This summer I have spent many of my weeks working at Salt & Straw. Salt & Straw is an ice cream store that started in Portland and over the past 8 years has been one of the most successful locally-owned ice cream stores in the country. The store I work at is one of the busiest ice cream stores in America. Since I started, I have learned a lot about how Salt & Straw runs its business, and over the next few days, I will be talking about some of them.
Today, let’s talk about how Salt & Straw stays relevant. Scrolling through Snapchat and Instagram you find a litany of food fads. Deep-fried ice cream stores. Pretzel ice cream bars. Burgers with grilled cheeses for buns. These are fads. They are silly, creative, and interesting for about 5 minutes. Rarely do fads like this stay relevant. In fact, if you were to tell me 8 years ago that there is this super popular ice cream store in Portland that sells crazy flavors like Pear and Blue Cheese or Fennel ice cream, I would assume that it was just a fad that in a couple weeks time would be irrelevant. This is because this is exactly what happened. Portland’s ice cream scene was once dominated by Ruby Jewel, a store that would regularly have lines out the door and around the block. But now, Jewel’s stores remain fairly empty. Occasionally there will be a line to the door at the downtown location, but it isn’t what it once was. It lost most of the traffic it once had.
So why is it that Salt & Straw has remained popular? I will be talking about many reasons for this, but first, let me talk about the product. The ice cream is delicious. That is definitely part of it. But beyond taste, the ice cream is beautiful. If you walk into the store and look behind the counter, you will see vibrant colors of deep reds, purples, whites with maroon swirls. The vats of ice cream are incredibly photogenic. Salt & Straw knows the beauty of its ice cream, and for this reason they keep it behind a short bar that allows anyone over 5’5 to peer over the panels and look at the wonderful colors and mixtures. Regularly, customers will come to the bar and point at the ice cream and ask to get a scoop or sample of ice cream they think looks cool. This is revolutionary. No longer are people choosing ice cream because they like the flavors. Now they are choosing it because of the way it looks. Why is this? Because while many people come to Salt & Straw for the flavor and taste, many of our customers come for the Snapchat and Instagramability of the ice cream. Salt & Straw has tapped into our need to share what we are doing all the time to our friends and family. When you go to Ben and Jerry’s you don’t take a Snapchat story of the Americone Dream. Yeah, it’s fine ice cream and you may get it for the taste. But at Salt & Straw, most of our scoops are accompanied by the customer placing it in front of the menu or the sign for a Snapchat.
The Instagramability has been picked up by many other Portland restaurants. Voodoo Donuts has remained popular for many years due to their Instagramability. Their bright pink boxes flood the internet. Their cream-filled donut that looks like a giant penis is constantly a social media favorite. Donuts with full strips of bacon on them are viral.
In a world where a selfie museum exists and every tourist’s trip to California is accompanied with an In-N-Out Snapchat story, food is no longer reliant solely on taste. Now the packaging can be the difference between a fad and a generational icon.