Maureen Cacioppo and her wife wanted to start building a family together, but that goal wasn’t compatible with her career in outdoor education that required lots of travel. So in 2016, Cacioppo left her job to start her own business called Florida Pure Sea Salt.
Harvesting the salt by hand from seawater, Cacioppo and her team create a range of products from traditional sea salt to salts infused with chipotle, rosemary, and black truffle. Best of all, being her own boss allowed Cacioppo and her wife to fulfill a longtime goal to get licensed as a foster home for children.
Hello Alice talked with Cacioppo about turning a hobby into a business, navigating different red tape and certifications, and how the pandemic forced her to rethink key parts of her strategy. What follows are highlights from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.
On starting her business:
“Coming from a large family, it was an important part of the culture to get together and share meals. Harvesting salt kind of made sense. I love the outdoors, food, and was just curious about that process of making it. I started in my backyard, and I learned a lot about pots because seawater is super corrosive. Then, I started really getting into more of the chemistry of it, the history of salt making.
When my wife and I weren’t able to get on with certain family goals that we had set for ourselves because I was leaving Florida a lot for work, we decided that we were going to either have to change those goals or change something else. That’s when I thought, we could have this hobby be a business.
One of our big goals for our family was to get licensed as a foster home for children. We have been fostering kids for the last two and a half years. It’s a lot easier to be a parent when you’re in the state. So that’s been really cool in this job, although being a small business owner, there’s stress and uncertainties and things that kind of come up and also a lot of good stuff that comes up. You’re creating a culture and you’re affecting your community in different ways. Those are all great opportunities to really do good things. There’s a balance being a small business owner, and I’m really liking the balance right now.”
On navigating the paperwork and red tape:
“As I started to kind of get into the process of starting the business, there was so much red tape involved with what we were doing because no one really knew what we were doing. People were really curious. I had to get different certifications, checking with different government entities. Once I started going through, that I was like, whoa, this is quite a process.
It took about six months. I think that’s going to be a lot longer than other companies because of the business we do. But just like anything in life, you have to remind yourself to be patient. I also did research; the internet is an incredible tool, so a lot of what I learned was being curious and wanting to do the right thing that led me to reach out to a governmental entity. Then, having a conversation led me to reach out to another. It was really wanting to make sure that we cross our t’s and dot our i’s.”
On the process of harvesting salt:
“Each company does it differently. Some companies go to the sides of mountains and use heavy machinery and just tear it right out. There’s some companies doing it that way, which is, I think, really aggressive for the earth.
We take seawater. We have little to no byproduct; the byproduct we have can go right back into the seawater. It’s actually cleaner than when we took it out. We’re not hurting sea life or creatures or changing the landscape forever. We gather buckets of water, we test it, we filter it. From there, we’ll boil it to reduce volume and remove some of the minerals that make salt bitter.
Then, we infuse salts with fresh ingredients. It’s small-batch, and our hands are doing it, not machinery. We’re able to really control the process and the ingredients going into it, so it’s not, you know, dried rosemary from another company that’s been sitting on a shelf for six months, and then gets moved to a grocery store. It doesn’t happen like that. Because we’re small, it’s so fresh, and we can use the best ingredients. And that makes all the difference in the world. When you use your hands and control all aspects, you get a really phenomenal product.”
On finding resources to grow her business:
“We have a wonderful resource here in St. Petersburg called the Greenhouse. It’s a small business incubator, so they have a ton of resources. They provide coaches that are well versed in different business aspects, whether you’re building out your website or you’re needing basic accounting assistance. I think, stepping back and saying, ‘Okay, I know myself well enough to know that I need assistance in this area x, y, and z, and then seeking that guidance,’ is really important.”
On how she responded to the pandemic:
“When things were shutting down last year, it was a really scary time because everyone’s yelling, ‘Pivot! Pivot!’ I’m going, ‘We’re a salt company. There’s really no way to pivot to.’ What I decided at that time was that there were a few things that we could change in order to come out stronger — and that was building out our back end.
We wound up spending quite a bit of money on areas that we were able to grow and strengthen, so we could come out stronger. And the back end for our website was searchability. We got a new social media company. We did a couple things to strategically place us in a better position when we came out, and it’s working. We are facing some challenges right now with my bottle company not being able to manufacture what we need. But again, it’s kind of like, ‘Well, we’ve been putting off doing recyclable pouches for a while. Let’s do that right now. Our customers have been asking from us. Let’s see how it goes.’
We are also sourcing other bottles to see if it’s something that can help with challenges like putting on labels. It’s very time consuming to put on labels with the way our bottles are created. It’s incredible when you’re pushed to grow and be put in your challenge zone instead of your comfort zone — that’s when the growth happens. We’ve been doing a lot of growing.”
On becoming a Certified B Corporation:
“During the last year, we have gotten to some of the projects that I’ve been wanting to do like becoming B Corp certified. We’re a for-profit company, but we recognize that we have an effect on our environment, our community, our staff. There are five areas of focus, and this process takes months and months to get through your first initial process before you even ask for certification.
USF, which is a college down here, put together a Business for Good pilot program, and they gave us undergrad and grad students to help us online for six months. They were amazing at writing policy and helping us through that first initial process. There were some things that I didn’t know about that they were able to provide even more tools or resources that will help us have a more positive effect on a couple different things of our community and the environment.”
On starting a social initiative at her company:
“Last year in 2020, we started giving a percentage of our market sales to different organizations. What we did this year is we blew last year away, and we designed 11 labels for 11 different organizations that are supporting different causes, whether it’s veteran support, protecting the planet, clean water. We’re now able to give back 20% of each bottle sold for the entire year for all 11 nonprofits.
We’re just trying to get the word out on social media about these organizations that are doing some really cool things and just another way to support, whether it’s buying salt to support us and them or just going to their website directly making a donation.”
On why she gives back:
“I think it’s because of my background that we run this business a little bit differently. Coming from nonprofits, seeing what that can do for people, I think that sets a different tone. It was very intentional from the get-go when I started putting on paper what I wanted this business to look like. I definitely wanted to have the support for our staff, our crew, the community, and the waterways. And in knowing that we have an effect on everyone that we’ve come in contact with — we can have a positive effect or a negative effect. I feel a responsibility in the fact that you can affect all the people and the environment that you’re touching.”