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Originally published Friday, July 27, 2012 at 12:01 PM

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Woodinville's SaltWorks fine-tunes the salt we crave

No matter where you buy artisan salts, or under what label, odds are good it came through SaltWorks.

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DELICATE CORAL-colored grains of Murray River sea salt are a fine finishing touch on food.

Mark Zoske, though, revels in countless challenges before the salt itself is finished.

Zoske is founder of the Woodinville-based SaltWorks company, which supplies and packages fine sea salts for a startlingly large number of companies. No matter where you buy artisan salts, or under what label, odds are good it came through SaltWorks. And Zoske and his co-owner and wife, Naomi Novotny, are as obsessed by its taste and texture as you'd hope for people who stock up to 4 million pounds of the stuff in a new 100,000-square-foot factory.

Water from the Strait of Juan de Fuca is poured into 6,000-gallon tanks so it can be analyzed, filtered and crystallized in salt ponds for Woodinville-made salt. The bulk of the business, though, is in importing salts from around the world. Some are mixed with additions like chipotle peppers or ground espresso to make flavored salts. Some are packaged under SaltWorks' own brand line, others become house brands for companies from artisan operations to big-box stores.

"There is no time in the day when I'm not thinking about salt," Zoske says.

His love for the product is outsized, but interest in fine salts has exploded over the past decade, with recipes now commonly calling for sea salt, and chefs specifying which crunchy grains should top which dish.

"It's something people can get their arms around. It's a 2- to 5-cent luxury per serving," Novotny says.

But Zoske's love for the product came far before it could be found in mainstream markets, when he tasted crystalline French fleur de sel and thought, "How did I make it to 30 not knowing this existed?" He couldn't find it in the U.S., but a supplier in France agreed to a shipment — so long as he bought it by the pallet.

"Maybe there's 10,000 people just like me" to buy up the extra tons, Zoske thought. He built a small website, both to test the theory and to start spreading the gospel of sea salt, which he extols for its minerals, flavors and potential health benefits.

Orders flew in. SaltWorks incrementally grew from his home and garage to a business that now employs just shy of 50 people. Zoske, whose previous work included designing wake boards and importing water-ski equipment, became a self-taught engineer and entrepreneur.

At the factory, bags filled with 2,200 pounds of salt apiece are hoisted by crane to the top of the 34-foot ceilings. One towering machine "massages" salt, breaking any clumped particles without breaking the crystals. Aspirators suck up anything too light, while a powerful rare-earth magnet pulls off any ferrous fragments. Screens clear out any particles too large, while sorters keep grains of the correct size together.

In one production room, three industrial-size smokers stocked with everything from almond wood to aged bourbon barrels infuse salts with flavor over several low-and-slow days. No liquid smoke ("disGUSTing!" says Zoske) is allowed, just as caking agents and artificial flavorings are forbidden.

Much of the equipment is fabricated by SaltWorks on site. No one else could seem to make it to Zoske's specifications.

Overseeing all stages of the salt process seems like a lot to do under one roof. Zoske says he first looked into having other companies handle aspects like packaging, but now prefers it this way.

"Who's going to care about this more than we do?"

Rebekah Denn is a Seattle food writer and blogger. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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