SA’s gourmet salt guru

Samantha Skyring is the founder of Oryx Desert Salt. (Picture: Supplied)
Samantha Skyring is the founder of Oryx Desert Salt. (Picture: Supplied)

Gourmet coffee, gourmet pizza, gourmet ice cream, gourmet bread − it seems the whole world is obsessed with gourmet foods. And this is not a fad. The Specialty Food Association in the US reports that retail sales of food distinguished by craft and care grew by double digits during the past year and outpaced mainstream staples.

The gourmet salt market is part of this boom, and is expected to reach $1.34bn (R18.4bn) globally by 2019, according to a survey by Persistence Market Research. Gourmet salts are unrefined, untreated, and are usually hand-harvested from sources like salt pans, rock-filtered aquifers or mines.

No minerals are extracted from gourmet salts, and no chemicals are added, as gourmet salt guru Samantha Skyring, the founder of Oryx Desert Salt, tells finweek during an interview.

Skyring entered the gourmet salt market over half a decade ago when she became an agent for a South African-based supplier who was packaging salt from the Kalahari for sale to markets in Europe. 

Skyring introduced her then husband, a Danish citizen, to the supplier, and soon the pair started exporting gourmet salt to Denmark. The pair moved to his native country but the marriage didn’t last, and when Skyring’s yearning for South Africa grew too great, she returned home.  

Soon after the split, Skyring forged a new brand and Oryx Desert Salt was born. But just as she was launching her brand, disaster struck. Early in 2011, Skyring’s salt supplier informed her that floods at the Kalahari salt pan meant that a shortage was imminent.

To shore up her supply, Skyring sold her house and used the proceeds to purchase 34 tonnes of salt to get her business going. She did all this with a child on her hip, and her belief in her brand has paid off. finweek asked Skyring about the growing pains, lessons and triumphs.  

Where did the idea for Oryx Desert Salt come from?

In July 2000 I walked about 120km through the Namib Desert. It took me about a week as I trekked from Hartmann’s Valley along the banks of the Kunene River until I reached the Skeleton Coast.

Along the way I had a very powerful and incredible face-to-face encounter with the Oryx gazella, commonly known as gemsbok, in the desert.  

What motivated you to make a business out of gourmet salt?

I became passionate about foods that affect our health after successfully managing the symptoms of arthritis through managing my diet. Salt is the smallest ingredient but an incredibly important one.

I have always been passionate about organic, natural salt, which is integral to life and health. I love the Kalahari and Kalahari desert salt, and I have a vision to make it accessible to all.  

When did you start operating?

In early 2011, after parting ways with my husband, I needed to start my life again from scratch. I moved to Cape Town, where I lived with my toddler in a little wooden Wendy house. I had sold my Joburg house to buy a massive truckload of Kalahari salt which arrived at my rented storage facility in April of 2011.

By the time the salt arrived I had sourced salt grinders and a fabulous seamstress to make our beautiful cotton bags, as well as a team to do the packing, and I just started selling.  

How did you make your first sale?

I cold-called restaurants, deli stores and health shops all over the Cape Peninsula. One day I went into Rodgers Fruiterers, on Kommetjie Main road near Cape Town, and started talking with Merle Rodgers, one of the owners of the store. She ordered some stock, and gave me names of other people I could speak to. Merle was beautiful, helpful and so positive.

It was amazing and really helped with the first lot of sales for Oryx Desert Salt.  

How did you get funding to get started?

At first I was completely self-funded, and used what little money was left from the house sale to pay for storage, manufacturing, packaging and my personal expenses. But I needed to expand − there’s only so much one person can do with their own capital.

I worked out a business plan and by August 2011 I had found out who the owner of the salt pan I was getting salt from was, and he bought a 50% share in my business.  

What were the three biggest difficulties you’ve had to overcome?

The first one was leaving the export business I helped found with my ex-husband, and coming back to SA with a small child to start over again. I had very little support and it was really tough.

I think I only survived because I managed to get some really supportive business associates who helped me during the crucial start-up phase of Oryx Desert Salt.

The second challenge was being told by my first investor that he wanted to exit, at very short notice. But he had his reasons and fortunately we were able to resolve things amicably while I found new business partners.  

The third difficulty was hiring someone to help me manage the business who walked out on me, leaving the record-keeping of the business in disarray. This taught me a lot about trust and how to manage people properly.    

What was the biggest lesson you learnt?

People aren’t always what they claim to be. This applies to high-flying business people right down to employees. I’ve had to learn to ask the right questions to make sure I’m partnering with, or employing, the right person. Due diligence is important, as is not being too impulsive.  

How tough is competition in your sector, and what differentiates your product?

There are many salt brands on the shelf, but we offer quality salt and a very personal service. We focus obsessively on quality right down the line, from packaging to delivery.   

What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?

I did a course about the different hats one has to wear as an entrepreneur, from shareholder to managing director to manager. I learnt that one shouldn’t always look at the business from a manager’s perspective.

Every two weeks I meet with my business partners and we take a “helicopter view” – to see what’s happening in the business as a whole.   

What are your non-work habits that help you with your work/life balance?

My social life is virtually non-existent. I was working at a food and wine show on my 40th birthday, and I can’t tell you how proud I felt. I think 40 to 50 is the time of one’s life that we’re putting our experience, putting our visions, into creating our future.

So I’m okay with the fact that my social life is minimal, and that I don’t have a partner. I have a gorgeous son, and I’m building a wonderful business.  

What is your three-year goal for your company?

I want this beautiful unrefined desert salt to be available internationally. We’ve exported to 21 countries so far, including Austria, the UK, Qatar, Germany, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Italy and Taiwan. I’d really love Oryx Desert Salt to become well-known as a respected gourmet brand around the world.

This article originally appeared in the 8 June edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.

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