Björn Steinar Jónsson used to work at IBM. Now he hand harvests salt from the Westfjords of Iceland. It’s a career change that’s brought him closer to home in Iceland and closer to nature.
A decade ago, Jónsson was working in Copenhagen at the tech giant and had completed his engineering studies. As a food lover, he had also worked in restaurants. This was during the rise of the Nordic food movement and the popularization of Noma as a world-famous and sought-after restaurant celebrating Nordic cuisine.
Jónsson, a native of Reykjavik, came back to Iceland and spent a week harvesting salt in a northwesterly region of Iceland, after reading countless books on the art of sea salt. He honed in on an area that used to be a salt farm back in the 17th century but had long since stopped operating.
As a novice, it took him one week to fetch about 100 grams of salt. He brought that salt back to the city and presented it to one of Iceland’s most notable chefs: Gunnar Karl Gíslason of DILL (the first Michelin-starred restaurant in the country). He was interested.
That was the beginning of Jónsson’s journey as a food entrepreneur and as the founder of Saltverk. Using geothermal energy, he set up a facility in the Westfjords, where a small team of 6 now harvest salt year round — including in the harsh Icelandic winters. Geothermal energy, a result of Iceland’s unique positioning on two tectonic planets, is plentiful on the island. But capturing it was not easy, Jónsson says. “It broke our equipment and we had some failures in the beginning but finally got it to work.”
The geothermal energy enabled Jónsson to evaporate the sea water in the purest of ways, leaving behind beautiful crystals of salt, rich in minerals. Unlike salts produced in industrial settings, sea salts are free of caking agents and additives, he explains, and have added benefits such as a high magnesium content.
What started as a one-man adventure has turned into a fruitful artisanal business, supporting 15 employees, and attracts hundreds of tourists in the summer months visiting Iceland to see their shop in the Westfjords and sample the array of salts, which feature unique Icelandic ingredients such as Arctic thyme, grown wild on the island. “This thyme is only found here in Iceland, on the Faroe Islands, and in Greenland. We have a farmer who collects it for us, and it has its own unique scent,” Jónsson says.
But going back to Jónsson’s initial foray with chefs, the salts have been a hit with award-winning chefs in Europe. Used in famous kitchens such as Noma, the salts are prized for their purity, flavor, and their unique production methods, which speak to the provenance of the food. “And as some of those chefs have since left Noma, they’ve taken our salts and their story to their next kitchen or workplace.”
Yet, as the pandemic shut down restaurants, Jónsson says they saw a spike in online sales direct-to-consumers, suggesting that salt lovers were still keen to get a hold of them. “They may seem pricey, but you really only need a little bit so they can go a long way,” he explains.
Selling primarily in the US and EU, Jónsson is conscious of the company’s footprint. Thus, all their inventory is shipped by sea (not air) and housed in two warehouses, one on each continent. Furthermore, the company now undergoes an audit to determine their carbon footprint; to compensate for the transportation footprint, they’re planting trees. All the products are also sold in glass jars, refraining from unnecessary plastics.
Being an eco-conscious company, Jónsson says is integral, given they source from the Earth and live in such a unique landscape where climate change can be seen first-hand.
Severe weather at the end of 2019 presented some serious challenges for Saltverk when the team saw some of the worst weather they’ve encountered in decades. Arctic winds climbing to chart-busting speeds damaged their facility in the Westfjords, requiring a pause in production.
Their other offerings include a lava salt that speaks to Iceland’s topography (though the salt is colored with activated charcoal, the only additional ingredient used); a birch-smoked salt, using birch from the region and mimicking a smoked-meat method; and a licorice salt that celebrates Scandinavia’s love for the flavor.
In an era when so many new food businesses are incorporating a variety of exotic ingredients, Jónsson has kept it simple and instead focused on the quality of his hero ingredient. And that’s his advice to other food entrepreneurs as well: “Control every part of your supply chain and know everything about it,” he says.