From cart to store front, Salt and Straw Ice Cream has become one of Portland’s leading ice cream shops. With lines out the door all year around, Kim Malek and her team has created an offering that has reached a national audience.
“We make really great ice cream that reflects the local community in a unique way,” Malek says.
After moving to Portland, leaving her executive role at Starbucks, Malek started forming an ice cream brand in her kitchen. At about the same time, her cousin Tyler Malek expressed interest in collaborating with her to create the perfect scoop. Now, Tyler runs the flavor creation and the two factories (one in LA, in in Portland) and Kim is the operations expert. Over the past five years, this duo has created an incredibly popular brand that attracts flocks of people from near and far.
“I like to call it a community gathering place. People talk about the lines but we have heard of people getting jobs in line or wedding proposals or buying scoops for strangers. [Salt and Straw has a] great sense of community. And the people that work here really try to foster that.”
Along with a sense that this is a destination or meeting place for a community, the flavors at Salt and Straw offer a different look at ice cream and what it means.
“Every flavor on our menu has a story behind it. There is generally a person that we met or collaborated with to create that flavor.”
When you go into a store, one side of the store has the counter where you purchase the ice cream from the “scoopers” and the other side is a display where you can buy all the products that are used to create the flavors in the ice cream
“We find that ice cream is a great canvas to reflect what is going on in the community. I am so passionate about these artisans. It is nice to introduce these artisans and share them with the customer. As we grow, they do too.”
But it is important to remember that the store we know today wasn’t always like this. In fact, Salt and Straw started as a cart on Alberta street.
“It has been an interesting progression because when we first started we didn’t have any plans to go beyond [a cart]. I cashed in all my savings and sold my house to get the money to start the company. We were just hoping to have some fun and not go out of business.”
The model of service at Salt and Straw is meant to replicate the service you would find at a fine restaurant. Just like going through a wine tasting, every ice cream on the menu has a story behind it that gives the ice cream a kind of personality. When Salt and Straw first opened, one flavor that got a lot of attention was bone marrow. Other seemingly odd flavors include sea urchin, mincemeat pie, and an assortment of bugs. Malek doesn’t see these flavors as strange, instead they tell a story. For example, balsamic and black pepper are flavors that are often seen together to compliment fruit desserts in Italy. So they made an ice cream to tell a story about a part of a culture and tradition.
“We don’t do it to be weird, we do it because there is a relationship or person or recipe we want to highlight.
Kim on customer service
We look for people who are unapologetically positive. You are waiting in line sometimes for hours on end so we look for people who see the glass half full and keep each other uplifted. We hired only ten percent of [applicants] last year. We are working really hard on our training program as well as development opportunities so people can go further in their career here and elsewhere. We also offer a benefits package that is a little more than double industry standards for a business our size.
The future of Salt and Straw
Salt and Straw recently announced that they will offer a new kind of ice cream experience in the new James Beard public market in Portland. Malek told me they did not have a finalized idea of what this store will look like but hopes to have it soon.
Salt and Straw is also expanding in California. They have one factory and one store in Los Angeles so far. The seasonal ice cream flavors in LA are different than the flavors found in Portland.
This story is the third story in a four part series about food in Portland.
Please note that I will be taking the first Saturday in January off. Meet me back here on January 9, 2016. Happy New Year and have a wonderful Holiday season.
Age: early 40’s
Family: Her partner Mike and three young children
Where did Kim grow up?: Billings, MT (Big Sky Country)
Hobbies: Skiing, running, travel
Fun Fact: Kim was the Montana state champ in Synchronized Swimming in middle school.
Enjoying two of Salt and Straw’s classic flavors: chocolate gooey brownie and sea salt with caramel ribbons.
Photograph courtesy of Aiden Williams