How one Deleware man’s Henlopen sea salt revives beach memories

WILMINGTON, De. (AP) — Remember that feeling when you were a kid, body-surfing in the ocean, feeding off the energy of those Delaware waves?

Adrenaline rushes as the water builds, preparing for the incoming swell that you hope to time correctly.

Only you’re off. The wave crashes and takes you with it. When you finally pull yourself up and out of the water, the distinct taste of salt water fills your mouth and nostrils.

It’s a nostalgic feeling – and taste – that one Delaware man has figured out how to literally bottle up and sell.

Well, sort of. Dave Burris, a former chief of staff in the Delaware Senate, has started a business selling local sea salt harvested from the Delaware Bay in Lewes.

When he started Henlopen Sea Salt, filling his first order almost exactly one year ago, Burris said he didn’t realize just how much this product would resonate with people across the Mid-Atlantic who have a connection with the Delaware beaches.

Beyond being a beautiful finishing salt – each grain of the vibrant, flaky salt has a unique structure like a snowflake – it’s the taste that makes this salt a novelty.

Burris remembers one chef describing the taste like “the wave that wiped you out when you were seven years old.”

He harvests the salt directly from water that he pumps or carries in five-gallon buckets from the coast just outside his family’s salmon-colored cottage in Lewes. And he now sells that “Lewes salt” across the country, as people send it to family and friends with messages remembering camping trips at Cape Henlopen or stories from past beach vacations.

“It’s an edible memory,” Burris said. “You can see a picture and it evokes a memory, or you can hear a song that evokes a memory, but to have something that you taste that evokes a memory, that’s really awesome.”

How it started

One day in 2012, Burris was watching a video online that featured someone harvesting sea salt, and he thought to himself: “I have salt water. You just go get some and put it in a pot and boil away the water, and then you have salt.” Right?

He quickly found out that was not entirely true. For the first batch, Burris walked down to the water with an empty milk jug, filled it up with saltwater and brought it home to boil. The final product, though, was gray, very fine and not exactly appetizing.

“No one would have wanted to eat the first batch of what I did,” Burris said.

But with time, he fine-tuned his product until the sea salt started resembling those snow-like flakes that he is proud to call his signature product.

Instead of a cleaned out milk jug, Burris now uses a local property owner’s pump – and buckets for smaller batches – to transport the water from the beach to his home. He first boils off a majority of the water, and then transfers it to a finishing pan, which then heats below a boil for about 18 hours.

That’s when the magic happens: The salt begins to form on the surface of the water before becoming dense enough to fall into the bottom of the pan.

While it takes about 36 hours to see the salt and scoop it out of the finishing pan, it must then go into a dehydrator to extract any excess moisture. Given this long process, Burris is making salt at almost all hours.

Still, he said there’s a unique satisfaction from creating something from the land and water where he spent so much of his life.

“It’s not very often anymore that people make something from a raw natural material,” he said. “I think that is one thing that I love about it. I’m able to make a local product from the local water.”

This sentiment rings true for the many of the chefs and stores that now carry or use Henlopen Sea Salt.

Matt Kern, chef at Coastal One in Fenwick Island, said he is constantly on the search for products that are locally made. So when he heard about Henlopen Sea Salt, he was especially on board.

“Having a method to season my food with a taste of Delaware was like a no-brainer,” he said. “As soon as I found out about it, I was like, ‘I need to get that. I need to have as much of it as possible.’”

He now displays the salt in glass jars with cork stoppers, and he features it on raw dishes or plates featuring beef or pork.

“I treasure this stuff,” he said.

That desire to include this sea salt on dinner tables and menus has contributed to a growing demand for this unique product – both in wholesale and individual orders.

Burris releases a new batch on his website every other Tuesday, and he said it usually sells out within hours. He expects that rush to only peak during the holidays as people seek this local gift for stocking stuffers and more.

He missed the holiday sales last year because, the day after his first sale, an oil spill in the Delaware Bay delayed his business for about five weeks. If he tried to harvest salt before then, it would come out black, he said.

But as soon as business started again, it virtually never stopped, Burris said.

A growing taste for Delaware sea salt

When he first started harvesting salt, Burris made about two pounds with every 10-gallon batch. But just last week, he sold 11 pounds of wholesale orders over two days.

He now has about seven or eight restaurants and between 10 and 15 stores featuring Henlopen Sea Salt. While more retailers have requested orders, Burris is the only producer and can make a limited amount of salt in his home kitchen – while also finding some time for himself and his family.

That’s why he’s looking to expand. Between the real estate market, construction concerns, and zoning issues, finding a property has been a challenge, but Burris said he plans to open a production and retail facility sometime in the “very near future.”

This would also allow him to hire some people and produce a much larger amount of salt, which will help fill more orders from retailers and restaurants.

But for now, Burris said he is focused on the holiday season, as more people from Delaware and beyond turn to Henlopen Sea Salt as a way to capture those beach memories. Take Kern, the chef, who said the salt evokes memories of teaching his kids how to surf at Cape Henlopen.

Now that Burris offers the sea salt in reusable tins, people can even carry a piece of the beach in their pockets or purses.

“It’s kind of that connection to the area that people have,” Burris said. “Here’s a literal taste of the ocean, where you’re from or where you’ve vacationed or where you have your great memories.”

Copyright © 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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