SALT & STRAW ice cream had a completely different flavor — many different flavors — when the Portland-based business opened in Seattle last year.
The candy-striped pint containers looked the same, as did the long lines, abundant free samples and the focus on creative local ingredients. Instead of Portland signatures like Oregon pears matched with Rogue Creamery blue cheese, though, visitors found Seattle-based treats based on local producers from Rachel’s Ginger Beer to Intrigue Chocolate to Ellenos Greek Yogurt.
It’s part of a paradoxical business quest for CEO Kim Malek and her cousin, head ice cream maker Tyler Malek: a business that grows widely and stays local.
“We don’t feel that’s been done before, not on a large scale. We’ve said we want to be the biggest small business in the country,” Tyler says. In each region (outlets also include Northern and Southern California), he collaborates with cheesemakers and chocolatiers, brewers and foragers and farmers, working to reflect each city back upon itself.
“We serve cream and sugar, right?” he says. “It’s a base, and a foundation to tell a lot of different stories.”
Salt & Straw’s own story has taken on the quality of Northwest legend. Kim is a former Seattleite who worked at Starbucks (official title at one point: Director of Frappucino) with Cupcake Royale’s Jody Hall before leaving her “safe mode,” cashing her 401(k) and starting Salt & Straw in 2011 as a Portland pushcart. Tyler had been studying in Asia, earned a business degree and was in culinary school when he heard his cousin’s plans. He said, “I want to make the ice cream!” Kim told me when the Seattle stores first opened in Ballard and on Capitol Hill. “I was like, ‘But you don’t know how to make ice cream!’ ”
As Tyler relates in the new “Salt & Straw Ice Cream Cookbook,” written with J.J. Goode (Clarkson Potter, $25), he promptly walked into Goodwill with $16 and walked out with four ice cream makers and a boatload of inspiration. Salt & Straw has gained fame and fans since for innovations like bone marrow and bourbon-smoked cherries, strawberry honey balsamic with black pepper, even a Halloween “creepy crawly critters” cone with chocolate-covered crickets and toffee-brittle mealworms.
In the cookbook, Tyler shares secrets about specific Salt & Straw flavors, making snickerdoodles with extra cream of tartar and baking soda so they’ll have the appropriate texture when frozen, steeping hops in vodka to “harness” the flavor of beer, and candying pear to intensify a delicate flavor that’s otherwise muffled by butterfat. (If you do want to put edible flowers in your ice cream, it’s handy to know that pansies and borage are “peppery and juicy” and don’t require extra prep work.)
But Tyler’s hope was also to show how fun and unintimidating ice cream can be at its best, how nailing a simple base recipe lets you express your own ideas the way he tries to personify a city.
“For me, I think ice cream is much more like a savory food than it is a baked good or pastry. It’s very free-form, and you can have a lot of fun with how you add ingredients and integrate textures and flavors and colors. I want to bring that sense of approachability to ice cream …” he says. “The reality is, it shouldn’t be that scary.”
For the Maleks, there’s nothing scary about flavors, just questions about the bigger nuts and bolts of a business that’s expanded widely since big-time restaurateur Danny Meyer invested in Salt & Straw in 2017. The most confounding test so far: being approached to open a branch at Disneyland.
“On the one hand, it was an incredible honor, and on the other hand, we had to question if this was going to fundamentally change who we are,” Kim says. They sent the Disney team their flavors (starting in 2019, at least 20% at all stores are vegan); pictures of their staffers (Disney is notoriously not keen on tattoos and piercings); and asked, “Is this what you really want?” After “soul-searching” on both sides, the store opened last year, unadulterated — and very successful.
“I think for both us and Disney, it’s been an eye-opener (on) how tastes and attitudes are changing about food more broadly … ” Kim says.
Ultimately, “We thought, ‘If we are going to do this, if we’re going to enter what some people might consider to be a really commercial endeavor, we’re going to prove you can do it in a different way.’ ”
Small or big, small and big, “We can use that platform for good.”