In this episode of Beyond the Bench-Top, Kristi sits down with Mike, one of our sales representatives, to discuss the historical significance of salt and the role it plays in today’s market.
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Intro – You’re listening to Beyond the Bench-Top, a show about food ingredients! Our conversations go far beyond the lab as we dive into topics spanning from food science to market trends and everything in between.
Kristi – Hello and welcome back to the St. Charles podcast, Beyond the Bench-Top. My name is Kristi and I’m sure you’ve known me from previous episodes so I’m going to actually let my co-worker, Mike Caruso, introduce himself.
Mike – Hi Kristi, how you doing? My name is Mike Caruso, I’m a sales rep with St. Charles Trading and I’ve been here almost four years.
Kristi – Thank you for the introduction, I appreciate it. I know that there’s been a lot of difficulties within the salt industry right now, but how do you think that St. Charles has really been able to alleviate those problems?
Mike – Well, we have really good relationships with our suppliers. Our main supplier is Morton Salt and we’re one of the biggest distributors of Morton Salt there is. And, you know, those relationships with the suppliers get you through tough times like this.
Kristi – Yeah, definitely! I think that’s something that’s really important. I’m liking that you’re driving that point home of good relations.
Mike – Yeah, and salt is an interesting animal so to speak in that it’s so cheap to produce. A lot of manufacturers throughout the years have not upgraded equipment, and all that, to keep up with the demand, and certain years they’ll shut down certain plants and certain types of salt will become tighter for periods of time while they’re redoing their facilities.
Kristi – Yeah, definitely. I think that’s hard for them to be able to make the adjustments that they need to just based upon demand. I mean honestly, it’s an ingredient that’s used all year round, it’s used in pretty much everything so I’m sure that’s really a struggle as well and can really affect the market.
Mike – You can’t really plan for it. A couple years ago one type of salt would be tighter than another one, you’d hear pretzel salt was tight, you’d hear dendritic salt was tight the next year. There’s no real making headspace on how it’s going to work out, but for some reason every other year a certain type of salt gets tight.
Kristi – In what industry would you say that you really thrive in within your customer base?
Mike – Meat! I sell a good amount of salt to people that produce meat, sausage, and all kinds of meat.
Kristi – Definitely! And for those that might not know, in meat curing, salt is probably the greatest product you can use for decreasing the microbial growth. It really helps with the water retention and lowering that water activity so it’s making it more shelf stable as well as going to strengthen the time that you can use it. Which is really great, because I think one thing that is the hardest thing in today’s age is you don’t have a lot of go time with a product you just, it’s getting shorter and shorter, and I think that’s one thing that’s really able to emphasize the profit is being able to have a longer shelf life.
Mike – Absolutely! And going back to meat, the words of one of my customers is, “my biggest asset is the meat and my cheapest thing that I have to buy to preserve that is salt. So, the salt has to be there when the meat needs it”.
Kristi – I know, and I think it’s interesting too. A lot of people just associate salt with just flavor, but it’s actually both: lowering the microbial activity as well as adding flavor. Sometimes in meat curing or rubs they’ll use sugar as well, but actually the most successful one for lowering the water activity is salt. I think it’s really a powerful ingredient because it’s always going to stay relevant, and the market will always stay stable.
Mike – Yes, it’s been around for a very long time. It’s alluded to several times throughout the Bible and here it is today still as relevant as it was back then.
Kristi – Yeah. Do you want to share your fun salt facts?
Mike – Yeah! I’ve got a few.
Kristi – He’s so excited!
Mike – There’s an island out in the in the British Virgin Islands, it’s called Salt Island. In the late 1800s there was a British ship that crashed into it, it was a big tragedy, and it’s still there today. The population has never gone more than three people on this island, and they pay the Queen of England, their rent money is one five-pound sample of the salt from Salt Island a year. And it still happens to this day.
Kristi – Are you hoping to someday be one of the three?
Mike – Maybe, I don’t know.
Kristi – He’s like, “if I’m lucky!”
Mike – You could see it from the Island of Tortola, so I’d rather hang out in Tortola and just look over at it.
Kristi – And then maybe you could just swim over.
Mike – Right, right.
Kristi – Wow, that’s a good one! That one that’s one I’ve never heard of so I’m glad you brought that up.
Mike – Yeah, to this day, it still happens. A five-pound sample gets sent to the to the Queen.
Kristi – I’m leaving it to you to check up every year and making sure it goes through.
Mike – Yeah, yeah. So, like I said, in the Bible, it’s mentioned a ton of times. It was obviously, like other spices, it was used as currency as well as in offerings. Prior to being in this business, I never noticed how relevant salt was in the history of the world, but once you’re in this business you notice food and ingredients a heck of a lot more than you did beforehand.
Kristi – Yeah, that’s true, it has a lot of staying power I would say for sure. The next question I have is what do you think is the most difficult issue relating to the salt industry?
Mike – So, the most difficult issue that I see is the supply chain aspect of it. Like I was saying, facilities produce “x” amount, they try to map it out, their machines go down, certain diet things change where a certain kind of salt becomes more popular. You mentioned Himalayan sea salt is a big one lately that’s picked up a lot of steam. If something goes wrong in the supply chain side the customer, a lot of these customers, if you have chip customers, you have snack customers, it’s a big ingredient for them. Even though it’s very cheap, it’s a very big part of their ingredient dec. The supply chain thing is the hiccups that happen on occasion.
Kristi – Definitely. I think the availability is probably, like you said, the hardest.
Mike – You know, we’ll do things for certain customers where we’ll pre-plan for that and get “x” amount on the floor just in case there’s an emergency.
Kristi – Yeah, that’s definitely good. I remember a friend told me that “what can go wrong, will go wrong,” so, I think that’s a good point, that’s really valid. Have you seen, talking about snacks, a shift to the snack industry for salt because of COVID?
Mike – I haven’t. I haven’t seen any change in the snack customers that I have due to COVID at all. I think there’s been more, you know people are eating at home more, but I haven’t seen a drastic change.
Kristi – Really? That’s interesting because I feel like in most industries it has, but also salt is just something that’s in everything so I’m sure it’s just steady overall. The next question I have is do you think that the salt market will start to become more competitive, or do you think it will just relatively stay the same?
Mike – You know, it is competitive now, but there’s only a few players in it so they kind of play off each other on pricing and availability and certain manufacturers, they’ll have a certain type of salt that’s their wheelhouse, other manufacturers will kind of stay away from that and let their competitors specialize in that and then they’ll shift towards this. So, I mean, it’s competitive because unfortunately there’s not a lot of players in the game.
Kristi – Yeah. I think it’s maybe competitive and trying to make themselves stick out from others, I would say.
Mike – Correct, yeah.
Kristi – What is the most challenging time, within your industry, for the salt?
Mike – So, depending on the type of salt, there are certain facilities that are located in the upper Northeast. And in the wintertime, getting freight, getting trucks in and out of certain areas based on the weather is a challenge. After the winter, in the other seasons, there’s not really a challenge unless there’s a specific issue with a facility. And then, because it’s salt, they produce “x” amount, and they have to schedule cleanings of their equipment. Unfortunately, sometimes these cleanings are scheduled where it doesn’t fit in well with my customers’ needs. This is stuff where, when you have communication with the customers, you plan ahead of time for that. So other than that, I don’t see any other challenges at any different times of the year except for the winter.
Kristi – Yeah definitely. And it’s pretty consistent you would say, year to year?
Mike – Yes
Kristi – Where would you personally like to see a shift within the salt market, in what industry?
Mike – It’s interesting, big thing now because of social media, you know one of my hobbies is smoking meat and cooking and all that. And the rub industry is big, you know they buy a lot of salt. And unfortunately, when you buy the pre-made stuff, it’s very salty. So, what I go to is making my own blends and using a lot less salt. I mean everybody’s got their different preference of how much salt they like in things and I just don’t think much is going to change. There’s always going to be salt and there’s going to be a lot of salt on a lot of stuff. It’s the hidden sin for a lot of us, whether it be chips or snacks and stuff like that. So, I don’t think it’s going to change anytime soon, and I don’t know if it’s going to increase or decrease. You see all these different new healthy diets that say less salt, less salt, less salt, but I don’t see less salt getting consumed.
Kristi – Yeah, I agree. I agree with that point. I think the one industry I’ll start to see rise is, like I was talking about, those flavored salts and the salt blends. I think people are getting a little bit lazy with cooking and they want just, you know, a blend that might be jalapeno salt or a rosemary salt blend and just be able to have that added to chicken, fish, popcorn topper, or anything like that. It’s just I would say more easily accessible, as well as, more convenient so I think there’ll be a little bit of a shift in that market.
Mike – Yeah! Absolutely, absolutely. Like the Himalayan sea salt is a big thing. And then you’ll go to some specialty cooking stores like a William Sonoma or something like that, and they’ll have kits of all, like 15 different flavors of salt and stuff or they’ll smoke salt. People are smoking salt different flavors and all that.
Kristi – So, Mike, tell me, have you seen an increase in use of salt for baking as well as bread making?
Mike – It depends on the type of bread; I have a couple bakeries that would be consumers of the salt that I sell. Again, as a whole in COVID, a there was a lot of supply chain issues with bread. And so the specialty breads kind of went to the back burner and a lot of the bread companies they were more –
Kristi – Focused on the essentials.
Mike – Yeah, on the main essential ones. Brings up another fun fact I have about salt and bread specifically. So I just read a book about Dante, the famous Italian poet, and he was around in the 1300s. And his famous divine comedy that he wrote, where he talks about going through hell, purgatory, and heaven, he meets a character who tells him- And Dante ended up being a basically a political exile from the Roman Catholic Church at the time, and he gets told that he cannot have bread with salt in it. He has to always be searching around for it the rest of his life. And to this day, you know 700 plus years later, his hometown in Tuscany, still they make salt they make bread without salt in it, paying homage to Dante’s existence in the 1300s.
Kristi – Which to me is, I always thought that it was really essential for bread making because of what I was talking about with how it can really help with decreasing the moisture. And one thing that always makes bread go bad, you get that blue mold on it because of the increase in moisture and that’s typically why people use zip ties and things like that. Even though we might not be the best at using them, it does help preserve the product. So, to me it’s pretty amazing, but also I think in different cultures they consume bread at a much faster pace. I would say that they buy a fresh loaf from day to day whereas Americans might be getting one and making that last for two weeks.
Mike – Especially the Italian culture.
Kristi – Yeah, and there’s less preservatives I would say in their bread as well. Well thank you very much Mike for joining me.
Mike – Thanks for having me Kristi.
Kristi – I really appreciate it and I learned a lot I hope that you learned some from me as well.
Mike – I did, I did. Thank you for having me.
Kristi – You’re welcome.
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