Salt of the earth

Local-food advocate creates her own line of flavorful seasonings

Donna Garrison has created a baker’s dozen flavors of sea salts, from celery to vanilla to smoked onion and shiitake.

Donna Garrison has created a baker’s dozen flavors of sea salts, from celery to vanilla to smoked onion and shiitake.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Chico Salt Co.:
Butte County Good Food Network:

Donna Garrison is no stranger to owning her own business. She’s been a bookkeeper for well over a decade and was at one time an importer of ornate Mexican pottery. This past December, she launched her latest venture, this one in the culinary arena, when she started bottling and selling flavored salts under the name Chico Salt Co. It’s been a quick—and relatively effortless—success, she said.

“I really don’t do any marketing—it just sells,” she said during a recent interview. She doesn’t go to the farmers’ markets, though she does have an impressive display at Made in Chico, and at the time of our interview she was preparing for a cooking demonstration at The Galley, which holds events on Saturdays. There, she was planning to demo sliced tomatoes with mozzarella seasoned with her basil sea salt.

Garrison’s first foray into flavored salts was as a way to simplify her seasoning repertoire for various recipes. Her garlic rosemary salt was among the first—and remains one of her bestsellers—because it’s so versatile and works with meats, vegetables, you name it.

“I was always brining my chicken in lemon and salt,” she explained. Hence, her Meyer lemon sea salt.

Her process is fairly simple. She orders her sea salt from Washington (she’d buy it locally, but, well, Chico is not quite ocean-front property). And the majority of her additions come from local farms like GRUB or even her own backyard, which is full of rosemary, mint and all manner of peppers. She then takes those additions, dehydrates them and blends them in the food processor along with the salt. And, voila!

Garrison admits pricing has been a difficulty, as different stores—including her own website—charge varying commissions. So, how does she keep the cost affordable (each bottle is $10.25 at Made in Chico, for instance) while still covering her costs and turning a profit?

The packaging—the bottles, the labels—all costs money. She joked that anyone who sees her glass bottles and smokes cannabis will think, “Hey, that’s a great weed jar!” And they’d be right, as she bought them from a company that supplies dispensaries. “They can’t use them here in California, though, because they’re not child-proof,” she explained. So, why not fill them with salt?

Garrison offers tips on using her flavored salts in a variety of recipes at a cooking demo at The Galley in Chico Saturday (June 16).

Photo by Charles Finlay

Garrison has a cottage food license, which allows her to do all her cooking in her own kitchen. Which is great for her, because she spends a good amount of time there anyway—canning, cooking, wining and dining.

“I have fun experimenting,” she said with a smile. So far, it seems to be paying off.

Food, quite clearly, is close to Garrison’s heart. Beyond her obvious enjoyment of delicious culinary creations, she also cares deeply about where her food comes from and about supporting local farmers and other food makers. She joined the Butte County Good Food Network to encourage just those things.

“We want people to know about food that’s grown right here in their community,” Garrison said, “to get to know their farmers and growers.”

The organization was started by Pamm Larry, a local activist who has long railed against genetically modified organisms, pushing locally grown, organic options instead. This goes along with the Good Food Network’s mission “to create a more healthy, just, resilient, regenerative locally based food system in Butte County, California.”

Some of the ways the organization meets its goals are by working with local food pantries such as those at Chico State, which helps feed hungry students (of which there are far too many, Garrison lamented), and at the ARC of Butte County. The group encourages everyone who receives Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (also known as SNAP or food stamps) to shop at farmers’ markets as often as possible.

“Did you know you can double your SNAP benefits at the Chico Certified Farmers’ Market?” Garrison asked. “If you get $20, all of a sudden you have $40 to spend.” (That’s through a program called Market Match, which is organized locally by the Center for Healthy Communities at Chico State and funded through grants from the state Department of Agriculture.) The network also is hosting a chili cookoff in September in which all entrants must source at least 75 percent of their pots with local ingredients, many of which will be available via discount at the farmers’ market. Proceeds will benefit local food pantries.

Garrison envisions a Butte County in which all residents are not only aware of local food options, but also know how to cook for themselves in order to avoid places like McDonald’s and care about supporting local vendors. Until then, she’s selling her salt, creating more flavorful dishes, and takes every chance she can get to pump up local growers.

“Almost everything I use is local,” she said of Chico Salt Co. ingredients. “A lot of it comes from my garden, or GRUB; there’s a lot of GRUB in those jars.”