Since we’ve been a little sweet around here lately, today we’re talking with Brian Hepp, who went from medical sales to starting up Hepp’s Salt Barrel - a gourmet sea salt company.
For the uninitiated, what’s the difference between gourmet salt and the table salt you can buy in the grocery store?
One of the biggest differences it hat table salt is a chemically processed salt that comes from a salt deposit in the earth. It’s mined, cleaned, and chemically altered. All natural sea salt though contains trace minerals so that makes it much healthier than normal table salt where those minerals have been stripped out of the sodium chloride.
How does one start in medical sales and end up in sea salts?
If you had asked me three years ago if I’d be doing something like this now I would have laughed at you. My background is in medical sales but I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart. When I went to college I actually wrote a business plan for a medical supply company which I started right out of college. I know what it’s like working out of an apartment, licking envelopes, to try and get sales because that’s how I got my start.
This past year though I wasn’t fulfilled and wanted to do something on my own. I’ve always been passionate about cooking and spices and herbs and I was going to the store to buy all the ingredients to make spice blends only to come out having spent $30-$40. It dawned on me that if I just used really high quality ingredients I could spend a lot less and still create as good a meal which is why I felt there was an opportunity for gourmet sea salts. Because this is something I love I knew I could sell it so I started the company.
How do you educate yourself about flavor combinations and the different types of sea salt?
I have no real foodie background, I just started playing around with salts in different foods. Obviously the internet makes it much easier and I learned about how much history and tradition is in salt. Then I would find flavors I like and start looking at ways that you can incorporate those.
You have over 25 salt flavors available now, right?
We do but when I started in 2011 I only had five. I didn’t know what was going to be popular or what would sell in terms of flavor and types of salt. January 24, 2011 was my first day at the farmers’ market and it was just me and the salts. All my market research was through my farmers’ market. That’s where I conceived of the salt bar concept. I brought several different salts and I would listen to customers and let the customers dictate to me where I should invest more money in creating new flavors. Right now I’m investing in spicier salts because that’s what customers are asking for.
Speaking of investing – how did you finance this business?
I started this with the cash out of my back pocket initially. I didn’t have a lot of money to invest in the company and I didn’t want to put a lot of money into it until I knew which way it would go. The great thing about the farmers’ markets is that it’s a way to conduct market research and see if the idea will work but make money at the same time.
What is the salt bar concept all about?
I came up with the concept because I wanted to be able to share the salts with people but needed to let people taste the different salts so they can determine what they liked so at our markets people can test and sample the different salts we have. I’m a self-coined ‘certified salt advisor’ which means that my goals are to share information about the salt, educate customers on where it’s from, how it’s made, it’s flavor profiles, and how it can be used. We guide our customers to use the salts in different recipes. We started with one customer and are now at 14 farmers’ markets in the LA area and in 12 stores as well as selling online.
How do you find the time to manage all the markets along with everything else the company requires of you?
We now have 6 part-time Hepp’s employees who work for us on the weekends. Each representative has been trained by me before they can start working for us. What they have to do is come out and train with me for at least two weekends and then they take a salt test which includes 30 questions that most of my customers will ask. They do a little research on our salts, I give them all the salts and they’re required to use them to make different meals and them come back and share their experiences. We’re just average guys, not professionally trained chefs, who can relate to people across the table.
What we’re doing is not rocket science but I want my employees to be able to relate to the customers and share their stories with them. I’ve been incredibly lucky and personally believe I have the best staff working than any other farmers’ market vendor which is really important because these guys are an extension of my brand.
For a relatively new business you seem to be incredibly busy with the numerous farmers’ markets, the wholesale accounts, attending tradeshows, etc. How do you manage to do it all?
It’s one of those things that when you’re doing something that you love to do it doesn’t’ seem like work. 2011 was one of the most stressful years of my life but also one of the most rewarding. I want Hepps to become a household name and that’s what motivated me to keep growing. My sales reps now run the markets by themselves so I don’t have to be there on the weekends anymore and I have good people working with me who are doing the branding, the logo, the packaging, and then we’re out there knocking on doors. To me, as someone who’s been in sales my whole life, there are certain products that are harder to sell and this seems really easy in comparison because it’s my company and I believe in what we’re doing wholeheartedly.
Your labeling and packaging really helps your product stand out. Did you work with a graphic artist to develop your logo and labeling?
The packaging and the labeling have really helped develop the brand. I’m lucky because one of my partners in the company is someone who has been working with big brands for years. When I came to him with this concept and some shoddy old logo I paid $150 for he grabbed it, threw it in the garbage, said “I want in” and then designed our logo. There’s a very specific look I wanted for this company and he and I went through the process of developing the logo and we were very detailed and methodical. As you can see, the design he came up with absolutely hit it out of the ballpark!
So what’s next for Hepp’s Salt Barrel?
We are really starting to focus on expanding the salt line. We are going to be picking up some smoked salts and I’m working on a sweet and spicy salt. We’re also focusing on expanding our brand and working with more local companies. We recently sold our salts to Umani Burger which is the fastest growing burger chain here in LA and we’re looking to develop a herb and spice blend in 2012. And we’re just knocking on doors trying to open up more accounts and put our products on more shelves. Hopefully this will be a big year for us!
Since Brian is currently having the Hepp’s Salt Barrel website redesigned, if you’re interested in learning more about the company you can check out their Facebook page.