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Salt of the earth

How a family health crisis sent Kimarie Santiago down a path to small business success

Meet Stud. He’s a true American cowboy. He spends long days in the hot sun tending and herding his cattle, then drinks rye whiskey out of a pocket flask before drifting off outdoors at night.

Stud is one of Kimarie Santiago’s crew of extraordinary men. Along with fisherman Finn Angler, playboy rock star Jet Lawless, and Wall Street banker Richard Peabody Peck III, Stud is all personality. He’s a character Santiago created to embody one of the infused salts in her company Saltopia’s Gentleman Farmer line, made up of smoked sea salt, habanero peppers, Spanish yellow onion, garlic, and brown sugar.

Saltopia in Hackettstown. – AARON HOUSTON

“If I were to go over and lick a real cowboy, this is what he would taste like,” Santiago said. “All of the men in the Gentleman Farmer line are these real people in my head.”

Before Saltopia became a company that sells tens of thousands of units in minutes during its regular features on QVC, Santiago simply had an interest in feeding her family healthy food. The stay-at-home mom couldn’t figure out why other people were paying top dollar for organic vegetables at the farmers market but still seasoning them with table salt, which she said has toxic chemicals to ease pouring and prevent caking.

“Every single recipe requires a pinch of salt. Even coffee beans, when you buy it in the bag, there’s a small amount of sodium because it’s what opens your palate so you can taste food. It’s also the most essential mineral in the human body,” she said, “Unfortunately in America, we eat a manufactured version of salt.”

Looking for a cure

She started sourcing natural sea salts from Europe a decade ago and infusing them with different flavors at home. If not for a bout of extreme hardship—her 11-month-old son was diagnosed with a rare ocular disease that could have left him blind and Santiago’s family went without an income to drive him all over the Northeast in search of a cure — she never would have shared her infusions with anybody.
Medical bills had sucked their wallets dry, but it was Christmas, and she wanted to take her family to a party.

“I was taught never to go empty handed. I was told to knock with my foot and not my fist,” she said.

At her husband’s recommendation, she reluctantly packed up some salts to gift to the hostess. A couple weeks later, the hostess called her up for more.

“[It’s not just] good enough to eat, it’s good enough to sell,” the hostess said.

Santiago gave it a go. She left her first farmers market with a sweaty wad of cash and no leftover product, and soon, she was selling out at farmers markets in four states. Today she makes several dozen flavors, and this year grew out of her longtime Long Valley production space into a vacant warehouse facility in Hackettstown.

She didn’t go to culinary school, but she’s filled with fun food facts—the kind that would make her a killer trivia partner—about most any flavor she’s infused into her salts. At the space in Hackettstown, which also includes a storefront and commercial kitchen for classes and events, she offers 70-minute tours covering the history of salt and its importance in our food.

You like her tandoori salt, infused with lemon peel, beet powder, tomato, paprika, garlic, and cayenne? Thank Jackie Kennedy for that, who Santiago says popularized tandoori chicken in the United States after eating the dish on a trip to South Asia. In the mood for her jalapeno and smoked paprika infused salt? That’s nothing new, she said: man has been cultivating and consuming jalapeno for thousands of years, longer than most any other fruit.
Santiago found her space through the New Jersey Small Business Development Center in Hackettstown, which has also helped her obtain bank loans and connect to other businesses. She learned of the NJSBDC and its federal funding partner the U.S. Small Business Administration through a connection through the Tory Burch Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping women-owned small businesses, and of which she is a fellow. When she mentions the NJSBDC and SBA to other small business owners, some don’t know what it is.

“The sad thing about small businesses is most don’t know there are these resources out there,” she said. “[The NJSBDC and SBA] can help you find everything.”

Adding to the line

Right now, she’s working with the SBA to find cost-effective alternatives to co-packers who can help package a new product, Crock Pot Crashers, which launched on QVC on Sept. 22 and sold out in minutes. Although Santiago recently invested in fully automated equipment to jar her products—allowing as many jars to be filled a minute now as could be filled in an hour by hand—she hadn’t forecast the development of the product, which comes in pouches instead of jars.

Automation didn’t just make her life easier, it made her product better, too: wanting to move to automation spurred the need to change her packaging. The tiny flip top jars Santiago had used for years were cute, but they couldn’t work with the automated equipment she wanted. They also weren’t air tight: without the pouring and anti-caking agents that caused Santiago to run away from table salt a decade ago, air leakage in the jars sometimes caused unopened salts to arrive on customers’ doorsteps already rock solid.

Changing the packaging was scary for Santiago. The last thing she wanted was to have unhappy customers, many of whom have had custom-built displays for their Saltopia collections.
People make custom spice racks, you ask?

“You should see how many pictures I have. People are always sending me their Saltopia collection,” she said. “I have a customer whose whole kitchen it designed around her Saltopia collection. She had her kitchen gutted and redone, and she told the guy, ‘I need everything to work with what Saltopia has.’ He came to me and said, ‘I just have to tell you, I had to design a whole kitchen around your product. What the hell is your product?’”

Santiago spent a year developing a jar design that was both the same size and shape as her previous jars to accommodate such devotees. Whereas the previous jars were made in China, every facet of the new ones is made in New Jersey. Nova, the CAD designer, is from Hackettstown. O.Berk, which manufactures the plastic top and the glass jar, is in Newark.

“I feel really proud of that,” she said.

Editors note: A previous version of this story said Kimarie Santiago found her location through the Small Business Association, she did not and it has been updated accordingly to reflect she was assisted by the New Jersey Small Business Development Center in Hackettstown.

Gabrielle Saulsbery
Albany, N.Y. native Gabrielle Saulsbery is a staff writer for NJBIZ and the newest thing in New Jersey. You can contact her at gsaulsbery@njbiz.com.