Steve Osborne isn’t worried about the health police. Despite the government’s campaign to get people to reduce their salt intake, endorsements from a string of celebrity chefs including Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson ensure that Maldon Sea Salt remains a staple in the more discerning household - not to mention top restaurants.
“Sid the Slug hasn’t affected us at all,” says the Essex-based MD, who is the fourth generation of the family at the helm.
“In fact, we’ve seen a slight increase. You can add as much or little as you want. This campaign is just scaremongering. Most salt is consumed in ready meals - that’s where the problem lies.”
It certainly doesn’t lie with The Maldon Crystal Salt Company, judging by its current figures. Last year, the company, which has been going since 1882, generated a turnover of £4m - mainly from sales of Maldon Sea Salt but also from the salt it imports and packages from Spain under the Tidman’s brand. Having increased production of the former by 70% since 2002, the company is now poised to embark on the next stage of ambitious expansion plans.
At present, it produces just 600 tonnes of the white stuff a year at its Maldon facility. The centuries-old production process is remarkably labour-intensive. Seawater is collected from the Blackwater estuary at high tides. It is placed in tanks so any sediment can settle, then sand filtered and left to settle again, before being piped into seven steel saltpans. After being boiled and simmered for up to 16 hours at temperatures between 50 and 100 degrees Celsius, salt crystals begin to form. Once most of the water has evaporated, the salt is raked to the sides of the pan, left to drain, then placed on plastic trays to dry in low temperature ovens for five to six hours. A pan can yield around 300kg of salt, depending on the salinity of the water.
It is worth the effort, says Osborne, who was a LIFFE trader until the market switched to screen-based trading in 1998, when he decided to jack in the 5.15am starts to join his dad, Clive,in the family business.
This July, Tesco decided to increase the number of listings from 260 stores to 680 stores. The salt, which costs around £1.99 for a 250g box, is also listed in Waitrose, Sainsbury, the Co-op and Budgens - though not in Morrisons. It is also exported across the world. Australia is one of its biggest customers and Osborne hopes that following tie-ups with Chile, Korea, Peru and
Japan, it will eventually increase its number of overseas markets to 25. Not bad going for a company with a headcount of just 11.
The main challenge now is to fulfil demand. Next June a new production facility two miles from the existing one opens, potentially more than doubling its output. “The primary reason we’re building a new facility is for the future, so that we can grow. We’re hoping to build a site that can accommodate up to 12 salt pans.”
Osborne is also trying to diversify into new areas. This autumn the company launches an organic pepper sourced in the Kerala region of India. Sainsbury and Tesco have expressed interest, says Osborne.
He also plans to bring out a range of organic herbs and spices (10 of each). In the longer term, there may be an olive oil and a balsamic vinegar, though he stresses they are at a “really early stage”.
However, you won’t find Osborne mixing the salt with other ingredients for grinders. The salt is too soft to work in most grinders - most people prefer to use their fingers. Neither does he want to lend the company’s name to other products, despite a number of approaches. The only deal to date has been with Pret a Manger. Osborne says: “We need to make sure we don’t sell out our brand.”
Instead, he wants to grow the business on his own terms. “We’re ambitious, but we want a brand that isn’t a corporation. In our business plan, we said we wanted to be a £10m company. That was two years ago - and that’s still where we want to be.”