The “American Dream” as we know it is changing. This shift, spearheaded by a struggling economy, travel restrictions and remote work, has prompted many people to rethink their most basic values—whether that means quitting their nine-to-five or trading in their 2,000-square-foot home for an 11-foot camper van.
Either way, there seems to be a renewed interest in self-sufficiency and freedom. Much like how RVs inspired tiny living from the ‘50s to the ‘70s, the pandemic has encouraged modern-day nomads to revive mobile living in the 21st century.
New Jersey native, Chris Shashaty, renovated his first van nearly a decade ago while living out in California as a touring photographer. Unbeknownst to him at the time, what began as an attempt at a simpler life would later transition into his own booming business, Sequoia + Salt, where he’s now able to bring this minimalist, #vanlife reality to the Garden State.
As a camper van conversion company, the only requirement Sequoia + Salt asks is that you purchase the base vehicle yourself. From there, they’ll take care of the rest; their team handles everything from the aesthetics down to the engineering.
I recently spoke with Shashaty who shared what led to starting Sequoia + Salt in 2020, how his personal travels have inspired him, the importance of slowing down and more. Check out the full interview below.
You mentioned that #vanlife was something you had experienced before starting your own company. What made you initially want to hit the road?
About 10 years ago, I was living in California as a professional cinematographer and photographer. I was touring a lot with different bands, filming TV and living this sort of transient lifestyle—spending six to eight months out of the year in hotel rooms.
I came to this weird period of my life where my girlfriend (now wife) had to move back to New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy hit and destroyed her parents’ house. We had been living together in California for three years and created a whole life there, so I couldn’t just get up and leave.
One night while living in San Diego, I searched “rare camper” on Craigslist and saw this vintage Toyota camper for sale. The next day, I drained my bank account and bought the van. I had just got a new apartment, too, and didn’t have enough money to pay rent. So, I got my buddy to move into my bedroom that weekend and I lived in my camper outside of the apartment.
All of a sudden, I became this full-time nomad and for the next eight months, I had this obsession with campers and “living free”—knowing that I could get off the grid, explore and not owe anyone money. After almost a year of living on the road, I eventually drove my vehicle back to New Jersey to be with my girlfriend but never gave up on this idea of “freeness.” That’s what I’ve always been chasing.
I’m curious, did Sequoia + Salt start out of necessity, to fund your travels, or did you see a gap in the market that you wanted to fill?
Being a photographer out in California, I started a photobooth company when I moved back to New Jersey called Pop Shop Photobooth. We were doing around 100 weddings a year, which was pretty awesome, and I had this camper van that I used but also drove to all the events. Then, the pandemic hit, and it went from a ton of work to next to nothing because people were no longer able to congregate.
One night I ran into my buddy at a bar and he said, “Man, your camper is pretty cool, you should rent it on Outdoorsy.” I had never heard of it but, essentially, it’s like Airbnb but for campers. So, I went ahead and tried it and rented my van out for four months straight. At the time, it was obvious to me that there was a market for it. So, I took a swing, bought a new van fully funded on credit cards, built it myself and it sold within like five minutes. That’s when I knew this was even bigger than I thought.
That being said, #vanlife is an aesthetic as much as it is a mentality and way of life. Who or what inspires the style of your builds?
I wanted our vans to not be just one thing. I wanted the interior to be a combination of all the different places I’ve been, using a variety of tones and patterns. If you think about our name, for example, Sequoia was my favorite national park when I was living in my van. And Salt—we’re all a bunch of surfers, so the majority of the time we’re searching for different waves and exploring the coastline. Being from the Jersey Shore, we love the nautical, beach bungalow vibe.
How have you streamlined the build process for your clients?
During the early stages, we designed our own process for building our current model. I’ve lived in my van, I’ve had other vans and created all different styles. But for me, the layout that we landed on is the bee’s knees. It makes so much sense logistically—you can be stealth while also feeling super comfy. Because of this, we’re able to create a turnaround that’s achievable (between four and six weeks).
Now that we’re able to work at a faster, more efficient rate, we’re much more open to conversations about custom work. We’re going to be building out a Transit that has an interior shower. We’re also exploring pop tops and doing larger, more European-style campers.
What aspects of the current model are customizable?
In terms of add-ons within our current model, we have a bunch. For example, we can change the backsplash tile, the bed vinyl can be different, the seat cushions or interior can all be different colors.
Any recommendations for where to take a van trip in NJ or around the tri-state?
When I went up to the Adirondacks during peak season, the experience was surreal. I had never seen colors like that before. It was similar to how I felt when I visited Sequoia National Forest. When you finally get Upstate—especially being from where we’re from where everyone’s on top of each other—it’s really good to just give yourself a moment to sit quietly, listen to your surroundings and appreciate the moment. It helps to ground you.