It’s a warm, sunny afternoon in early spring, and Barrett Hightower and Rani Morris have taken a moment to sit in the shade at one of the small tables outside of Salt Artisan Market, their sandwich shop in the historic Colle Station at 1330 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy., just around the bend from Monticello and a stone’s throw from Jefferson Vineyards.
It’s the golden hour, and soft light hits the edges of the wooden OPEN sign. A light breeze sends the sign swinging back and forth, and softly rustles the ivy growing on one of the shop’s two stone columns.
It’s also rush hour. A Ford truck whizzes around the corner and honks its horn. “Hey!” Hightower calls, exuberantly returning the driver’s wave.
Moments later, a silver Subaru whips by. “See you tomorrow!” the driver yells.
“Yeah!” Hightower replies, waving again. “Sometimes people will lean out the window and tell us that lunch was delicious, or thank us for the coffee. It’s very funny out here,” Hightower says, leaning back in her chair. “I’m like the mayor.”
Morris nods her head in agreement.
Hightower’s objective in opening Salt in spring 2013 was “to join the ecosystem.” She envisioned the shop as a place where “all kinds of people run into each other.”
Morris, who runs the Salt kitchen, grew up in Asia, eating spicy goat curry and making “really lopsided chapati” [flatbread] with her downstairs neighbor in Pakistan. As a teen, she spent Tuesday afternoons in the cafeteria kitchen of her Thailand boarding school, learning Thai—the language and the food—from the cooks.
Hightower, who typically runs the register (among other business elements), grew up in the D.C. area, eating peanut butter-and-bacon sandwiches that her grandmother would pack for family waterskiing excursions to Smith Mountain Lake. She worked in supply chain compliance for years before opening Salt.
“Basically, Rani cooks and I do her dishes,” Hightower jokes.
Morris’ sandwiches—such as the Free Union chorizo with roasted garlic aioli and slaw and the Kite’s Ham with hot peach chutney, brie and arugula—are inspired by what’s in season and what’s available locally. “One of my focuses, especially when spring and summer get going with the produce, is starting with what the farmer has, as opposed to what I want,” she says. “If we can start with what they’re growing, with what’s good for their land and what’s good for them, it will eventually be a more sustainable [system]. Not just demanding tomatoes because you want them, you know?”
Salt sources more than 35 percent of its products directly from the growers and producers at places such as Meadow’s Pride Farm in Highland County, Manakintowne Special Growers and Free Union Grass Farm, and from individual farmers. They also work with distributors like the Local Food Hub.
Local agriculture isn’t sustainable unless people “are invested in buying what grows in our environment,” Hightower says. “We can’t take our preconceptions of what we want, what we’re typically able to buy in the grocery store because it grows well in Iowa, and ask our farmers to grow that. The movement will only work if we make these regional adaptations. And, it’s much more fun that way.”
Salt has a low-waste philosophy, too: It offers compostable serving ware and recycles all beverage containers. And they train their employees to adopt a reuse-recycle-repurpose-retain habit.
For a while, Salt’s vegetable waste went to the worms at Castle Hill Cider’s orchard. Now that Salt has grown (more sandwiches means more product, which inevitably means more waste), the shop works with Black Bear Composting to minimize landfill-bound waste.
Hightower suspects a lot of people look at Salt and think she and Morris “must have a trust fund” to do what they do.
“Sometimes people will stop in and ask if we’re doing okay, if we’re still making sandwiches,” says Hightower. They’re making sandwiches all right—tons of sandwiches with a small staff, in a tiny restaurant, with ingredients likely grown in the soil Salt customers pass on their commutes. It’s not easy—Morris and Hightower are often in the kitchen until midnight on a Friday prepping for a busy Saturday. “When they ask me that, I tell them we’re slinging sandwiches! We’re not millionaires, but we’re doing it, and doing it on our own,” and with community support, Hightower says.
She smiles widely and waves at a red Volvo cruising by. “That’s the village I’m talking about,” she says, pointing at the car.