By Paul Stephen
Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.
It’s a brisk January afternoon in rural Pender County, but mercury is the last element on Amanda Jacobs’s mind. The owner of Sea Love Sea Salt Co., Jacobs transforms the crashing waves at Wrightsville Beach into the world’s most fundamental culinary component a few ounces at a time. Demand is growing, and expansion of her facility is desperately needed.
“I’m constantly stressed about not having enough salt,” Jacobs said. “There’s so much unused space, I really need these tables to be built.”
Her drying room is rigged to encourage evaporation, and despite the absence of any heating units, the temperature measures at least 20 degrees warmer than the outdoors thanks to a ceiling made of transparent plastic panels. Tables constructed of repurposed shipping pallets, each supporting several plastic tubs filled with ocean water in various states of evaporation, fill a portion of the space. But the expansive concrete floor offers room for at least twice the current capacity if only she had the means to support more.
Jacobs launched Sea Love in 2014. It wasn’t her first career choice.
Despite holding a Ph.D in education from the University of Rochester, the 38-year-old teacher struggled to find employment in the classroom after moving to the area with her husband, David, three years ago. Instead of sulking, however, the adaptable entrepreneur turned to another of her loves, the ocean, to provide a livelihood. These days, she’s far more comfortable lugging 5-gallon buckets of seawater across the beach than cracking open textbooks.
“I love teaching, and seeing students reach their goals can move me to the point of tears,” Jacobs said. “But this is so much more me, work-wise.”
Good thing, too. She’s recently signed her name to a 6-acre property in rural Pender County, and the mortgage won’t pay itself. Jacobs still hauls most of the ocean water herself, filling a 250-gallon storage bin in her truck bed two buckets at a time. Each scoop, collected by wading several yards into the surf to a site regularly tested by the N.C. Recreational Water Quality Program, will yield a paltry three ounces of salt after weeks of evaporation. She’s considering broaching the topic of pumping with the town’s Board of Alderman — a procedure she says would require 20 minutes and a garden hose but is currently forbidden for her fledgling business.
While her core product is pure sea salt made exclusively through solar evaporation — some competitors boil the water down, a procedure she says strips away minerals that give the finished salt a more nuanced flavor — a diversified roster of culinary and cosmetic creations has helped Sea Love take off. In addition to salts flavored with rosemary, garlic or citrus zest, she makes body scrubs enriched with aromatics like lavender, coconut and coffee. But it’s that elemental component that excites professional chefs the most, Jacobs said.
Craig Love, owner of Surf House Oyster Bar in Carolina Beach, was among the first Sea Love customers. An avid fisherman and surfer in addition to chef, Love spends nearly as much time in the ocean a he does the kitchen, and that familiar salinity leaves him endlessly inspired.
“For us, that Wrightsville Beach sea salt, putting it on local fish, local clams, really allows us to capture the essence of what we want our guests to taste,” Love said. “It allows us to give the most true sense of place back to the product on the plate.
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Jacobs has long anticipated playing some role in the food service world. She and her husband were close to opening a restaurant in upstate New York before those plans fell through, and many culinary professionals occupy their circle of friends. She recently visited Washington, D.C. to pitch her product to several chefs, some longtime friends. The push marks a significant moment for her brand, which started in a tiny collapsible greenhouse with a few Pyrex pans outside her Wrightsville Beach apartment just a couple years ago.
“One of my 2016 goals is to move beyond this area, really broaden the scope I’m selling to,” Jacobs said.
The market is still small. Despite salt’s historic economic significance to the region — the Wilmington-based State Salt Works made more than 400,000 pounds daily prior to the Civil War — Jacobs estimates the nation’s current roster of sea salt producers at less than 15. On the east coast, her closest rivals are in Charleston, S.C. and the Hamptons in New York.
The coming year looks bright for Sea Love. Jacobs raised more than $16,000 through a Kickstarter campaign last year to fund construction at her new site. The business was a finalist in the annual Martha Stewart American Made Awards and featured in the food magazine Local Palate in late 2015. The exposure has put her product on the shelves at several Whole Foods locations in the state and at restaurants from Winston-Salem to the coast. Working with those culinarians has fueled a desire to add new flavors and write a cookbook.
It won’t be easy. Besides help from her husband, Jacobs’s crew is limited to a pair of interns from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and their days stay busy mixing, labeling and packaging at her facility.
“I need more manpower'” Jacobs said. “As of right now I’m doing all of it myself. Really, I just need another me who doesn’t need to get paid.”