“Bucknell instills a love of learning, and you have to love learning to start a business.”
Salt courses through all of our veins, but it runs particularly rich in the blood of Nancy Payne Bruns ’88, co-founder of J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works.
Bruns’ ancestor began producing salt in West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley 200 years ago. A fire contributed to the company’s demise in 1945, but the land has remained with her family for seven generations. In 2013, Bruns and her brother, Lewis Payne, revived the salt works as a producer of fine, handcrafted, sustainably sourced salt.
“Chefs really like our salt as a finishing salt,” Bruns says. “The texture holds up on dishes, but it’s not too hard — it crunches in your mouth easily.”
The company produced 16,000 pounds of salt in 2017, more than five times its initial year’s volume, and the business continues to grow, with the salt used or sold at 600 restaurants and stores nationwide, as well as through jqdsalt.com.
Besides its flagship finishing salt, J.Q. Dickinson produces heirloom salts imbued with the flavors of the Appalachian region, such as wild onions foraged by a local forester. On the website Bruns also cross-promotes local businesses that use her salt in their products, contributing to the economic comeback of a region still reeling from the collapse of King Coal.
A circuitous path led Bruns back to the family farm — after earning her political science degree she attended culinary school. For decades, she owned a successful restaurant and catering business in North Carolina, but the curiosity she nurtured at Bucknell inspired her to revive the salt works.
“Bucknell instills a love of learning, and you have to love learning to start a business,” Bruns says. “I’ve had to learn a lot about chemistry and what happens during the evaporation process. Being 51, I’m on the back side of social media, but I’ve had to learn about it. Every day is a challenge, and I love it.”