A Visit to Salt and Straw: Artisan Ice Cream in Portland, Oregon
Who: Kim and Tyler Malek – these two are cousins!
What: Salt and Straw, artisan ice cream
Where: Portland, Oregon
If you live in Portland, you know that Salt & Straw is really popular. What started as a small, hand–pushed ice cream cart has turned into a celebrated community hang out with a constant, gigantic line out the door—all within a year’s time. And their list of innovative and ridiculously seasonal flavors is about as long as their ever–present queue of excited customers.
Salt and Straw, located in northeast Portland (with a northwest location to open in just a few weeks) is an ice cream parlor serving up a dizzying array of hand–made flavors. All the ice cream starts with milk from Lochmead Dairy, where the cows are rumored to have opera sung to them by the lead farmer. From there, imaginative, local ingredients are stirred in with the utmost care by a small staff in a tiny kitchen.
Kim’s dream to start an ice cream shop sparked over 15 years ago. After moving back to Portland for love, her idea became a reality when her younger cousin Tyler approached her with tested flavors and a thorough proposal to create unique ice creams with top notch local ingredients. The team launched Salt and Straw about a week later and the neighborhood has been licking up sweet ice creams from waffle cones ever since. Their story is one of perseverance, collaboration with fellow food artisans, and passion to create a joyful spot for gathering.
Salt and Straw’s kitchen is well under 300 square feet, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in its ability to produce every possible morsel that winds up in one of the ice creams. This includes baking ricotta–frosted walnut cookies for their Meyer lemon ice cream, crafting salted caramel sauce to squirt onto the world’s most decadent banana split, or mincing candied lemon peel into ‘confetti’ for their mint chocolate chip flavor. That’s just what I saw in the singular afternoon I visited. This team and their small batch maker churn out about 5 gallons at a time nearly all day. Speaking of the team members, the employees I spoke with during my visit have been there since the shop opened in August of last year. How to manage with so much divine ice cream staring you down each day? One of them responded, “Kim (the founder) and I are both runners so it offsets the ice cream!” How many miles equals a sundae, I wonder…
The Secret Sauce
At the Salt and Straw, seasonal, local ingredients are the star of each ice cream flavor. Tyler develops and tests new flavors every month. With innovation comes a bit of failure, and they’ve had many misses to get to the balanced, nuanced flavors the shop produces. They also have surprise runaway hit flavors like the blue cheese and pear, which I’ll admit sounded awful to me, but upon sampling I couldn’t stop eating it. The salty richness counteracted with a silky, poached pear was too good to be true. It was odd, but enjoyable, then absolutely addictive. Perhaps this is part of Salt and Straw’s approach, to surprise us, delight us, then get us hooked.
The Business Plan
Salt and Straw defies logic. In a cloudy, somewhat cold city, with lots of rain and grey days, they are thriving and growing, with plans to open up a second location across town. Portlanders gather here even on the wettest, bone cold days and tuck into cones of ice cream. How does this happen? “My prayers have been answered!” says Kim. “I had no idea ice cream would be so popular in our dreary winters.” To their credit, Kim and Tyler work hard to keep things happening in the shop. During the colder months, Salt and Straw host wine and ice cream pairings, beer nights, and local chocolatiers making a few of the ingredients that are incorporated into the ice creams. About 30 people show up to these events to learn more about Portland artisan products and tasting new flavors.
Kim’s can–do attitude fueled her business’ success. When a Wall Street Journal reporter told her opening week (when she was still just a push cart near a coffee shop) that she could only write the story if Salt and Straw had national distribution, Kim said she could ship. She then figured out how to send her ice creams across the country (packed in dry ice and kraft paper) even though it wasn’t a part of the original business plan. Now shipped ice cream is a small piece of their equation. When popularity demanded a second location and the right spot came up in a neighborhood in northwest Portland (across town from her original location), she jumped at the opportunity. Investors are clamoring for Kim to open a New York locale; we can all hope for the best on that one!
It’s impossible to separate the community aspect and the ice cream when talking about Salt and Straw. The shop has such a cool environment; industrial stools, tall ceilings, lots of color, barn light fixtures, shelving made from reclaimed wood stocked with local candies, jams and assorted sundries and floor–to–ceiling windows all lend a contemporary yet established feel to the space. Kim and Tyler’s commitment to local purveyors and artisan food makers is integral to their company. Ice cream is their medium to explore oil, cheese, wine, tea, coffee, beer, honey, jams, salt, chocolate, and produce all created or grown within a very short distance of the shop. This collaborative spirit makes for very interesting flavors that celebrate the season and specific region of Oregon. Finding local goods and fellow artisans is part of what keeps the job exciting for Tyler and Kim. They both light up when speaking about each specific region, farm and goodie that they get their hands on.
Portland is the perfect city for Salt and Straw. With its revery for all things delicious and local, the city has embraced the ice cream parlor whole–heartedly. It seems as if the shop has always been on the thriving corner it occupies on NE Alberta St, even though Salt and Straw has been open less than a year!
6 Quick Questions for Kim Malek
What inspires your unique ice cream flavors?
Living in Oregon is all the inspiration we need! Meeting local bee keepers, olive growers, charcuterie houses, beer brewers, cheese makers…everywhere we go, we run into people and ingredients that are inspiring. Using ice cream as a sort of canvas to explore the best our region has to offer is fun, delicious and sometimes surprising.
Favorite online resources for the kitchen?
We get weekly emails from our local farms letting us know what is being harvested that week and what will be featured in the next month. Seeing pictures of the fresh edible flowers, the young basil shoots, and the first berries of the season is by far the greatest inspiration in our kitchen.
The one thing you can’t live without?
Our induction burners have seen the best of times and the worst of times. They do their magic, then get buried under the counter when our production team needs to sprawl. And definitely our Carpigiani Ice Cream Machine! During production days, I feel an odd sense of anxiety when I don’t hear our little small batch ice cream maker churning away.
If you could spend a day with anyone, who would it be and why?
Locally, the fellow who tends the cows at Lochmead Dairy where we get our cream from in Eugene. He’s rumored to sing opera to them and he’s supposed to be pretty good! On a national level, it would have to be Hillary Clinton. Her speech last year to the UN on LGBT rights has still left me speechless. It’s the human rights issue of our generation.
If you won a million dollars, what would you do with it?
Buy our Carpigiani ice cream maker a companion (maybe a pink ice cream machine) and donate the rest to ensure arts and music are a permanent part of Portland Public Schools.
If you were an ice cream flavor, which would you be and why?
Double Fold Vanilla — sweet, subtle, surprisingly good.
(Originally published April 12, 2012)
(Images: Leela Cyd Ross)