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The Salt King Of America

Ben Jacobsen wants people to think differently about sodium chloride.

Andrew Zaleski

Ben Jacobsen is standing over one of the rectangular oyster pans that fill each day with about 8,000 gallons of seawater from nearby Netarts Bay, a protected estuary along Oregon’s northern coast. He thrusts an index finger toward a tiny, translucent speck beneath the surface of the brackish, near- gelatinous water. The speck joins another, then another, until a dime-size cluster forms. As the crystal drifts to the bottom of the pan, Jacobsen grins. “Beautiful,” he says.

The flakes are different from the salt you might sprinkle on fries at a diner: larger, brighter, crunchier, and, if the discerning taste buds of North American chefs are to be believed, more flavorful. Jacobsen Salt Co.’s “pure flake finishing salt” has made him popular with Michelin-starred restaurants, taco trucks, Williams-Sonoma stores, small grocers, and Antoni Porowski of Queer Eye. “The way it dissolves is different. There’s this brininess as opposed to this mouth- deadening salt flavor,” says Megan Sanchez, co-owner and chef at Güero, a restaurant in Portland, Ore., known for its tortas.

Jacobsen, who’s 43, and others who share his passion have helped to change how Americans think about salt— the marriage of sodium and chlorine, and sometimes potassium and iodine. The global market for gourmet salt totaled $1.1 billion in 2016; it’s expected to grow to $1.5 billion in the next decade. Jacobsen’s roster so far includes his flake salt, a coarse kosher salt for everyday cooking, and a line of flavor-infused salts, such as an outré blend of smoked chili peppers and San Pablo worms harvested from Mexico’s Oaxaca Valley. He’s also created a line of salt-based seasonings for meats and ramen. “Salt is one of those things, in the U.S. at least, that has been pretty easily overlooked,” he says. “So I think we’re fortunate to get some attention. But I also think we make the best salt on the planet.”

Jacobsen found his calling after a detour through Silicon Valley. He attended high school in Portland and got a degree in geography from the University of Washington, then moved to San Francisco in 1999. He spent a couple of years at Tickle Inc., an early social networking site that was acquired by Monster.com in 2004 and subsequently shut down. He then decamped to business school in Copenhagen, nearer to his Scandinavian extended family. In 2006 he moved to Oslo to work for Opera Software, an experience that convinced him he could successfully launch a startup. In July 2009 he set about trying to develop an app for curating other apps. But founding an app-discovery company a year after Apple Inc.’s App Store opened might not have been the wisest of moves. He and his business partner had different visions for how to proceed and couldn’t build it quickly enough. Without software engineers or money to hire them, the company went nowhere. Jacobsen describes the experience as “a slow, painful burn and death.”

But his time in Europe had given him a better idea. A girlfriend had floored him by spending $10 on a small package of Maldon, a British brand of sea salt known for its pyramid-shaped flakes. He remembers sprinkling it on top of a cheap meal of canned mackerel, olive oil, arugula, and tomato sauce. “I was blown away by how much better good salt made something,” he says.

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September 02, 2019