Jim and Darcy Michner’s enthusiasm for flavor is contagious- and they are eager to share. It was on a camping trip in 2000 that the married couple first experienced the magic of salt making. A pan of sea water from dishwashing was left out on the remote cabin’s woodstove overnight. In the morning, the couple discovered a crunchy layer of homemade sea salt sitting in the pan.
After their discovery, they started making sea salt for fun by experimenting and using it in their own kitchen. “We’re pulling in water from Sitka Sound, and we don’t have any heavy industry or agriculture here. It’s a benefit—no herbicides, pesticides, or coal burning plant nearby. We’re starting with beautiful, clean water. Especially as a 16-year fishing guide and a lifelong lover of fishing, combining Alaska seafood and Alaska sea salt is such a go-to. We’re a fishing town. That’s the backbone of our entire economy. To pair those two together in a beautiful setting like Sitka just makes sense,” says Jim. As the couple gains confidence, Jim adds, “A year later, we mailed a sample to the salt guru in the United States—Mark Bitterman of Portland, Oregon—and he was excited that someone was making artisanal salt in the United States. Nobody really was at that time. He said, ‘Good for you, but you have a ways to go to make good quality salt.’” Jim and Darcy decided to keep trying, refine their process, and attempt to make the highest quality salt they could. Looking around their hometown, they couldn’t imagine a better place to make sea salt. So, they persevered.
“It took five years of carrying water up the boat ramp at Crescent Harbor in downtown Sitka,” says Jim. “We would take the skiff out, fill it up with water, take it back in, take it home and play with how to make good salt.”
By 2007, or perhaps 2006—Jim and Darcy laugh as they openly disagree about the timeline—they presented their first true sample of flake salt to a Seattle chef. “He came out of his kitchen after tasting it and went crazy for it,” says Jim. “’I’m your first customer!’ he had said. And that’s when I realized we may have something here.”
It took several years of saving money from the small batches they would sell to chefs, and an idea that just wouldn’t quit, to take a leap and open their first salt plant. An economic development loan from the city of Sitka gave them the push they needed to build.
“We felt a real moral obligation to build out that facility. I think 85% of everything we purchased came from local suppliers. When you look at your neighbors, and you’re playing with their money, it does weigh on you,” says Jim. “The city was so behind us,” adds Darcy. “They had hope.” That hope and support has kept the Micheners going.
After years of perfecting their craft, the Michners opened Alaska Pure Sea Salt Co., a retail store located in the heart of downtown Sitka. Jim and Darcy produce around 500 pounds of salt a week when in operation. The couple manages every aspect of the business, from running their retail store, to placing orders, to waking up in the middle of the night to check the levels and temperatures on the machinery that creates the magical, light flakes.
Jim and Darcy constantly look for ways to enhance fresh ingredients with their crafted sea salts pulled straight from Sitka Sound. As co-owners of Alaska Pure Sea Salt Co., they often recommend unexpected pairings with their products to visitors who wander into store. Jim suggests the “great, clean, bright, citrusy flavor” of the spruce tip salt on poultry and salmon. Darcy loves the “sweet and savory, fun” flavor of the vanilla bean salt on things you would not expect, like scallops and squash. “Sometimes, we will do a whole meal based around a salt,” adds Jim. “Let’s do a spruce night!”
Without culinary training or restaurant experience, their salt business has grown purely from their passion for delicious food. Visitors can’t help but feel the enthusiasm behind this husband and wife team and root for their success. “We do everything together, and for some reason, it works.” Darcy laughs. Jim adds, “We can’t get away from each other. We’re in it together.”
Their salt is now found in northwest Whole Foods stores, other grocery stores and restaurants in the Pacific Northwest, as well as a variety of shops from Alaska all the way to New York. They attribute their company’s growth to their perseverance and the support from the community of Sitka. Visitors can meet the Micheners any day in the summer or holiday season at their store in Sitka. Their inviting space welcomes all with salt samples, gourmet ingredients, and Michener-tested recipes to try.