How salt saved one founder after his startup crashed

Ben Jacobsen, and dog, in Netarts Bay

In the Mines

How do you bounce back from a startup failure? Some launch a new startup, some return to corporate life, and some look to salt.

Well at least one person looked to salt – Ben Jacobsen, founder of Oregon’s Jacobsen Salt, a hand-harvested sea salt company.

Now four years old and a team of 27, Jacobsen Salt is sold in Williams-Sonoma and specialty stores nationwide and used by some of the country’s biggest chefs. But getting there required the kind of toil typically associated with the Dickensian workhouse.

Jacobsen was living in Denmark when he discovered the wonders of salt. “I’m not a professionally trained chef… and I’m a very, very average home cook, but I found that great salt could elevate even the simplest dishes,” he told us.

“Then I moved back to the Pacific Northwest and had a wildly unsuccessful internet company, lost nearly all my savings and learned a lot of tough lessons,” he said. “But during that process, I started getting curious why no one was making good salt in the U.S.”

He soon discovered the answer to that question – making good salt is a serious pain in the ass.

crystals from Jacobsen Salt

“In its most primal, elemental sense, salt is just the reduction of sea water,” he said, “but there are innumerable ways to do that, obviously. Finding the process was a series of trial-and-error over two-and-a-half years…”

After scouting bodies of water up and down the Pacific Northwest, Jacobsen settled on Netarts Bay, a protected estuary where tens of millions of oysters are farmed every year, which he calls “arguably the cleanest bay in the west of America”.

But it didn’t get any easier from there.

“I was one-man-show for close to a year, and it was a tremendous amount of work. I started out literally hand bucketing water out of the bay, which was completely absurd, but I couldn’t afford a pump at first.

man mixing salt

“Even then, I was pumping water into a rented U-Haul truck, driving an hour-and-a-half back to Portland, pumping the water out into a commercial kitchen, making the salt. And because the process can’t be interrupted, there were times that I had to stay up from 36 to 48 hours at a time to make sure the batch was doing ok.”

Back then, Jacobsen was making 30 pounds of salt per week; today the company produces 12,000 pounds every month.

And in the four years Jacobsen Salt has been in business, they’ve acquired a single-origin honey company, Bee Local, and collaborated with brands like Sixpoint Brewery and Pok Pok. They plan to double salt production over the next year.

Want to step up your culinary game? You can order Jacobsen Salt, as well as their lines of confections, cocktail salt, and more, right here.