Move a mountain of salt to land in the US market
Local seasoning brand Oryx Desert Salt will soon hit Whole Foods shelves in the United States. He joined a growing list of locally made products (like Rooibos) to access overseas markets. Samantha Skyring, CEO of Oryx Desert Salt, has worked hard to expand its range of salt – sustainably mined in the Kalahari Desert – to a wider market. Skyring told BizNews that she even traded her house for a garage full of salt at one point, to take the business to the next level. – Linda van Tilburg
Samantha Skyring on the idea behind Oryx Desert Salt:
I met a colleague who sold this beautiful salt in Germany. He [said] that the market in South Africa was too small. I felt that this beautiful salt from the Kalahari Desert – which is naturally organic and pure – I truly believe that locals should be given the opportunity to have access to the country’s produce rather than sending it overseas. I was coming to the end of a job. I had my own NPO – but there was the financial recession and businesses weren’t interested in emotional and social empowerment projects.
I was looking for something new. I had also just become a mother. The idea of sharing this beautiful salt with South Africans obviously came to my mind. I saw the opportunity to put mills on restaurant tables. It really is an amazing opportunity where we can have a product on the tables that brings brand awareness and people have the opportunity to try the salt for themselves. It was pretty exciting for me. I started packing on my dining table – the cotton bags and the grinders – and that’s how it all started.
On the inspiration behind the name, Oryx:
In 2000 I had a nice trip with some friends and we traveled to Namibia. We ended up in Hartmann Valley, which is the last accessible valley in the desert. The road ends in a sand dune and you have to walk the last three kilometers to the Kunene River. After spending three months in the desert – and discovering this incredibly wide and colorful water with rock pools, white sand beaches and palm trees – we had truly arrived in paradise. I decided to walk to the Skeleton Coast. Along the way, I had close encounters with the Oryx. Seven years later, when I had the opportunity to mark the Kalahari Salt, this beautiful creature came to mind.
What was amazing after – once I had already chosen the logo and brand for the product – I met the owner of a health food store in Stellenbosch. She had grown up in Namibia and the Oryxes were almost domesticated to them. She said some Oryxes can go their entire lives without drinking water – but they can’t go weeks or months without licking the salt. It is so essential to their existence and survival in the harsh conditions of the Kalahari. It is truly an incredible symbol and so perfectly fitting.
Many years later, I had the last piece of the puzzle as to why they could go so long without clean drinking water. Their hair is hydroscopic, [like] small microscopic straws. In the desert at night, there is this incredible humidity in June – due to the disparity in temperatures between day and night – and they absorb the moisture directly through their hair and skin into their bodies. All the vegetation swells at night, so they actually hydrate when they eat. One of those miracles of nature.
On growing his business, Oryx Desert Salt:
After about a year, I did a crazy thing. I sold my house and ended up buying 34 tons of salt – which is more than a full garage. I needed to have stock available. I came to do some crazy things and I started, literally, in the field going from restaurant to restaurant, specialty [shops and] deli’s, growing it slowly. I knew I was running out of money. I met a chef who had met the owner of the salt pot. I made a call and asked if I could come meet him. We had a great conversation and I said, “I’m making a business plan. I need a partner. He said, “Well, please give it to me.”
It was a very exciting time. It seemed like such a brilliant synergy, having the owner of the salt pot and then having me create a high end product and [put it] on the market. But a year later they weren’t profitable and the business clearly needed the money to grow. He was used to the wholesale business, he had been in the wholesale salt business for about thirty years. Public relations, branding, websites and social media were very new to him. He was getting a little nervous about the investment needed to develop it. So he said he wanted to get out.
Then I made two step brothers – Garth and Ian Solomon – and they were just setting up Evolve Capital, in order to invest in small businesses, bring in seed money and capital as well as Intellectual property. We have been together for eight years and it has been an incredible journey. They have definitely supported my personal growth as the current 20 employee CEO.
On conquering the overseas market:
[It’s a] very exciting time. I’ve been at international shows for about six or seven years and discovered Whole Foods – through foodies and at trade shows six or seven years ago. I think from there, understanding what Whole Foods stands for was my goal, my dream and my intention. It’s beautiful to see as I grew up. As I grow, the business grows. For me, it was sort of a matter of time that when the right time came, it would happen. The company had to be very strong to enter the American market.
I had that moment where I was introducing the Whole Foods buyer and Oryx was already 10 years old at the time. I realize the knowledge I had of the industry – of merchandising and all the little things that three or four years in the business, you wouldn’t have. I had to go to an exhibition in Los Angeles in March 2019. I did a lot of networking before that and met someone. I contacted the Endeavor community in the US and was able to get the email address of the salt and spice category buyer at Whole Foods. I followed and presented several times and then life got busy.
Then Covid-19 came along and we lost 70% of our business last year due to [a decline in the] tourism, catering and hotels [sectors]. Because I had the time, I really knew I had to get something out of the bag to move forward. I followed up several times and finally got an email saying, “I apologize for the delay in responding”, which was already a very positive response. Five months later, I did the presentation and we got the list almost on our Oryx’s 10th birthday, which was really beautiful and seemed totally on track for our growth.
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