Floating a new venture

July 31, 2012

 

This is one of two former oyster barges that Hope Schwartz-Leeper and Zach Fagiano have equipped with greenhouses and their new salt-producing apparatus, which they hope to patent.

This is one of two former oyster barges that Hope Schwartz-Leeper and Zach Fagiano have equipped with greenhouses and their new salt-producing apparatus, which they hope to patent.

Look around on the Web and you’ll find you can buy specialty sea salts from all over the world. Hawaii. Italy. France. The Dead Sea.

Now you can add Cape Cod to that list, thanks to two Skidmore College students who last April won $5000 in the Kenneth A. Freirich Business Plan Competition.

Zach Fagiano ’13 and Hope Schwartz-Leeper ’13 – a couple since meeting as freshmen -- have been working all summer to perfect their saltworks and ramp up production. They took second place in the 2012 Freirich Competition, impressing judges with their plan to develop their newly founded Wellfleet Sea Salt Company into a national brand.

At least for now, their plan is focused chiefly on two converted oyster barges on which they’ve built greenhouses and installed a new salt-producing technology so novel they think it’s patentable. Floating in shallow waters off the Cape Cod community of Dennis, these barges are producing 40 pounds of flakey, medium-coarse salt per week  -- enough to fill about 100 3.1 ounce jars.

Sales is the easy part, they’ve found.

“People really like the fact that it’s a local product,” says Schwartz-Leeper. “We just go and talk to people at various local outlets, and they usually just buy it right away.”

To bring in their harvest, Schwartz-Leeper and Fagiano row out to the barges daily.

To bring in their harvest, Schwartz-Leeper and Fagiano row out to the barges daily.

Harvesting is the hard part.  On hot summer days, Schartz-Leeper and Fagiano sometimes must endure temperatures as high as 140 degrees in the sea-going greenhouses, where they scoop out the salt with broad-bladed putty knives.

Two Skidmore alumni recruited by Ken Freirich to serve in last year’s competition have provided key assistance along the way. One, Nancy Wekselbaum ‘73, owner of The Gracious Gourmet, a Connecticut-based premium condiment manufacturer, critiqued their business plan through multiple drafts and has helped to negotiate more favorable deals with suppliers.

“She taught us about a market that neither of us knew about – what contests we wanted to be in, what trade shows we should be at,” said Fagiano. “And she helped us reduce our costs by at least half.”
The other, Dan Antonelli '89, managing director of New York Institutional Equity Sales with J.P. Morgan, actually has invested in the enterprise and joined as a partner.

“One of the really great things about the Freirich Competition is that it forced us to map everything out and decide where we really wanted to go,” noted Schwartz-Leeper. “It helped us to see the big picture and keep our goals in mind. Any time we had a problem and things didn’t go exactly as we planned, we could still where we wanted to end up.”

“It also kept us organized and forced us to meet deadlines,” Fagiano added. “We jumped into the summer knowing what we wanted to do and knowing how we were going to do it.”

The families of both students also have contributed substantially to the enterprise, starting with Hope’s father, David Schwartz-Leeper, who -- as a long-time summer resident of Wellfleet -- showed the couple to his own technique for making salt from the town’s local waters. That inspired them to perfect and scale up the technique and launch the Wellfleet Sea Salt Company as their entry in the Freirich Competition.

Here’s the Wellfleet product – a brisk seller in Cape Cod markets.

Here’s the Wellfleet product – a brisk seller in Cape Cod markets.

Zach’s parents also have provided knowledgeable assistance. His step-father, David Bonom, happens to be a recipe developer, food writer, and restaurant consultant, while his mother, Marge Perry is a nutrition and travel writer who writes regularly for Newsday and teaches at the Institute of Culinary Education.

Production necessarily will slow when Fagiano and Schwartz-Leeper return to Skidmore for a fall term that starts September 3, but it won’t stop. They’re permitted to keep their barges on the water until November, and they plan to spend a number of weekends on the Cape tending their business.

As for next year and beyond, “we have a really good feeling,” Fagiano said. “After we establish ourselves firmly on the Cape, we want to take this concept to other coastal regions and really get our name out there.”

 

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