in 2021, and he’s considering building a new warehouse that would better serve SaltWorks’ operation.
In addition, Zoske said the company has spent over $1 million on research and development in the past 12 months.
Zoske described one new product, Cold Water Sea Salt, that is derived from Antarctic water and will be unveiled this year. He believed it will create a completely new category and affect a sea change on the salt industry.
“It’s just the highest quality, best salt in the world,” he raved of the new product. “I would challenge anybody to prove it’s not. It just is, in every single possible respect — from its global impact, eco-friendliness, water quality — it just wins on every single point.”
If Zoske is right, this new product could be enough to allow SaltWorks to remain competitive against larger companies with deeper pockets.
“We are competing with everybody in the world,” he observed. “They all want this market.”
The bigger concern? Perhaps it’s another upstart entrepreneur. Someone who looks a lot like Zoske did back in 2001. Someone who recognized a great opportunity. But this time, it could be someone with more resources than $1,500 in credit cards and loans.
“It’s important that we don’t rest on our laurels,” Zoske said. “We have to develop what is coming next. We have to look 10 years out at what the next thing will be.”