Urban Sproule; A Salt Monger's Tale
Words: Megan Smith & Photos: Jacklyn Greenberg for JAG Studios
For a seemingly unending rainy streak in NYC, even the gloomy skies can’t keep Sarah Sproule from smiling ear to ear as she climbs into the booth of the crowded midtown Starbucks to meet me for an afternoon coffee and chat. She’s due to bartend around the corner in a couple of hours (job #1) and she’s just come from checking on her salt (job #2).
That’s right. Salt.
This wide-eyed beauty with her pixie haircut and girl-next-door charm makes salt. From Atlantic seawater. On a music school rooftop in Chelsea. Go figure.
This is not the umbrella girl on blue cylinder kind of salt your mom bought for a few cents in the spice aisle. Urban Sproule salt is the good stuff. The chunky, fancy salt that Food Network chef wanna-bes swoon over in Williams-Sonoma catalogs and try to justify purchase of in their Thanksgiving spending budget.
In an unregulated segment of the US food industry, Salt Monger Sarah is making the rules up as she goes. A chef by trade, she worked in the kitchen of famed Colicchio & Sons, later moving out West to manage an elite country club kitchen before settling back in NYC to teach cooking classes at Union Square Greenmarket and moonlight as a bartender.
The notion of salt-making came about rather experimentally, actually. With an idea, a plastic bucket and an outing to the nearby shoreline, Sarah wondered if a recent story she’d heard about Dead Sea salt was possible in her own backyard Atlantic. With childlike curiosity, she waded into the water, filled her bucket with the murky saline liquid and headed home. Days turned into weeks where the bucket of ocean water, left outside her tiny NYC apartment, sat.
Slowly evaporating until the water was gone. And when peering into the bottom of the bucket, Sarah found what she was hoping for: salt. “It really was just a bunch of commonsense,” she said matter-of-factly. This, coming from a 20-something-year-old who has created, quite possibly, the first rooftop salt garden in the world. Her excitement is contagious as she recounts the details of her discovery.
For Sarah, the journey hasn’t been so much about a sodium curiosity but rather a passion for locavorism. She preached and promoted local farmers and growers in the New York area during her cooking demonstrations and, as most chefs do, finished each dish with a sprinkling of salt. Salt from somewhere else.
Once the solo bucket salt experiment proved successful, Sarah’s gears started turning; wanting to make more. For herself and (was it possible?) enough to sell at her Greenmarket class each weekend. “I knew I needed sun and wind for evaporation and, more than anything, space.” Space in midtown Manhattan? A contradiction if there ever was one. As chance would have it (in one of those Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon sort of ways), Sarah found space to make her salt on the rooftop of a music school in Chelsea, and in the summer of 2012 began construction of an 8x12 greenhouse, hauling several hundred evaporation bins, water barrels, shelving and supplies up to her own Big Apple Shangri-La.
But beyond sun and wind and space, the most crucial element is seawater. Local fishermen Charlie and Glen have that covered. Each Saturday they bring 125 gallons from the purest waters 30 miles east of Montauk, NY to the Brooklyn Borough Hall farmers market where Sarah and her husband lug it back to Chelsea and up 13 floors to the greenhouse.
Clearly, Sarah Sproule is no slouch. This girl has got some gumption and drive. After building that greenhouse, she went on to source handmade glass jars with cork lids and design labels for her company, aptly named “Urban Sproule.” And in spite of her trailblazing ways, she desperately wanted the A-OK from someone….anyone before presenting her product to the public. “Because salt-making isn’t really regulated, no one really seemed to care what I was doing.” Weeks of phone calls and attempts to get a food related government agency’s seal of approval, failed. No one came. Undeterred, she went a little unorthodox (pardon the pun). “I figured, what could be better than being declared kosher? I called the Orthodox Union and asked if they would come. I think they thought I was crazy; they had never heard of, let alone approved, rooftop salt before. I was so nervous about that inspection. The OU is a world renowned and respected agency!”
Sarah passed inspection that day and received Kosher Certification from the Orthodox Union in April 2013.
Today, Urban Sproule boasts of eight salt flavors in its flight. With infusions like celery, Thai chili, grilled ramps and black squid ink, Sarah is bringing her impressive Atlantic amalgamates (of a Michelin starred restaurant quality) to the everyday cook.
There have been many lessons learned along the way, none more valuable than that of patience. Sarah’s business relies most heavily on something there is no control over: the weather. For this girl that never sits still, “making salt is definitely a test of my patience. Salt is telling me to chill the hell out.”