Owners, Jim and Darcy Michener, in the Alaska Pure Sea Salt Co. brick and mortar store in downtown Sitka. (Tash Kimmel/KCAW)
When Darcy and Jim Michener began making sea salt in their kitchen over a decade ago, they could never have known where it would lead them. As Jim Michener explains it, the couple became “enamored” with salt making about 20 years ago. A hobby that paved the way for what is now the Alaska Pure Sea Salt Company.
Jim Michener says Alaska Pure Sea Salt began with the realization that there were no domestic producers of flake salt.
“We were the first salt manufacturer outside of Europe and Australia to make flakes salt with beautiful clean Alaska water. And we thought this has got some wheels this idea might take off,” says Michener.
And then, a leap of faith.
“Our first three customers to try to were all James Beard Award-winning chefs and started ordering immediately, we knew we had a good idea,” he says. “And then it started gaining popularity, and then we started offering retail wholesale, and then decided to grow it into a store when we saw that Lincoln Street had space available.”
It took them five years of toying and tinkering with their salt recipe to arrive at the translucent, pyramidal flakes we see today. But even after 12 years of business, Michener says their biggest challenge was yet to come.
Jim Michener help a customer at his Alaska Pure Sea Salt storefront. (Tash Kimmel/KCAW)
“When the pandemic hit, we were spooked,” says Michener “Like most people were thinking there were absolutely no visitors coming to Sitka. That was really scary for the store side of the business.”
As a purveyor of one of the nation’s only domestic flake salts, the Michener’s relied heavily on the patronage of high-end restaurants nationwide. With restaurants closed and cruise ship travel on hold, the business was hit twofold, and the future of Alaska Pure Sea Salt seemed murky. But, like many businesses struggling under the financial strain of pandemic era shutdowns, the Micheners pivoted.
“It was January or February of 2020. We thought you know, this looks like it’s gonna be the real deal. Let’s just kind of plan now for the worst-case scenario,” says Michener.
Luckily, the Micheners recently revamped their website in a bid to gain more online commerce. With their new web presence prepared for heavier traffic, the couple took to social media to promote their product and get the word out about their salt. Michener says that’s where they found some success. It turns out their product did well online, and that carried them through the first wave of COVID.
The Alaska Pure Sea Salt Co. offers a variety of smoked and flavored salts. (Tash Kimmel/KCAW)
“We really had great results, especially in April, when everyone was locked up and at home and looking at their computers. And we just pushed hard. And I mean, it still was not enough to support the entire business, the online sales, but it really, really kind of stopped the bleeding and allowed us to limp through 2020,” explains Michener.
There were times the Micheners thought they might lose everything, but if they limped through 2020, they’ve come out even stronger in 2021. While local support kept their business afloat last season and in the winter months, it’s a more unlikely clientele boosting sales this summer. Even with low cruise ship numbers, they’ve seen record-breaking sales.
“There’s been enough independent travelers and people come into town that have the time to come in and learn what we’re doing” says Michener. “They’re not just dashing in for five minutes and trying to get a trinket to take home. They’re learning what we do And so we’ve had better sales with independent travelers this summer than we’ve ever had with a cruise ship summer. “
But for Darcy and Jim Michener, the greatest payoff isn’t the monetary gain, but sharing their love of salt with the world.