Not long ago, local health inspectors yanked chef Jeremy Conner’s brand of boutique salt from the shelf of a farm-to-table restaurant. Human beings have been manufacturing salt for as long as food has been bland, but local health inspectors weren’t sure what to do with a locally made salt. Conner’s Gulf of Mexico sea salt, sold under the name Cellar Salt Co., caught him between a rock and the unknown as far as permitting was concerned.
His product was pulled from the shelves until he could get his bona fides in order.
For Conner, buttoning-up his operation wasn’t challenging. As a once itinerant chef, Conner has food safety experience in spades. For Cellar Salt, he operated out of a licensed kitchen, and was more than capable of getting the appropriate labeling and processing plans in order to demonstrate his competency and attention to detail.
“I’m food safety-certified many times over. I’m very familiar with what the hazards are,” Conner says of designing his process. “I know what a health inspector is looking for.”
Many small-time food vendors with unorthodox products are running into either antiquated food regulation or standards that don’t necessarily address the sorts of products they produce. Purveyors of craft beers bristle under alcohol limits that define their high gravity brews as liquor. Chefs who dry cure and age their own meats in the fashion of Italian salume have found themselves between hot and cold temperature requirements for meat.
Similary, Conner’s product was in the hands of food regulators not specifically equipped to evaluate what he was doing.
“They really had no idea what we were doing, which is one of the reasons it took a while [to get licensed],” Conner says.
Until health inspectors took interest in Cellar Salt, Conner operated under the Cottage Food statute, which allows small-time producers and vendors of a narrow list of foods to sell to consumers at farmers markets.
Part of Conner’s problem was high demand. Fellow chefs around the city began buying his salt for use on their menus and consigning it on their shelves.
Louisiana law prohibits restaurants from selling items made in unlicensed kitchens. While there’s good sense in that regulation, it’s not uncommon for vendors to be shut down if their products are used commercially, even without their consent. That can be stifling for folks already daunted by a labyrinth of state regulations, a problem further complicated when dealing with highly specialized products that fall through regulatory cracks. Now with his label registered and his manufacturer’s license in hand, Conner can distribute his salt far and wide. Conner’s savvy and dedication put him back on the market, and expanded his product to a wider consumer base. Still, a regulation choke point exists that continues to stifle some small makers from expanding their businesses and reaching wider audiences. — Christiaan Mader