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challenge contest semi-finalist

Andrew Shepherd, a chef, started Vancouver Island Salt Co., one of Canada’s first commercial harvesters of artisanal sea salt.Chad Hipolito

Vancouver Island Salt Co. is one of the four semi-finalists in The Globe and Mail's Small Business Challenge Contest. The 2014 contest drew more than 1,000 entries, and a panel of judges selected the semi-finalists. The winner of the $100,000 business grant - and a suite of secondary prizes - will be announced in September.

Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island is well known for its wineries and cheese makers. These days, it's also getting noticed for a simple seasoning that's far from basic: artisanal sea salt produced by Vancouver Island Salt Co.

Launched four years ago by Andrew Shepherd – a chef who has worked in restaurants and catering companies in Canada, Australia and New Zealand – Vancouver Island Salt is one of the country's first commercial harvesters and makers of artisanal sea salt. Mr. Shepherd traces the company's origin to a casual comment he made to a friend.

"We were standing at the beach and I shot my mouth off about how come no one is harvesting sea salt in Canada," recalls Mr. Shepherd. "My friend bet me a case of beer that it couldn't be done, so I went back to the beach with a pot I stole from my wife's kitchen and I made my first batch of salt."

From that first handful, Mr. Shepherd has built a business with about 20 products, including sea salt for general cooking and seasoning, fleur de sel salt flakes, and infused salts with flavours such as blue cheese, roasted garlic and orange and lime. Vancouver Island Salt is sold in British Columbia and Ontario by independent grocers, specialty food stores, butchers, fishmongers and wineries.

This year it's coming to Whole Foods Market – a major coup for the company, Mr. Shepherd says. Vancouver Island Salt also sells wholesale to restaurants and bakeries.

"We are producing a world-class sea salt, with a big clean flavour," Mr. Shepherd says. "Bakers tell us that since they started using our product, they've reduced their salt use by 20 to 25 per cent." His product is saltier, so they don't need to use as much, he says.

In its first year, Vancouver Island Salt pulled in about $34,000 in revenue. Last year, sales rose past $100,000, says Mr. Shepherd, who has one full-time and six part-time employees.

In the company's first two years, it used wood-fired ovens – fed with waste wood – to make the salt. But the ovens produced too much smoke, which Mr. Shepherd knew was not good for the environment. He shut down operations for four months while the company converted to steam boilers that run on recycled vegetable oil.

"We spent $60,000 to switch over to this new system, and now our process creates no waste," Mr. Shepherd says. "We are now certified carbon-negative."

What the company needs

Even as he continues to put his salts on more retail shelves in Canada, Mr. Shepherd has his eye on the global gourmet salt market, which is estimated to grow to $1.3-billion by 2019. But to scale up, he needs capital. Vancouver Island Salt produces up to 450 kilograms of salt a week – not enough to sprinkle beyond its current markets.

"As much salt as we can make, we are always able to sell," Mr. Shepherd says. "But we're not always able to make more."

Winning the Small Business Challenge contest would boost Vancouver Island Salt's working capital, allowing it to hire one additional full-time employee and expand domestic sales. Mr. Shepherd says he would also use part of the prize money to market his products to international markets.

"We want to get Canadian sea salt into the hands – and plates – of people all over the world," he says. "With Canada's reputation for having beautiful, clean water, our salt would definitely hold appeal for people in other countries."

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