The Untold Truth Of Salt & Straw

Pear and blue cheese? Bone marrow and smoked cherries? While these ingredients may seem more fitting on a gourmet cheese board than spun into ice cream, Salt & Straw somehow nails it. The creamery, based in Portland, Oregon, was established in 2011 by cousins Kim and Tyler Malek, and draws locals and tourists alike with its out-of-the-box flavors and homemade, artisanal sensibilities. The shop embraces a "farm-to-cone" approach, using locally produced, organic ingredients (via The Oregonian). Add in the experimental fanfare, and it makes sense why lines at Salt & Straw are known to snake down the block. Even Oprah fell under its spell — O Magazine gave a shout-out to the shop's Arbequina Olive Oil flavor in 2012 (via Portland Monthly). 

Adventurous or classic, sweet or savory, Salt & Straw churns a little something for everyone. Ice cream traditionalists may balk at dill pickle sorbet or a fish sauce-infused caramel, but Salt & Straw's founders embrace their creativity and curiosity, and insist it's not just strangeness for the sake of it. "We don't do it because we want to be weird, we do it because we were inspired," CEO and co-founder, Kim Malek, told the Institute of Culinary Education. There's no doubt Salt & Straw is a sensation. But how did it become that way? Read on for the inside scoop on this beloved Portland institution.

Salt & Straw started as a pushcart in Portland

Salt & Straw actually got its start as a food cart before opening up a physical store. The founders ran into a dilemma when they learned the construction of their first brick-and-mortar shop had been delayed. Not wanting to squander any potential profits in the meantime, they bought a pushcart and opened for business in Northeast Portland (via The Oregonian).

As CEO Kim Malek recalled to Forbes, getting Salt & Straw off the ground required a healthy amount of teamwork. "Tyler would make ice cream in the morning and go to culinary school and then scoop in the evening. And I was scooping during the day," Malek said. There was also the unpredictable Portland weather to contend with. "It turned out to be the wettest summer on record in Portland. So we were standing outside when it was almost sleeting sideways, selling ice cream," she told Forbes. Portlanders may hate the rain, but apparently not enough to pass up a scoop of Honey Lavender ice cream. Word started to spread, publicity picked up, and Salt & Straw's quaint little cart soon became swamped by lines that would follow it to the flagship location and beyond. 

Prior to Salt & Straw, the CEO worked for Starbucks and Bono

As CEO, Kim Malek handles the business side of Salt & Straw. Prior to founding one of the most popular sweet shops in Portland, Malek worked for Starbucks. She got a job as a barista in college (via Forbes) before eventually landing a corporate role as director of Frappuccino (via Seattle Times). Malek says her time at Starbucks influenced her approach to her own business. "The respect that I was being given at my entry-level position made me feel like I was really being entrusted with the future of this company," she recalled to Forbes. "I knew that this people-centered idea was important."

Another influential move for Malek was joining RED, the charity founded by Bono to help fight AIDS, where she gained first-hand knowledge about navigating the nonprofit sector, as she explained on the Breakthrough Builders podcast. And as she detailed to Forbes, Malek cites the lessons she learned from Bono with helping her develop the sense of community that drives Salt & Straw. In the end, this unique combination of retail, marketing, and nonprofit experience helped Malek realize her ultimate dream: opening a community-centered ice cream shop. 

Salt & Straw's name pays tribute to ice cream

With its black and red letters and charming font, Salt & Straw's logo catches the eye immediately. But you might not realize it's an ice cream shop when you first encounter the name. So where exactly does Salt & Straw get its moniker? It seems enough people have wondered that over the years, because Salt & Straw takes the time to explain it on its website. The name Salt & Straw refers to the antiquated method of making ice cream. When it was first introduced in the United States, it was made by hand-churning cold salt water and cream in a bucket. Once the cream had frozen, the cold treat would be packed away in straw until it hardened all the way. So the name Salt & Straw is actually a cool callback to the frozen confection's origins, as well as a loving tribute to the art of ice cream. 

The founders of Salt & Straw recognize the name is a little obscure to the average consumer. "The first customer to know what it meant was someone who had toured Thomas Jefferson's property and seen how they made ice cream there," Kim Malek told The Oregonian. But don't worry — you don't have to be a history buff to enjoy the treasure trove of flavors that Salt & Straw has to offer. If anything, it's just the cherry on top.

Salt & Straw's founders had to learn how to make ice cream

The ice cream wizardry on display at Salt & Straw is baffling. So would you believe that neither of the founders had touched an ice cream maker prior to running the business? Tyler Malek has commented on his lack of experience to The Los Angeles Times, admitting he "had all these crazy ideas, but no idea what they actually meant in practice." To help his cousin achieve her long-held dream, Malek began teaching himself how to make ice cream. Per Salt & Straw's website, Tyler bought four used ice cream makers and brought them to Kim's basement, where he worked tirelessly to create recipes. Malek also networked with businesses and culinary experts around Portland to gain a deeper understanding of the frozen dessert. 

Finally, all his ideas started coming to life. In an excerpt from the "Salt & Straw Ice Cream Cookbook" (via Powell's), Tyler says he managed to conjure up 30 new recipes within a week of getting his hands on those ice cream makers. But he described his cousin as initially "reluctant" in response to the strange flavors he'd developed, including a coffee and bone marrow mixture. Regardless, Kim cast her doubts aside and watched as his knack for the frozen treat flourished, eventually naming Tyler the head ice cream maker at Salt & Straw. 

A unique trick makes Salt & Straw's ice cream super rich

There's a reason Salt & Straw's ice cream is so rich and luscious — it contains a lot of butterfat. Encyclopaedia Britannica defines butterfat as the naturally existing fat content in milk or cream. This substance lends ice cream its whipped, velvety texture. As Ice Cream Geek notes, not having enough butterfat in ice cream will render the texture frosty and sorbet-esque, but too much butterfat will create a gluey mass that's far from light on the tongue.

To be legally classified as such by the FDA, a scoop of ice cream has to feature at least 10% butterfat. Salt & Straw, never one for conformity, reportedly contains a whopping 17% in its standard ice cream base (via Pamplin Media). It definitely lies on the higher end of premium, achieving that perfect, hand-spun consistency all ice cream should have. To put this in perspective, Ice Cream Geek estimates that a pint of Ben & Jerry's likely has somewhere around 12% to 14% butterfat, while a homemade recipe features close to 20%.  

Ice cream is a science at Salt & Straw

Even during Salt & Straw's basement-dwelling days, science has always played a big role in developing new ice cream flavors. And as the head ice cream maker, Tyler Malek is the one putting his mad scientist tendencies to work. Since so much of his job revolves around experimentation, something that can go south quickly when it comes to food, it's imperative that he approaches ice cream in terms of its scientific properties. "If you can break down and understand why things work and don't work, you can push the limits on how you create and troubleshoot," Malek told The Los Angeles Times.

Having a solid foundation to work with distinguishes the clear successes from the flops, and for Salt & Straw, it's proven to be a winning formula. The main ingredients in Salt & Straw's ice cream base are milk, cream, and sugar (via NYT Cooking). It's through these components that the frozen sweet treat comes to life, with each ingredient serving a particular purpose in order to produce a consistently creamy, delicious dessert. As Malek explains to NYT Cooking, milk provides the water to help ice cream freeze; cream adds the necessary fat content; sugar adds flavor and also keeps the ice cream pliable enough for scooping. Salt & Straw's recipe also uses xanthan gum, which replaces eggs as a thickening agent with a much milder flavor. 

Salt & Straw's menu is constantly changing

Visitors can count on Salt & Straw to serve 36 flavors at a time — just don't expect them to stay the same. Although a dozen flavors, like Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbons and Double Fold Vanilla, hold permanent spots on the menu, the rest switch out on roughly a monthly basis. And each month's new flavors follow a theme. In an interview with Ventura Blvd, founder Kim Malek compared the concept to designing an issue of a magazine, adding that "we love collaborations, whether with local restaurants or students. It sparks creativity."

One might assume that a set theme could actually stifle inspiration and innovation, but it would seem that the opposite is true when it comes to Salt & Straw, where imaginations tend to run wild. One of the best examples is the Student Inventors Series, in which children's original stories were channeled into equally original ice cream flavors. Salt & Straw has produced a solid backlog of delicious combinations over the years — the creamery has concocted over 500 recipes since its founding in 2011 (via the Institute of Culinary Education). And those curious to try older varieties that are no longer on the menu can order from Salt & Straw's online "Flavor Vault," which contains past creations available in Value Pint Packs. 

Salt & Straw sources local ingredients

The term "farm-to-cone" may sound like it comes straight out of an episode of "Portlandia." Yet Salt & Straw, to its credit, has lived up to this quirky tagline from day one, exclusively using ingredients from local farms and businesses. The company also partners with a vast array of artisans to make its unique ice cream flavors, like Laurelwood Beer, Stumptown Coffee, and Holy Kakow Chocolate — and that's just in Oregon alone (via The Oregonian). 

From a business standpoint, shopping small pays off in big ways for the local economy. A study by the U.S. Small Business Administration finds that when $100 is spent at a small business, almost half of that money makes its way back into the community it came from. This is right on brand with Salt & Straw's artisanal ethos, and it also feeds the creativity infused into every flavor. As Kim Malek told QSR, working with talented craftspeople across all culinary mediums "became this way for us to collaborate with different people that we were inspired by and reflect that in our ice cream." 

Salt & Straw's ice cream is made in-house

Salt & Straw's unique approach to ice cream arguably takes the dessert to a new level, and it all starts right in the shop kitchen. All of the company's ice creams are made on-site every day. And as The Kitchn confirms, ice cream is constantly being churned in 5-gallon increments to guarantee every spoonful is fresh. Even the pints stashed in the freezers are hand-packed with care. 

The ice cream base isn't the only part that gets the small-batch treatment, either. Certainly, it's common for ice cream shops to advertise a house-made chocolate sauce or garnish every now and then. But at Salt & Straw, it's a habit, not a novelty. Nearly all the ingredients and toppings that make up the company's unique flavors are prepared by a fleet of backroom staff who manually fold them into every batch (via The Kitchn). 

Long lines are part of the experience

Don't expect a quick trip when swinging by Salt & Straw for a post-dinner treat. The lines are long, and as any write-up inevitably mentions, often trail out the door and around the block. It can take around an hour to step foot inside the shop (per The San Diego Union-Tribune). Even on dreary, gray days when rain is on the horizon, hoards of ice cream lovers will still camp out for an afternoon if it means getting their hands on a gourmet ice cream cone (via Seattle Times).

One explanation for the hold-up, as the San Diego Union-Tribune notes, is the time it takes for customers to sample the dizzying selection of flavors before choosing and making a purchase. This likely turns off some customers — after all, no one likes waiting in line for things — but for many, it seems the lively atmosphere of anticipation only adds to the experience. Kim Malek recalled feeling freaked out by all the foot traffic during Salt & Straw's pushcart days. But eventually, she saw the ice cream shop's potential as a hangout spot for socializing with family and friends. "It was all just reflective of the idea of being a great community gathering place. And that's what made me really happy," Malek confessed to Forbes.

Its mail-order business was a happy accident

While Salt & Straw ships its ice cream across the country, mail-order service was not initially part of its business plan. CEO Kim Malek told The Oregonian that a week after Salt & Straw opened up its pushcart back in 2011, the Wall Street Journal called about doing a story. However, as she explained to Forbes, there was one condition for publication: Salt & Straw needed a delivery service with a nationwide reach.

Admittedly, mailing frozen goods across state lines seems like a big ask for any small business, especially one operating out of a cart at the time. Regardless, Salt & Straw made the pivot within three weeks' time (via Forbes). Today, Salt & Straw ships to all 50 states, offering many of the flavors found in its shops. Customers can personalize their ice cream experience with variety packs, or sign up for Salt & Straw's subscription service to receive ice cream every month. 

Sustainability has always been a priority at Salt & Straw

Salt & Straw's community-oriented ethos goes hand in hand with environmental sustainability. Every Salt & Straw location is fully powered by renewable energy and provides biodegradable packaging, from napkins to utensils (via Pamplin Media). Even their sampling spoons, arguably one of the biggest sources of waste at any ice cream shop, are made from metal and reusable.

Perhaps the most notable effort in combatting waste was Salt & Straw's Rescued Food Series. The ice cream lineup, launched in the summer of 2017, refashioned leftover food scraps into innovative ice cream flavors, like Spent Grains & Bacon S'mores and Bourbon Distilled Cherries Ambrosia. Several nonprofits, including Urban Gleaners in Portland, Food Forward in Los Angeles, and Food Runners in San Francisco, participated in gathering the ingredients from regional farms and restaurants, and received a portion of the proceeds collected from the series. The whole initiative perfectly encapsulates Salt & Straw's small-batch ethos, thrifty disposition, and unyielding curiosity. 

Salt & Straw has attracted famous investors

For an ice cream shop of Salt & Straw's notoriety, it's only natural to attract some big names to the business. And this is exactly what's happened in recent years, starting with a major investment from a culinary kindred spirit. In 2017, Danny Meyer, the mastermind behind Shake Shack, invested in the ice cream brand through his Union Square Hospitality Group (via The Oregonian). Although the dollar amount wasn't divulged, CEO Kim Malek told the publication that she and co-founder Tyler retained majority control of the company, using the funds to enhance recruitment efforts and beef up their facilities.

Celebrities aren't immune from the allure of artisanal goodies, either. Not long after Meyer's move, the humble scoop shop garnered another investment, this time from Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. He became a stakeholder in Salt & Straw in 2019, alongside his business partner, Dany Garcia (via Fast Company), whose portfolio includes Teremana Small Batch Tequila and Under Armour. It probably goes without saying, but if The Rock is throwing money at you, then you know you're doing something right.

Salt & Straw is quickly expanding

Portland may be where Salt & Straw's story began, but rest assured, The City of Roses is far from the final chapter. Currently, there are 27 locations across the United States, and most of them are outside Oregon altogether. Salt & Straw shops have cropped up across the West Coast in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Diego, and the Bay Area. On the East Coast, you can get your Salt & Straw fix at two Miami locations. The brand also holds real estate at Disney resorts on both coasts. 

It's tempting for ice cream hopefuls to picture a Salt & Straw on every street corner in America, and the business partnerships in recent years certainly suggest further expansion could be on the radar. But it also depends on how big the brand itself wants to be. In 2017, CEO Kim Malek told The Oregonian, "I like to stay a little closer to home." But that was before shops opened up in Florida (via Restaurant Business). Furthermore, enjoying Cold Brew Coffee Cashew Praline at The Happiest Place on Earth is something we wouldn't have seen coming, either. At this point, there's nowhere for Salt & Straw to go but up.