Salt & Straw Founder Kim Malek on Creating Her Artisanal Ice Cream Empire
She’s a bona fide ice cream queen.
You simply can’t drive by the Salt & Straw ice cream shop in Studio City and not see a line. The time of day doesn’t matter. Neither does the weather. Head to Venice, and you’ll notice the same thing. People of all ages queue up to taste the multitude of gourmet mash-ups—from Honey Lavender to Marionberry Habanero. Now with 19 outposts along the West Coast, Salt & Straw’s Kim Malek sits down with VB editor Linda Grasso to reflect on her remarkable journey that began eight years ago.
How has working at Starbucks impacted the way you operate
S & S?
I started working at Starbucks in marketing in the ’90s and was there for 12 years. It was an incredible opportunity to learn how to run a business, as well as how to create a company around people, which was what Howard Shultz was doing back then. That people-first ethos is a core part of our identity at Salt & Straw.
Tell me about the early days.
I’d always dreamt of opening up an ice cream shop, and my cousin Tyler, who had recently enrolled in culinary school, decided to take a detour and pursue this dream with me. He bought an ice cream maker at Goodwill, moved into our basement and started experimenting with it, making recipes in our kitchen. The very first flavor he made was our signature Sea Salt ice cream. It has a ribbon of caramel running through it. It was clear right from the get-go that he possessed a talent for making ice cream.
So how soon did you open shop?
First, we got a little pushcart and started serving ice cream from that. It was a particularly wet year for Portland and we were standing outside in the rain a lot of the time, but it was a cool way to get to know the neighborhood.
We opened our first store in August 2011. I was catering a wedding and wasn’t there that day, but all of my friends had come to Portland for the opening. Suddenly I received a phone call from them saying, “Kim, you gotta get back here! It’s swamped!” My friends were literally working behind the counter. People in the community really showed up!
What were some of the first flavors?
We had my favorite flavor, Strawberry with Honey Balsamic & Black Pepper, which you can still find in our Portland, Seattle, and Downtown Disney District scoop shops. We also had one flavor that was a big flop: Berries & Baked Beans. We brought it back this summer as part of our Camping Series, which supported the National Park Foundation, and it was really well received. Tyler thought it would be great to resurrect our greatest failure and make it right.
“We love collaborations, whether with local restaurants or students. It sparks creativity.”
So do you try to shock customers with some of your flavors?
We never do anything to be crazy. Every four weeks we change our menu and approach it like writing a magazine, asking, “What is next month’s editorial going to be?” We love collaborations, whether with local restaurants or students. It sparks creativity.
While you were launching a business you adopted three kids. Wow.
I met my husband late in life and one day we looked at each other and said, “Oops, we forgot to have kids.” We tried to get pregnant, but it was not happening. My husband, who grew up in the foster care system, said he’d like to adopt, and honestly it was my dream too. I hadn’t brought it up because I assumed he’d want to have our own. So we adopted a 2-, 4- and 5-year-old.
How did you manage that while you were running a fast-growing business?
It was pretty scary when they first came home with us. I thought, “Oh god, how am I gonna do this?” But I’ve experienced that feeling a lot in my life. And like I did while opening our first couple of stores, I told myself, “I’m just going to take one step at a time.”
Share a bit about your husband.
My husband is a doctor. When we met I cautioned him a bit saying, “I work a lot.” He kind of laughed and said, “You’ll never work more than me.” And a couple of months into our relationship he said, “Wow, you work a lot!” He pitches in with the kids and house. And we both realize everything doesn’t have to be picture perfect all the time.
What skills do you think are responsible for your success?
I recently visited one of our stores in the Arts District in downtown LA and it was so much fun. I love the people part of the business. I like setting a vision and working side-by-side with people to bring it to life.
We recently rolled out more plant-based flavors, so the menus at all our scoop shops are now 20% vegan. We’re also finalizing our student inventors’ series for September, which is one that is very near and dear to my heart. Tyler creates flavors inspired by suggestions from local elementary school students, with proceeds benefiting those schools.
To hear more of Kim’s story, go to the SheSez with Linda Grasso podcast at shesez.com or wherever you listen