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In this episode of Spilled Salt, Kaari Stannard of Yes! Apples joins Maureen to discuss her entrepreneurial journey and how product validation and client feedback is integral to building a brand.

Kaari’s journey in the apple industry didn’t begin in the orchards but in an office, working as an accountant. 

As part of a small accounting firm, Kaari worked closely with family-run organizations and grew to appreciate the legacy of multigenerational businesses. When her stepfather revealed he was facing health issues, Kaari pivoted, from accountant to entrepreneur. 

Despite the hardships, Kaari took charge in 1999, purchasing the marketing company. The following years saw the sale of orchards and packing facilities, but Kaari retained ownership of the sales organization, shaping the future of Yes! Apples.

The evolution of Yes! Apples, from being a traditional sales company to a brand that directly connects with consumers. 

Another turning point came when Kaari decided to transform her sales company into something more – a brand. Yes! Apples emerged from the need to stand out in a crowded market. 

Kaari emphasizes the importance of building relationships, both with retailers and growers, as a foundation for success. With a vision to supply high-quality apples and a commitment to both consumers and growers, Yes! Apples became a major player in the produce business.

One unique aspect of Yes! Apples is its commitment to innovation. Kaari discusses the challenges of a crowded market, the importance of consumer feedback, and Kaari’s involvement in initiatives like the Grow-NY competition. 

Yes! Apples is working with Vivid Machines, introducing agritech in the orchard workflow. And the brand has ventured beyond the traditional produce aisle, collaborating with Avec Drinks to introduce a Fuji apple and cardamom mix, marking a foray into new and innovative spaces.

Kaari Stannard’s journey highlights the importance of adaptability, building strong relationships, and embracing innovation. 

As an entrepreneur, Kaari focuses on adding value to every segment of the supply chain and her investment in technology showcases a forward-thinking approach to challenges in the industry.

Transcript

This transcript has been edited from its original form to support readability.

Maureen Ballatori: I’m Maureen Ballatori and this is Spilled Salt, a podcast on the thrills and spills from the food, beverage and agriculture industries. 

Today’s guest is Kaari Stannard. She’s the president and CEO of Yes! Apples. And if you know me, you know I love a good family business. And so that’s exactly what this is. 

Kaari bought the business when it was a sales company from her stepfather years ago. And since then has really made a lot of changes in the direction that the company has gone. So introducing Yes! Apples as a consumer facing brand. 

What I love about the direction that today’s conversation went is that Kaari really talks about the importance of building trust, building your audience, building relationships with the growers that Yes! Apples is working with and the other ventures that she has invested in as well as talking about challenges in the industry across the board and some of what’s next for Kaari. Enjoy the conversation.

Maureen: Thank you for joining me today. I’m going to jump us right in. You have been with Yes! Apples for 26 years, but it wasn’t always called that. So if you can give us a little bit of the background where it started leading us up to today.

Kaari Stannard: Yes, it’s been a windy and a twisty tale, I’d say. So going back, I started actually not in the produce area. My stepfather started dating my mother when I was probably around 10 years old. He owned an apple company. He owned orchards in the east side of New York State, as well as a packing facility in Hudson, New York, and then the sales company.

I worked there during school breaks and that type of thing and said, oh no, the packing house is not for me. I’m going to go do something else. So I went off to college in Buffalo. I met my husband at that point in time, too, at college.

We decided to move to Atlanta, Georgia. I worked as a CPA. I got my CPA license, graduated in Accounting from the University of Buffalo. And I started working down there. 

I guess that’s kind of where family businesses piqued my interest because I was an auditor and I was in a large regional firm. So don’t think of KPMG or one of those. Though I think that now KPMG has gobbled it up. But back then it was a small local family auditing CPA firm. 

Anyhow, I worked in a lot of small businesses, auditing them and got really fascinated by the inner workings of small businesses and all the different family businesses that are out there, from making car parts for Saturn, which no longer exists, I don’t believe, but for Saturn cars, to you name it. 

When my stepfather asked me in 1996, 95, to come into the business, I jumped at it. My husband is also from upstate New York and we decided to move back to start working in the business and in the orchards with growers. We didn’t know a thing about apples, barely knew what a tree was.

I just really started working with growers and really loved it. I was going around with them, talking to spray consultants and scouts and, and you name it.

Sadly, in 1998, just about two and a half years after coming back, my stepfather confided in me that he had cancer, colon cancer, and it was very aggressive. 

So I purchased the marketing company in 1999. He died in 2000. And then, due to estate issues, families, etc., we sold off the orchard, sold off the packing facility, but I retained ownership of the sales organization.

Maureen: You’re using those terms interchangeably, right? Sales and marketing, you just called it the marketing firm.

Kaari: I did, you know, and I think what I want to refer to it more, Maureen, is as a sales company back then. Life was a bit simpler. There were few packaging companies. I can remember probably two different packaging companies. 

We had apples from New York and then we had private label Shaw’s or private label Hannaford’s or something along those lines. And we had limited varieties. So I call it more of a relationship transactional sales company back then than what we’re doing today with Yes! Apples. 

So I’ll refer to sales back in the early, early 2000s. When I got into that, I really had to jump right into the day to day. I had very little time to breathe. I had to make sure that I strengthened my relationships with what I perceived as my two customers, and that’s what I always talk to my team about.

It is part of our vision statement at Yes! Our vision is to supply highly flavored, wonderful textured, high quality, amazing service to our retailers/consumers. Bar none. That’s our vision. Very simple. One could understand that. 

But our other vision is to provide all those same services and information on food trends and pricing to our customer, the grower. 

Because in the state of New York, I am now a grower, but I wasn’t back then. In the state of New York, what we do-well, any state outside of Washington state where there are like 150 million growers compared to New York state’s 30 million, let’s say. Yeah, the gap is that large. So what we have to do to compete is put all these talented exceptional growers together, family farms together to get a mass and get right-sized so that we can compete.

Maureen: Oh wow, I did not realize that the gap was that great. Wow.

Kaari: With that size comes knowledge and comes sharing of data. So we have eight different packing facilities today and they really collaborate and share information just so we can compete.

Maureen: Before you get into more detail on Yes! Apples and the shift there from being a sales company to what you are today, elaborate for me a little bit on your relationships with your growers, because do you still, you don’t own orchards anymore and you’re just sourcing from grower partners?

Kaari: Just to step back, when I started back in the day-to-day, I also started building my team. I’ve got this exceptional team that is still with me. Most of my employees have been with me for 15 to20 years. It’s a long standing team. After I was able to do that, then I was able to invest in orchards. So I do have grower partners and I own about 250 acres in western New York.

But to get size again, we’ve got to build, because most of our growers have anywhere from 250 to a thousand acres, right? So those relationships have to be solid. And I believe them to be solid. 

I spent a lot of time working with those growers. It’s a relationship, right? It’s no different than dating your boyfriend. It’s getting to know them. It’s gaining that trust. And it’s years of proving yourself.

I do own interest in two packing facilities in which my partners are growers and I have three partner growers. So there’s four of us who own the 250 acres out in Orleans County.

Maureen: Gotcha. OK, great. All right, get us back on track then. You made those investments. You’re hyper focused on your customers. Continue us forward there in the timeline.

Kaari: Yes. Once I built my team, I was able to invest in the packing facilities, invest in the orchard. I also invested in a company called Fruit Forward and that’s a group of growers from New York and growers from Nova Scotia, Canada.

It’s an IP company, because back when all this was happening, you had the first of the new exciting varieties, which you’ll know and hopefully love, Honeycrisp. And so that was launching and was taking the world by stage and really gaining some real interest in the apple industry itself. 

With that came the proliferation of all these other crosses, Honeycrisp crosses and you name it. But what we were seeing in the East is that it doesn’t matter if you were a breeding company from Belgium or you were a breeding company from Germany or New Zealand, wherever you were located, you tended to go to Washington State because that’s where all the bushels were to do the testing.

We said, now, wait a minute, you really need to test in the East.

One of our big strengths and why we can compete so mightily against Washington State is that we are so close to the majority of the population in the United States. With our proximity to Florida, if you’ve got a team, you can easily go overnight. We are fresh. We are local. We are regional. So those are our strengths that we can really trade off of and serve us very well and rightly so.

Maureen: When you speak to testing, are you referring to testing the plants in the ground to see how they grow? 

Kaari: Yes, so we’re taking those varieties, we’re planting the trees, and we’re testing them because our area in New York State is so different from how they grow apples in Washington State, which is a desert. We’re very humid and wet and all those fun things that Mother Nature loves to throw our direction. 

We get different taste profiles in the same apple. We can get different coloring in the same apple. And bluntly, some things that may work in Washington may not work here and vice versa. So they are smart to test. And of course we also test and grow those great Cornell varieties, Snapdragon and Ruby Frost. 

Maureen: Are you doing any of the other new ones that have come out of Cornell? Cosmic Crisp or any of those?

Kaari: That’s a Washington State variety – Cosmic. We can’t grow that came out of the breeding program in Washington State. So they have that locked up with Washington State growers for I’m not even sure how many years, but it’s at least 10 before we could even grow it.

Maureen: Ah, interesting. So is that the same for Snapdragon and Ruby Frost too? Is that a New York State license?

Kaari: No, actually. They could potentially, and that’s not up to me, that’s up to the Crunch Time Apple Growers group. But yes, I believe there’s been some discussions with Washington State. I’m not on that board, so I’m not privy to those discussions. But yeah, a little bit different. We do grow other great varieties such as Evercrisp and Sweet Tango, two other phenomenal varieties.

Maureen: That makes sense.

I don’t want to go too much off on a tangent here, but I do think that it’s important to help listeners understand premium managed apple varieties, which is what you’re referring to.

I worked years ago on Snapdragon and Ruby Frost under Crunch Time Apple Growers, four or five years ago. I’m familiar with that concept from that relationship, but previously I hadn’t been. It was just a different apple in the store to me as a consumer. So can you speak to that a little bit, just defining premium managed apple variety and what that means?

Kaari: Yeah, there is a difference and it’s hard to communicate to consumers. Growers pay royalties to the IP holder, the intellectual property holder. In this case, as we’re talking about Snapdragon and RubyFrost, that’s Cornell. 

Cornell has put through all this work and time and expertise in crossing these varieties and getting this flavor and then providing them to us to grow them. But it comes at a cost. 

It can range for every new premium managed variety, each has a different royalty structure. I won’t get into any of the details there, but yes, it is different from what we call an open release. Honeycrisp was an open release on those lines.

Maureen: So back to orchards and packing facilities, Fruit Forward, and you’re continuing to grow the organization.

Kaari: I just want to put a plug to all those women owners out there who may be listening. The other thing that I did that was so important was I went out and tried to do something for myself. 

I said I need some leadership skills here as well. I was in class 12 of the United Leadership Program through United Fresh. It was at that point that not only did I learn a lot through their programs, but it was the first year that they had the most women at any given time, than years previous that. In years 11 down to one, the first year, they might’ve had one or two women. In my year, we had five, including myself. 

I’ve stayed connected with the women I met in that program. I literally just spent last weekend with them, catching up. 

You have to build that sound base. You have to build that cocoon of trust of who you can go to and who you can say, is this a crazy idea? Should I not be doing this? What do you know about, what is their reputation? You know, should they be trusted? It’s just so important. 

So I just wanted to put a plug not only for that program, it’s a great program. There’s other great programs out there to be found, but definitely find your people. Find your people.

Maureen: Totally. Find your people, couldn’t agree more. And every season we have a leadership coach that we interview on the podcast as well. Maria Kast is a leadership coach that I’ve worked with a lot over the years. I believe she was in season one and spoke to the advantage of learning to listen to yourself and what she calls your inner coach. 

I really 100 hundred percent subscribe to that concept of finding your people and your peers that you can confide in and rely on to be your kind of gut check when your inner coach, you know, is kind of not sure, right? That you need a sounding board. 

Kaari: So true. Absolutely. From there, it was building the team, Maureen. It was doing something for myself, like the leadership course we were talking about and building those relationships on the retail side as well as the grower side. 

And then came the pivot. 

As we were going through all these changes in the apple industry as a whole with these new varieties and it was getting so crowded. As I was talking to people in the grocery store, asking what variety do you like? And nine times out of 10, they say Red Delicious and you just want to scream. 

We were like, look at all these other great varieties. But you can also see from a consumer’s point of view, heck, from my own point of view, you go into a store and you’re like, what is that? I really have to look at that. It’s a bi-colored red. Well, there’s thousands of bi-colored reds on that shelf. 

And we’re struggling with it as an industry, retailers are struggling with it. Consumers are struggling with it. And so again, going back to building a strong team, on a freelance level, I was working with a great gal, Tenley Fitzgerald.

Tenley is just amazing. And she came from Fresh Direct. She was working at Blue Apron and she was doing a lot of the shopper marketing. And I said, I need you to come to my team because I need to cut through this noise and I don’t know how to do it myself. Bluntly. I just do not know how to do it.

Maureen: But you knew it had to be done, right? And even that is a unique thing to recognize that I’ve got to do something new and different here.

Kaari: Thank you for saying so. So, we brought her on and we said, what are we going to do? 

She and I and the team came up with Yes! Apples and we said, what we want to do is we want to build a brand.

There are very few brands that one can speak of in the world of produce. One could argue Chiquita, one could argue Dole, Driscoll’s is powerful. But New York apple sales, that’s not a brand. 

To a consumer, what is that? New York apple sales, it sounds like anything. So we came out with Yes! Apples, and what we wanted to do is we wanted to be able to talk directly to the consumer to the best of our ability.

Again, back to that trust, we wanted to build that trust with them. We wanted to acknowledge, yes, it’s confusing on the shelf and, yes, there’s a lot out here. If you pick up that Yes! Apple bag, or you pick up that Yes! Apple that’s loose with the peel sticker, it’s going to be a great eating experience. You’re going to be wowed and that’s what we try to do. 

We sometimes fail, of course, but we have a vehicle now that the consumers can write to us. And do they write! 

Maureen: Oh really? You get a lot of feedback?

Kaari: Yes, we do get feedback. We get ‘this was great’, ‘this was incredible’, we get things like, ‘I didn’t like that’. 

It just gives us feedback because we have traceability in our bag. We’ll go back to the consumer and we’ll say, can you just read me the traceability sticker? That ties right back to our packing shed. The packing shed can tie it right back to the day it was packed. And we can ask, what do your records show on that? What or where did we maybe fail here? What were you seeing?

It’s just a lot more accountability, but a brand also talks to the consumer.

It also allows us to do really cool things. For instance, back to the testing. So we do have a lot of these testing varieties that are unnamed. What we can do at each harvest is take out our nine pack Yes! Apples box. And we have a wonderful email list of consumers that are talking to us and are receiving these emails.

We’ll say to them, hey, we’ll send you a free box of apples. Will you fill out this questionnaire? And then the questionnaire lists all the attributes. What do you like about it? Down to funny things like, what would you name it? What comes to mind for a name? Do you think it’s too similar to what’s out there? Does it knock your socks off? 

Because, bluntly, you cannot bring another apple variety out unless it really knocks the socks off people. It has to be spectacular. 

These are not the early days of honeycrisp. So that’s something really exciting that we can do. And if you don’t have a brand, you can’t do that. 

It also allows us to be in places that other CPG products are. And it gets another consumer who might be looking for a new CPG product. So I’m referring to Pop Up Grocer. Have you ever seen Pop Up Grocer? 

Maureen: I don’t think so.

Kaari: They’re these cool little shops that like to pop up. And they’re often in New York City or Chicago or Austin, big cities. And it’s mostly cool CPG brands. Maybe it’s an organic offering, or maybe it’s a vegan offering or just cool different brands. 

Up to this date, I can’t say forever, but we’ve been the only produce item in the stores. So we’re putting our new varieties in there, the Snaps, the Evercrisp, the Sweet Tango. You can go in and just pick it up.

Is it selling cases upon cases of apples? No, it’s not truckloads, but it’s building awareness. That’s what we’re trying to do is build awareness and build that groundswell, hopefully, of interest.

When the consumer goes to their Walmarts of the world and their Costcos, we want them to say, why don’t you have Snapdragon, why don’t you have Evercrispt? And hopefully that gets reported back to home offices and then they start buying him and then you really get distribution.

Maureen: Yeah. I love that. 

The thing I want to point out for listeners and just bring back to you, too, that is so unique and important is the stress that you’re putting on building a relationship with your audience. 

To be able to have that email list of built-in consumers and engaging with them in an above and beyond kind of way is something that, even though a lot of brands understand the importance of that, they kind of fall short on understanding how to implement it. 

Whereas you’re saying I’ve got this list of engaged consumers, but how do I get feedback from them, right? Whereas you’re taking that all the way to say, we’re planning these test plots of these apples and we want feedback and we’re going to go to our audience.

I think sometimes brands make that more complicated than it needs to be. Just ask your audience.

What kind of volume are you sending out for those and what kind of response rate are you getting?

Kaari: For the samples, for the varieties, I think the last time we sent out, we sent out an apple variety that’s coming out of Australia. It’s currently called Saluna. And I think we sent out about 80 boxes. And I think our return rate of responses was around 50%. So it’s not 100, but it’s not 10, right? 

Maureen: It’s remarkable. You’re never going to get a hundred, right? Yeah, a 50% response rate is remarkable for that kind of thing. It’s really great.

Kaari: It’s great to hear it, because I know you’re absolutely in that field. So that was great. And Tenley too said, Kaari, it’s great, because I was confused as to why wouldn’t they answer the call for feedback? 

Maureen: Right, like you’re thinking, why isn’t it 100%? 

Kaari: Again, it’s about the grassroots. We’re trying to do things like the New York Apple Association sponsors the New York City Marathon, which I think is super cool.

We’ve tagged on to the Roadrunners Club. And so we’ll donate apples to them so that after their race, they can taste our apples and hopefully talk to their friends, right? Look at what I got, I got a free apple, you know? That type of thing to keep that up. 

 I’ll be wearing, just a plug here, Maureen, if you want to come cheer me on, I will be with my family running the New York City Marathon this November wearing all my Yes! Apples decked out swag that I’m sure Tenley will put me in. 

Maureen: Of course you will. Oh, that’s great. I love that. Good for you.

Kaari: It’s funny. And then I think I just want to say one other thing, one other great thing that we have done that is different and you couldn’t do without a brand is, have you heard of the Avec juices

Maureen: It was, you read my mind. That was the next question I was just going to ask you.

Kaari: They’re a non-alcohol drink, you don’t have to mix alcohol with them, you can drink them as is. They’re super cool and we partnered with them to do a Yes! Apples Fuji apple and cardamom mix. And it’s, you can find it at Sprouts right now and also at Wegmans

So that’s kind of cool. It’s putting us into an area of the grocery store where we can’t normally be. I get very excited talking about Yes! Apples.

Maureen: Talk more about that partnership. No, that’s great. Tell me more about the partnership with Avec Drinks. How did that come about? Who initiated that? What was your process there?

Kaari: That was Tenley seeking them out. She works, I believe, and I hope I don’t get this wrong, but she works with Circle Media to do a lot of our social media work that we do. 

That’s another way that we talk to our consumers is through a lot of different platforms, either Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and they were an awesome partner there. 

So she looped up with the founder, I believe, of Avec, and this all came to be. And we’ve now on our third juicing, so it’s going really well, and it’s super exciting to have that. Please, please go check it out.

Maureen: That’s fantastic. Glad to hear that it’s at Wegmans. I’ll look for that next time I’m in the store. 

I want to ask you also about something unique that you’re doing too. I talk a lot about the Grow-NY competition. Big fan of that as an initiative in the state of New York to attract more food and ag tech companies to the region. And you’re a judge. Can you speak to that experience? What’s that like?

Kaari: That was amazing. So I was approached about three years ago to do it. I’m on my second year of judging, just finished my second year. It’s through Cornell and, of course, through the State. And it’s just so interesting. I jumped at it. 

It’s all these new startups and it can be anything that benefits central New York, right? You’ve got to have jobs, you should solve a problem or have a solution for a problem potentially within the state. 

A lot of times the pitches are focused on dairy; we have such a big dairy industry. I was working with a company called Vivid Machines who is doing this wonderful work of counting apples and counting blossoms with their cameras. They won two years ago.

Maureen, what can I say about it? It’s just so interesting and such great work. I’m honored that they chose me and that I’ve been the judge and I’m coming back next year as well, so it’s really cool.

Maureen: That’s awesome. I love it. 

Tell me about challenges. You’re speaking to the ways that you’ve innovatively solved a lot of problems or challenges that you saw in the industry. You said it was getting so crowded with all these apples that were in the store. And so you decided to do something new and different. And then you worked with the team to solve that. 

What are some of the other challenges that you’re still seeing in the industry?

Kaari: A lot of my attention, again, very blessed that I have the team, is I’ve been shifting a lot of my day-to-day work over to others as it should be. And I’m focusing more and more of my time on larger strategic thinking. 

In the supply chain, we’re not totally vertically integrated just because of our model, because of our state. And within our state, I should say, we have four very diverse growing regions. You have Western New York, Central New York, the Champlain region and the Valley. And then the Valley can span anywhere from Albany down to Newburgh. So you’ve got all these different groups. It’s very important that every single segment of that supply chain adds value.

There can’t be any takers. There has to be a sharing around the chain or it will not work. So what I’m focused on right now as we go into more and more potentially of oversupply, we just have a lot of apples being grown now because growers have proliferated quite a few apples. 

So what we need to do is grow consumption. I believe we’re doing that with our good work with Yes! Apples and we’ll continue down that path in talking to our consumers. 

But we also need to get more efficient. So how do I basically impact the supply chain to get more efficient? What I mean by that is I’m focusing a lot on data. I’m investing money into our packing facility and into ERP systems, working on how we get better software into the packing facilities so that they’re operating more efficiently. 

Then that can flow into decreased packing charges, more money going back to the grower base. 

Recently, I’m working very closely with Vivid and we’re going to be doing New York Agri-Sales, investing in our growers and into their orchards so that they can use the Vivid system.

At blossom time they can scan the rows and figure out how much thinning they have to do. Thinning at blossom time is so important so that you don’t have to hand cut them later on because labor is so expensive.

We always had challenges. So I’m not going to say that back when I was terming the company a sales company, that we didn’t have challenges. Of course we did. They were just different. 

Now the challenges, because you’re in it, seem even mightier and bigger, but that’s the regulations and overtime rules. An escalating and never-seems-ending war for our H2A labor. It’s just non-stop. 

That’s strategically where I’m trying to work with my team and the growers and saying, what can I do? I can’t change the market, right? The apple market is very much dictated by simple economics, which is supply and demand. Very easy, very easy to understand. Hard to accept, very easy to understand. 

What else can I do? So it’s a lot of, it’s meetings, it’s talking you through, it’s saying, where can I add value? Because I want to be here forever. I have two girls that potentially come into the business, both at college now. I see a bright future and I need our grower base to be there right along with me. 

Maureen: I love how you’re thinking so creatively about solving some of those problems too. That it’s not, how can I directly solve the H2A labor problem? It’s how can I add efficiency that is going to help benefit that challenge later in the season. By leveraging equipment and technology like Vivid Machines to add earlier into the season. That’s going to benefit you down the line because you don’t have to think later on. 

Due to your deep understanding of the industry, you’re able to problem solve in a new and different way, which is just invaluable. You can’t teach that. That comes from years and years of experience in the industry. It’s something that new folks coming in can really deeply understand at that level. 

I think that’s another reason why family organizations are so great, too, because they teach that little by little throughout the process. 

Kaari: Absolutely, 100%. And it’s so great to see. A lot of our orchard partners have got the younger generation coming in and it’s just so exciting. You want that, you want that to continue. That’s what you want. That’s what you need and want.

Maureen: All right. Last question for you. What’s next? What’s next for Kari and Yes! Apples.

Kaari: Continue. Continue down the path. Really what’s on my mind and the forefront of my mind is the investment into gaining those efficiencies. So I’m going to continue down that path. 

On a personal level, hopefully not dying in the New York City Marathon. So maybe we could have another chat after November. I can tell you how I succeed. 

Maureen: A little post race update.

Kaari: Hopefully I’ll be watching my daughters, one’s graduating out of Villanova this year. She’s going to be doing investment banking in New York City, so proud to watch her grow and hopefully bring her back into the business. I should say not back, but into the business. 

And I have another daughter that’s a freshman at Wake Forest, so we’ll see where that takes her.

It’s also just continually building the team. I am always looking for great people with the same vision and passion for what we do. Bar none, the produce business is the best business on the planet. It certainly has given me such joy. Honestly, it’s not without its headaches, but so many opportunities and just great people. So, just to keep pushing on, as they say.

Maureen: Fantastic. I love it. Well, that, that you’re adding important value to the industry. And so thanks for all of your work and thanks for taking the time today for the conversation and sharing your story with the Spilled Salt crew.