Kim Malek, Salt & Straw Ice Cream: Building community through handcrafted ice cream
Today I interview Kim Malek, the CEO and visionary behind Salt & Straw Ice Cream and cofounder with her cousin Tyler. She is an alum of Pacific Lutheran University like me, and the first time I met her was in 2016 at a professional society lunch, when she was just beginning to expand outside of Portland.
We talk about how she has created an amazing, people-driven company with community at its core.
Out of college, Kim Malek started working for Starbucks in Seattle in 2002…when Starbucks had just 30 stores. When she left, they had 3,000 stores and counting.
“It was a pretty cool experience for me to see this entrepreneurial business turned into a real thing. I was there when we went public, and I had all kinds of incredible experiences there.”
After Starbucks she worked for a few other Fortune 500 companies. While working for RED, the company started by Bono to raise money for AIDS prevention in Africa, Kim was about to move to New York when she paid Portland a visit.
“I met a guy in a bar, which doesn't usually end well, but we're still together and we have three children. I moved to Portland instead and was able to realize this dream that I've had forever of opening an ice cream shop here.”
And Portland is extremely fortunate Kim made that decision. She teamed up with her cousin Tyler to start Salt & Straw, which has become known for small-batch, chef-driven ice cream, handmade using local ingredients. Did I mention that every flavor is delicious?
Honey Lavender, Salted, Malted, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Pear & Blue Cheese, Arbequina Olive Oil, Cold Brew Coffee Cashew Praline, vegan Marionberry Coconut Sherbet, Strawberry Honey Balsamic w/ Black Pepper…these are just some of the flavors you can sample at Salt & Straw.
One Yelp reviewer described Salt & Straw as:
“This is what happens when a mad scientist on LSD meets a purveyor of ice cream. Salt & Straw has got to have the most unique ice creams flavors out there.”
Salt & Straw is not just an ice cream store, though. It’s a community builder. Kim was drawn to Portland because it’s community focused, innovative, and collaborative.
“I could just clearly see an ice cream shop would be a good way to reflect that because you'd run into your friends and have that experience hanging out with your family. I really loved the creativity of food and flavor work we were doing at Starbucks, and I thought ice cream would be that on steroids…we could really go crazy on that front.”
Kim shares about her initial fears about starting her own business and how she shelved the ice cream idea for 15 years until she finally decided to take the plunge.
“I cashed in my 401k, sold my house, had a garage sale, maxed out my credit cards, and was able to scrap things together to open a little shop on Alberta.”
Not only is community being created in Salt & Straw’s long lines (they’ve even had some in-line marriage proposals and job offers!), but the employees create a spirit of hospitality and fun once you enter the store. You can try as many samples as you like before choosing a flavor. And Salt & Straw forms strong relationships with local schools and businesses, too.
Every year Salt & Straw partners with a local fourth-grade class at the elementary school closest to each shop. Tyler Malek visits the school to talk ice cream, and they host a competition to create new ice cream flavors.
“We pick five and then the proceeds go back to that local school to invest in that local community. And they even get to come in the store and see like how it's marketed and learn about the whole business process through ice cream, which is really fun. They come up with some wacky flavors!”
Salt & Straw’s website states:
“Using ice cream as a platform, we pioneer and start experiences that inspire and connect us all…We use our menu to shine the light on issues we care about.”
They use their revolving ice cream menu to focus on issues that matter, such as food waste.
“Tyler did a food waste series to shine a light on the fact that we throw away 40% of our food in the United States, but people around us are going hungry. And if we use that food, we could really make a big difference…ice cream is fun cause it's disarming. You can learn about this stuff in an unusual way.”
Kim has always been drawn to social justice, but eventually she realized she could incorporate that into business.
“As I formulated this idea over the years of Salt & Straw, it was really important to me to provide a community gathering space that felt safe and open to everyone. And to use the company to have a voice for different things.”
For example, Kim walks her talk by serving on boards of the Oregon Justice Center and the Avel Gordly Center for Healing. Her husband and three children are Black, so she feels especially passionate about Black Lives Matter.
Watch my interview with Kim on YouTube or listen to the podcast to hear more about Salt & Straw.
Next week on the Finding Fertile Ground podcast, I interview Gresh Harkless Jr., founder of CBNation and Blue 16 Media. He’ll talk about his experience as a Black man in the corporate world and how he built on obstacles like getting laid off multiple times to build a successful media company.
I alternate the Companies That Care podcast with my original podcast, Finding Fertile Ground, which shares personal stories of grit and resilience. On both my podcasts I strive to highlight voices from historically excluded populations, people who don't always get a platform.
I help professional services companies avoid BORING by making communications painless and boosting employee engagement, productivity, and brand recognition. I turn lackluster, jargon-filled, or technical prose into clear dynamic narrative. Look us up on fertilegroundcommunications.com.
As a podcaster for justice, I stand with my sisters from the Women of Color Podcasters Community. We are podcasters united to condemn the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and many others at the hands of police.
Fertile Ground Communications LLC is a certified women-owned business enterprise, disadvantaged business enterprise, and emerging small business.