ET49- Creating an Ecommerce Business from a Food Hobby
How a Homemade Gift Turned Into an Online Business Empire!
I learned a lot in this episode, including how bad commercial salt is for you and how a hostess gift idea sparked a thriving coast to coast e-commerce business selling specialty foods.
I had no notion such a product even existed but Kimarie Santiago not only makes her own but has gotten so many people enchanted with her product it can now be found in restaurants, food stores and even in an online meal delivery service. The story of how she got started, the steps she took to build a brand and start selling and where she is going in the future are all covered.
I love this story and especially because, like so many great food stories, it starts with selling at a farmer’s market- the original entrepreneur launching ground!
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Matt: Welcome to the Entrepreneur Talk Podcast. Today, I have the extreme pleasure of getting to chat with Kimarie Santiago from Saltopiasalts.com. Thank you so much for taking the time to join me today and share your story. Why don’t we just kind of kick it off by telling me a little bit about how you got into the business and how you got to where you’re at today.
Kimarie: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me, Matt. I really appreciate you. This business actually happened by sheer accident. I really never ever ever thought I would be a business owner, especially not of a gourmet sea salt company. It wasn’t a childhood dream of mine to wake up one day, own a gourmet salt company. It really was by accident. My husband and I decided to move out to New Jersey from New York City. Shortly after we moved out here, we decided to procreate like most couples do after getting married. What’s the next step? To have children. So I quit working and we went from two salaries to one as most families do. Next thing we know we’ve got four mouths to feed and only one income. Things got tough financially and the area that we live in is a little bit more affluent. I always remember feeling badly when we get invited to a barbeque or a Christmas party or someone’s home for dinner. I would always come with something in my hands just to share with the host, to be gracious for being welcomed into their home, whether that be a bottle of wine or a little gift. Believe it or not, I was bringing my own personal stash of salt that I was making in my own kitchen for my own personal use as a gift. I would empty my children’s jam jars, clean them out, put the salt in there, put a nice little ribbon on the label and say, “Here you go, thanks for having us!” A lot of times that was basically out of need because honestly, we didn’t have the extra income to buy a nice bottle of wine. That’s really where it all got started; just by me giving something to someone else that I thought was pretty great. My friends started asking for more. I remember the first few times that I had given it out, friends of mine came up to me and they said, “Hey, where did you buy that salt that you gave me at the barbeque last month?[inaudible 0:07:29.8] It was so good. Can you give me more of that? Where did you buy it? I’ll go get it” and I thought, “Wow”. They think that I was purchasing it. I felt pretty flattered by that. I also felt like, “Man, they think it’s good enough to be sold”. That’s really where the business kicked off. It was my friends who really encouraged me to start selling a product that I had no intentions of ever selling; it was just being given as gifts.
Matt: Well, that’s actually how a lot of the people I talk to kind of get started. Call them accidental entrepreneurs. Some people go into entrepreneurship because that’s what they have to do; and other people kind of accident their way to it by coming across something that has a market and demand and the only way they can move forward is if they become the business owners. That sounds exactly what happened to you.
Matt: So tell me a little bit more about the product. Obviously I’ve heard of sea salt and coarse salt but, what is that your product is specifically that makes it so special?
Kimarie: Well there’s a couple things that I think really separate us from … There’s not really many companies out there number one that are making infused sea salt. What infused means or flavored salt means is that you’re actually taking a flavor and having it infused into the salt itself. The crystals themselves are absorbing dissolved flavor. Part of my hobby and passion over a little longer than I’d like to admit, probably two decades at least, was really understanding the molecular structure of a salt crystal and why that would then take on the molecular structure of a flavor crystal. This really all kind of started to get more important to me especially after we had our children because looking at these two young babies that we have and thinking, “I want to make sure they eat clean. I want to make sure they stay healthy and well. Let’s buy organic chicken and let’s buy organic vegetable and let’s make sure everything’s the way our great mother earth intended it to be, not full of chemicals and icky stuff”. In that I also started thinking about our seasonings. Salt is a number one ingredient in every single recipe. It’s just in everything. Everything calls for a pinch of salt. The reason for that from gourmet perspective is because salt actually opens up your pallet so you can taste whatever it is you’re eating. That’s why baked goods require a pinch of salt because you have to be able to taste whatever it is that you’re baking. That’s why salt is so commonly used. In knowing how commonly used it is, like, “What is salt? Where does it come from?” You know I know where my tomatoes come from; I know where my chickens come from. I like to know the farmer that’s raising these things and picking them. Have they been sprayed with pesticide? Has the chicken been given antibiotics? If so, why? But no one is questioning where the salt comes from. Salt has had such a bad rap in our country mostly because it’s created in big factories. It’s a chemically created maw, that’s a combination of NaCl. However, it’s got bleach in it, anti-caking agents, pouring agents and other nasty stuff that I’m certain you would not put all over your food have you known. Therefore, it is those chemicals that are giving salt a bad rap. Why do they do this? People have been programmed in United States to think that salt should be white, so they bleach it. They think it should pour fluidly, so they put anti-caking agents and pouring agents into it. In the meantime, those same chemicals are used in lawn fertilizers, in our laundry detergent, in our dishwasher soap. I know if most people knew that, they probably wouldn’t be consuming it. Those chemicals are also the ones that are wreaking havoc on the body; it’s not the salt itself. If they left the salt alone, it’d be fine. The salt is good for us. It’s the chemicals that are bad for us. So I started tinkering in making my own flavored salts thinking, “Okay. Well, I want to have garlic salt but I’m not going to go to the store and buy the chemical garlic salt. I’m going to go to the farm and get garlic that I know is organic and I’m going to get pure, naturally harvested salt that I know has no chemicals in it then I’m going to combine them.” That’s really where the whole business got started. I started just doing it on my own. I made my food for my family; it was truly a clean meal.
Matt: Wow. I’m probably am going to guess 99% of the rest of the country had no idea that all that stuff was in salt. Salt is salt as far as I knew.
Kimarie: Yeah, I know.
Matt: I just got educated and I appreciate that because we do try and eat healthy, too. We have two young kids also. I guess we’re sort of shooting ourselves in the foot if we’re buying the organic chicken and the organic vegetables and then dumping a bunch of chemicals, dumping a ton of salt on stuff. If we’re trying to be good and we think we’re being good in one aspect and then here we have something else that’s so unhealthy and chemically modified that we’re not recognizing that we’re adding to our organic food.
Kimarie: I know, truly that’s probably the biggest challenge for me in business is the educational aspect. With every ear we can reach with this information is always a tremendous step forward for us because then people start to go, “Oh yeah, wow. This is really a big deal.” When they start eating natural salt, it doesn’t have nasty chemicals in it, they feel better. There’s no water retention and salt does not force you into all kinds of havoc in your body such as thyroid failure, high blood pressure or hypertension, kidney malfunction, kidney failure. Your body needs a certain amount of salt every single day. Even if you just suffered a heart attack, you always work with your doctor and a nutritionist, if your doctors don’t know enough about nutrition, to be able to say to you, “Okay, here’s what you need to have, naturally harvested salts every day.” Why is that? Because the ions in salt that drive the water we consume to ourselves to replenish them which is really important. Most people don’t know that. From a gourmet perspective, we salt everything to be able to taste it. From a health perspective, we should be having salt every day because it drives the water you’re drinking or bathing in or showering in or swimming in to yourselves to replenish them which is really important. Think about it, lungs are 90% water. Lungs, right in your chest, that you breather (with) and keeps your body regulated with oxygen, they can’t function unless they have water and they’re 90% water. So how do you get the water that you’re drinking out of that water bottle into your lungs to replenish that water that’s being used up? Well, from the ions in salt.
Matt: It makes a lot of sense and I think chemically and nutritionally, it’s very logical. It’s just one of those things where people don’t think about too much and don’t know what they’re missing or don’t know what they’re adding, I guess in this case, to their body that they don’t need. Now, you kind of discovered from friends and family that you got something that there may be actual market interest in. What was your next step to take it from a hobby of making gifts to business? You had to obviously be able to make it in bigger quantities and thinking about how to package it and labeling and where to start selling it. What were some of the steps that you did to make that become a business from being a hobby?
Kimarie: Fortunately, one of the friends that received my salt as a gift was the market manager for a local farmers’ market. She ran an indoor inter-farmers’ market on Saturday mornings and she said, “Come on over. Try selling your [inaudible 0:15:54.8 products?] there. See how it goes.” I was very hesitant because this is obviously not something I had ever even thought about doing. But I was like, “Well, why not? I think it’s pretty great. My friends obviously like it. Let’s give it a try.” I invested very small amount of my own personal money in buying some packaging, some small jars and things. Not very much, I’m mean I’m talking I went to my first farmers’ market with maybe fifty jars just to see if people liked it, if it was a salable and what was the response. And then from there, after my first day, I just remember it being so successful. It was really great feeling that number one, we sold out. Every single jar sold. I came home with a wad of cash which I hadn’t had money that I made money on my own. I hadn’t made money in a while and it was a different feeling. It wasn’t like going to work for a corporate company and getting your check that was deposited in your account. It was cash and you made it with something that you made with your own two hands and it was your idea. That was a really great feeling. It was just obviously incredibly empowering to then realize that yeah, I went to one market, one day and we sold out. We got something to sell. From there I started investing a little bit more. The more that I sold, the more I invested and the more, “Okay. Well I have extra money this time around so let me go ahead and buy a little bit nicer packaging. Let me make my jars look a little bit nicer. Let me go ahead and make my labels a little bit brighter.” It was very slow process. Saltopia is now five years old. We’ve obviously grown leaps and bounds but it was always baby steps and testing everything first and making sure we did it right. Especially within the food industry, you have to make sure that you’re in a commercial space, that you’re fully licensed, that you’re inspected by the health code department and that you’re following all of the important guidelines and laws that are put in place to protect us and the folks that you’re selling to.
Matt: Right. Yeah. There is definitely some additional liability in selling a consumable product that you have to take into account. Obviously, you need not only to keep people safe but it’s in your best interest too. It’s the business to make sure everybody is having a good experience with your product and there’s not any problem. From there, did you start selling online? Are you going to specialty stores? Where are you marketing now and how’s that working?
Kimarie: Yeah. We went from one indoor inter-farmers’ market to the very following year, we had a website launch. We were selling both online and at farmers’ market. We’re in thirteen farmers’ markets in three states. We really took a ginormous leap of growth between the first season to the second. We were obviously selling really really well at the farmers’ market. We’re selling really really well online. Our next move was to kind of attempt to the wholesale market. Customers are loving us, maybe they’d love to see us in stores so they could get us regularly instead of only Saturday at the market or Sunday at the farmers’ market. That was our next step and that was all based on just me cold calling, reaching out to appropriate places to resell our products and making sure that there were enough margins. Farmers’ market and online, the nice thing about it is that you don’t have to worry about overhead fees in terms of having a store front. But when you’re looking at and talking to a store front owner and saying, “Hey, I would love for you to carry my product”, you have to make sure there’s enough margin for them. Making sure that your prices are applicable for them to be able to market out from a whole set of retail value so that they see the value in also carrying your brand. That was a significant step for us as a company. We are continuing to work on that with our buy power. The bigger that you get, the more you can buy, right? Before, when I first started, I could only afford to buy maybe a thousand jars at a time with all the money I had. Therefore, the jars are not going to be as cheap because packaging materials are expensive and until you can afford to buy 20,000 at a time, you’re not going to get a deal break. But the bigger that you get, the more buy power that you have and then you’re really able to bring down the wholesale cost for wholesale customers. That was our next step. Wholesale was our next big leap of faith. We are now carried in probably close to a hundred stores across the nation. We also have wholesale partnerships online with major online retailers such as [0:20:47.7 abesmarket.com]. They’re just wonderful to have and they’re truly a beacon of all things natural. It’s very nice also to have them vouch for us as a community vendor so to speak. We also have a contract with [0:21:03.3 Baldor specialty foods] which is a wholesale distribution company for chefs and restaurants in the New York, Washington, DC in Boston areas, big restaurant areas. They’ve just been wonderful and they’re also really supportive of the educational aspect. Getting chefs to put down the manufactured box salts and getting them to pick up the naturally harvested, pure salt from the ocean has been tremendous. They’ve been wonderful supporters [Baldor specialty foods] which is a wholesale distribution company for chefs and restaurants in the New York, Washington, DC in Boston areas, big restaurant areas. They’ve just been wonderful and they’re also really supportive of the educational aspect. Getting chefs to put down the manufactured box salts and getting them to pick up the naturally harvested, pure salt from the tops of our oceans has been tremendous. They’ve been a wonderful supporter.
Matt: That sounds great. I would imagine that restaurant shows would be another natural progression in your marketing too. That’s a great place to find people in the industry to educate them and give them the opportunity to take samples and do testing and so on for their own markets. That could be a place where you would really be able to garner a lot of interest in new customers from the industry.
Kimarie: Absolutely. When you’re looking at how to grown your business and how to expand in different areas that you didn’t think of. Places like specialty shows are awesome. Going to big conferences and specialty shows, even things that you wouldn’t even think about. For me, the wedding shows. Brides and grooms walking around looking at venue options and wedding gowns and bridal dresses and floral experts and florists and things. But then also favors and Saltopia does a tremendous ton of work for brides and grooms during wedding favors; favors of all types, not just wedding but we can do Bar Mitzvah favors, and 50th birthday party favors and it’s a really nice gift to give to someone for your special memory or day.
Matt: Yeah. There are really a lot of channels you could go into, the restaurant industry, the retail industry; and as a gift item which is a totally different channel but it’s a unique gift to give that people could enjoy and hopefully on all of your packaging and labeling you got re-order information, right? When somebody gets it at the Smith-Jones wedding, they’ll be able to order again after they’ve used it.
Kimarie: Yes, we make sure our logo and URL is on everything. That’s key. That’s certainly one of the things I made sure from the beginning. You always want people to be able to say, “Okay, where can I get this?”
Matt: Right. I would think, too, in terms of getting into retailers, maybe Wholefoods would be one of the big accounts to score? Is that something you’ve gone down or are they still a little bit too big at the moment for getting into?
Kimarie: Again, it comes down to what you can handle from a wholesale to retail mark up. Grocery store chains in general are looking anywhere from 300-400 % mark up and that’s just in my experience. Perhaps with different types of items, there are different mark-up rates. For me, in working with a company like Wholefoods, they’ve really requested a tremendous mark up. Therefore, it almost puts you out of the market. For me, I were to sell it to them and have the market up by 300-400 %, it would not be salable. In my opinion, it wouldn’t be salable item. I think $ 12.95 for a jar of our garlic salt is of value but I think it’s what its worth. That’s what its worth. I couldn’t imagine someone turning around and selling our garlic salt for let’s say $ 28.95 which would be I think not very salable, not successful for them as a business either. There are certain times, as a business owner, you walk away and say no at least not now, maybe. Maybe in the future we’ll be able to bring our wholesale rates to a point where we could do business with someone that is in a grocery store chain operation. There’s a place and a time for that as a business owner that you have to be able to say no and walk away and say, “I’m sorry. We just can’t do this.”
Matt: Well, for sure there’s no point in taking on a customer so you can say that you’ve got that customer or say that you got all kinds of volume if in fact that’s actually hurting the business.
Matt: It doesn’t make any sense.
Kimarie: Is he working just to put salt on the Wholefood shelves and nothing else? I’m losing money.
Matt: Yeah, so no. For sure, you have to pick and choose what’s a good fit for the business at each stage and it has to make sense. For sure also, working with that kind of business once you get into the wholesale operation to your point with an online sale, you get paid immediately and you get the full retail price yourself. When you’re selling wholesale, you get a much smaller chunk. You don’t get paid until they pay your invoice but you have to put the inventory out ahead of time. So the cost and the capital require to grow in the wholesale space. It’s considerably larger than trying to grow through other channels. Yes, the volume is there but from a financing perspective and a growth perspective, it can be pretty painful.
Kimarie: It’s so true. I’ve seen small companies like mine get put right out of business because they want to do business with the company like Wal-Mart, huge global brands. With that, they pay the vendor on a certain set schedule. You’re putting out all of your products and all of your capital and everything just to do business with this giant company. Who knows if you’ll be able to sustain over the time that you’re trying to make delivery and collect pay? As much as it seems like, “Wow. Maybe one day but it’s not going to be today, not for Saltopia.”
Matt: Right. So what is next? What are the plans for growth from here? Is it just more venues and more exposure, more education? Or do you have other new products coming or other plans? What are you doing?
Kimarie: Well, right now we have a couple different areas in the business that are relatively still new. We have our culinary arts program which is all about getting people to visit our facility itself and take a cooking class. We have children’s camps. We have cooking classes. We have tasting events which are really marvelous. You can come with a group of 10, 15 people and have a wonderful 12-round tasting experience which goes on for 3-4 hours. It’s BYOB (Bring Your Own Bag) so it’s really fun. Those types of businesses are fantastic for us. Those classes and things are fantastic. Because not only are getting folks interact with our products from a gourmet perspective, but then we’re also giving them the important critical health aspect of our product. That is key for us. We’re also starting to spread out within social media. I probably missed the bump in terms of being a social media guru. Saltopia has a Facebook page. We have Instagram. We have several different social media pages. I’m not as [0:28:25.1 active enough] as I like to be. So creating the YouTube channel, getting this message that I just shared with you during our interview now about the critical needs for clean salt and healthy salting options and why everybody needs this is absolutely a critical step for us as a company. The more people we reach, the more people will start to make the salt switch. That’s really important for us right now beyond continuing to grow and reach out to more retail operations and grow our online audience.
Matt: 0:29:01.3 Well, that all make sense. Here’s an idea, maybe you already have this or maybe you’ve thought of it yourself too but it just struck me. Your product would probably be great for a salt of the month club.
Matt: Right? A nice recurring subscription model where you send out some great flavored salts to people every month. That sounds pretty good to me.
Kimarie: There are a couple things that are on my hit list and that’s one of them. I think that being technically challenged and I mean that on [inaudible 0:29:34.6]. If anyone out there is listening and they know how to build the solutions to that, please contact me. Because there’s a lot of technicality that goes into that in making sure that you get hundred customers signed up for salt of the month. They’re on a certain schedule to get these salts and then if someone signs up the next month, there’s all this technical background that goes into that. We’ve thought about it for quite some time and I guess it’s a matter of building out that structure to make sure that it works and make sure that you can actually fulfill and you’re not missing someone’s month or shipping the wrong salt and giving them the same thing they received last month. It really comes down to a lot of technicality behind it. I think anyone out there who’s a small business owner whether you’re in business for a year or five years or eight years, whatever your benchmark is then, you’re still doing a lot of things on your own. For me, I built my website. My website is done by me. Any change that needs to be made to it, I do it. New products, new images, all that stuff is done by me. Because right now, financially, my money needs to go to buy power and not hiring a web team to drive our online website. The website beyond posting recipes and making slight changes here and there are offering just [inaudible 0:30:56.6] for what have you is not that challenging. For today, basic things like building a website, doing online mail list so you can keep in touch with your online subscribers and customers, those things out there, they’re pretty much free. You can use weebly.com, it’s free. You can use so many web building tools that you don’t have to be a technology guru to build the backend solutions. It’s very basic drag and drop technology, you can make your site look really beautiful and not invest thousands every month in the upkeep of it. I think we’re at that point, like you said Matt, where these types of things need to start happening for us. That’s when you really need to hire a company who knows how to do the backend solution for these types of programs.
Matt: Right. Yeah, definitely. Obviously, in what we do, we’re a huge advocate of delegating the tasks that you’re either not an expert at or it’s not the best use of your time. All of our clients have come to us because backend bookkeeping and accounting is not their strength, it’s not a good use of their time. What takes them eight or ten or twelve hours a month will take us two or three. The money that they pay us to do it, not only that it’s now getting professionally done but its freeing up a lot of time for them that they can put to better use, growing their business, managing other things. You’re right though. As an entrepreneur, even if you’re ten years in, there are still a lot of things that you probably end up doing yourself because to hire somebody to do it would be too expensive. If it’s a one off thing, it’s either to do it yourself sometimes than to hire somebody else; but for those recurring things, you’re not going to take the time to learn to be an expert in the field, it is something that as the business grows, it helps to be able to outsource to other professionals who can take over those tasks so you can focus on your core competencies, the things that make your business unique. But yeah, it’s always a tradeoff between time and money.
Kimarie: I know.
Matt: That’s one of those challenges in small business. I just had another thought which is very common when I’m talking to an entrepreneur, it sparks different ideas. In me, again, maybe you’ve already thought of or even just hadn’t had the time or opportunity to execute; but my wife and I use [33:22.6 HelloFresh?] for quite a while which is [inaudible 33:24.5] full meal delivery services. It strikes me that if you were to come up with a partnership with them or get them to incorporate some of your salt products in their recipe. That would be a great way, sort of side door route to introduce people to the product or [inaudible 33:43.8 Omaha steaks] a while ago on a special occasion. And it’s kind of into this big kind of Styrofoam box which is not the most environmentally friendly packaging but the steaks are fantastic. And in there, if they included in each one of those a seasoning packet from Saltopia, that would be another great way to introduce people. So there might be other marketing opportunities that you could ride along.
Kimarie: Funny you should mention that. Funny you mentioned that Matt because, and I know I can announce this because the website’s now live and stuff. But I did just once a partnership with a food company and we are going to be sending homes similar to HelloFresh or Plated or Blue Apron, it is a sent home. You pick your meal and you receive the ingredients via UPS delivery and then you go ahead. It takes away two of the questions of the day: “What’s for dinner?” and “Do I have the ingredients?” Now, at least those two things are completely resolved. You know what’s for dinner and yes, you have the ingredients and part of that is going to be the Saltopia infused sea salts that go right along with every single recipe and menu. It’s funny that you bring that up. The company is called Convenient Cuisines and its convientcuisines.com and we actually are in testing mode right now. We’re doing our official soft launch the second week of March. The site is live and you can take a look at all the menus. I, along with the co-owner, write the recipes and all the food is provided by Arctic Foods which they sell [inaudible 35:20.9 piedmont?] steaks and really amazing cuts and qualities of high end meats and produce. I’m really excited about the new project. Yes, it’s a new form of business that we’re taking on to get ourselves into people’s homes and get them started with it.
Matt: That’s fantastic. I’m glad to hear it. I think the whole [inaudible 35:43.4 crux?] of your business is to get people to try it, to taste it once to see the difference and then to understand. Hopefully you can include a little blur, an educational material on why not only these products are great tasting but also good for your, better that the alternative. As people have a chance to sample it, I think you’re going to have a nice conversion rate to ongoing customers. I’m glad to hear that. That’s exciting. If this works out well, there are probably a lot of other similar opportunities to that where you’d be able to ride along as it were to get into people’s homes, to give them a chance to have that introduction to your products. That’s really cool.
Kimarie: Yeah, I’m excited about it.
Matt: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for taking the time and sharing your story. For people who are interested in finding out more and or buying some products, where should they go to find you and check you out?
Kimarie: Yes. Please visit our website at Saltopiasalts.com. That’s Saltopiasalts.com and if possible we can offer a coupon code. Is that okay if I offer that, Matt?
Matt: Of course, yeah.
Kimarie: Okay, if you use coupon code CAPFORGE, you actually get 25% off your order.
Matt: Wow. Fantastic. Thank you so much. That is very generous of you. I will put that in the show notes for people who are interested in ordering. That’s fantastic.
Kimarie: Thank you.
Matt: And it sounds like to you have the opportunity to come by and visit for people who are in the area or going to be which also sounds like it could be a really fun day.
Kimarie: Yes. Please visit us at the salt cellar. We actually have specific hours so visit the website; contact me if you want to arrange for a private meeting and a private tour. We have specific shopping hours right now. In our winter season, our hours range from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm, Monday ’til Friday. We have classes going on as well, pop in for a class. The experience at the salt cellar is always lots of fun because it’s very unique. It’s located 11 feet below ground and it was built so that it’s much like a true salt. Our hours range from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm, Monday ‘til Friday. We have classes going on as well, pop in for a class. The experience at the salt cellar is always lots of fun because it’s very unique. It’s located 11 feet below ground and it was built so that it’s much like a true salt grotto. We store about 40,000 pounds of salt here. It’s for all of our salt use. It comes in from port and then it’s infused with natural harvest like basil or onions. You’re going to walk in and smell amazing amazing flavor in the air and you’ll have a great experience. It’s truly just a beautiful place.
Matt: Wow. Well, that sounds fantastic. And again, thank you so much for taking the time to be on with me today.
Kimarie: Thank you for having me. I’m really grateful.