Kim and Tyler Malek are the owners of Salt & Straw in Portland, Oregon, where they serve up “farm-to-cone” ice creams using only the best local ingredients. Here, Kim tells us all about her ultimate combination, what she loves about ice cream, and the craziest flavors she’s ever made.
Tell us about your background and how you got started.
When I graduated college I got a job at Starbucks in Seattle. At that time it was a small company with only 30 stores. My parents actually felt really sorry for me because they didn’t think I got a very good job with this coffee company that no one had heard of. As Starbucks grew, I got a chance to be involved with some really exciting things. But I always missed the days when it was small and I knew the producers and customers. That sense of community is what really gets me jazzed. In 1996 I told a friend of mine that some day I wanted to open an ice cream shop in Portland, because I thought it would have that same sense of community around food.
In 2010, I was in the process of moving to New York City for the company I worked for. I was on a weekend visit to Portland and I met a guy in a bar, and it just totally changed the direction of my life. I ended up moving to Portland instead of New York, and he was the one who really pushed me to realize my dream of opening an ice cream shop.
At the same time, my cousin Tyler had been studying business in China and came home after a death in the family. To help everyone through the grieving process he started cooking a lot. Partway through that he realized that he didn’t want to go into business; he wanted to work in food. He found out that I was starting this company, so he dropped everything and moved to Portland to help me. He went to culinary school in the morning and worked on recipes and scooping ice cream at our cart in the afternoon and evenings. He makes the ice cream, and we’ve been working together since 2011, when we opened up on Alberta Street.
Why ice cream? What do you love about it?
Ice cream is ALL GOOD! It’s a great way to celebrate, create memories with friends and family and just take some time to enjoy life. Because it melts, you have to really sit down and savor it…there’s no saving it for later. You’ve got to be all in!
Why is summer the best time for ice cream?
There’s nothing like a warm summer evening glow and the sweet taste of your favorite ice cream. Life just feels good.
Do you incorporate seasonal flavors/ingredients into your ice cream?
We knew from the start that we wanted to work with the local farmers. But we quickly realized that the artisan scene in Portland was also really special, and not only could we work with the local dairy and strawberry farmers, but we could also work with local beer brewers and charcuterie houses and tea makers and honey collectors, and the list goes on. The collaborations became something we were known for kind of by accident, because we just kept meeting these artisans and wanting to make an ice cream with them. And we realized that when you’re in the collaboration process, you come up with a better product. People will often ask about our unusual flavors, and we say that it’s really about the people we meet and the artisans who have products we want to highlight through ice cream, which is a nice canvas to discover all of these other products.
What are some of the craziest ice cream combinations you’ve made?
The flavor that tends to really confound folks is probably our bone marrow with smoked cherries. But if you stop to think of it, the emulsified bone marrow texture plays an amazing role for the texture and Oregon is famous for our cherries…so the combo is a natural!
What’s your most popular flavor?
Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbons.We created this ice cream with Mark Bitterman, the owner and “selmelier” at The Meadow, the internationally renowned Portland salt shop. He actually wrote the book on salt, Salted, a James Beard Award winning cookbook. We use their Fleur de Sel, which is made in Guatemala from salt pans that are famed for supplying the Mayan Empire at the height of its power. We’ve topped it off by ribboning in hand-burned caramel that we make in house!
How has your local community been a part of your business?
We believe a strong business can’t exist without a strong community. So we work with the local PTA, and also with human rights and hunger issues. We think that giving back in a meaningful way creates a stronger foundation for us to success. And it’s naturally sustainable because you’re all working together to make it so.
Giving back is also about our staff. There’s nothing more important to me than our team, and they have surpassed my wildest dreams. People will often ask if I’m amazed that all this has happened, and what I’m amazed about is that these people who work at Salt & Straw have made this happen. My proudest moment was when, not quite a year after opening, we were able to offer health insurance, and we expanded a paid time off program. Beyond anything, our number one goal is to create a great place to work.