Ice cream is a staple of summer. It can also teach you about a city, if you get a scoop from the right place.
We learned this truth upon meeting Salt & Straw co-founder Kim Malek and visiting the inventive company’s first Los Angeles location that opened late last year. In between bites of street-food inspired flavors like Korean Fluffernutter and Green Corn Tamales, Kim shared with us how she got her start, where she finds inspiration for flavors, and, most importantly, why she’s serving up so much more than ice cream.
We’re sharing our full interview with Kim and how you, too, can get a taste of a city with a scoop, below.
Darling Magazine: Why ice cream? How did you get your start?
Kim: I’ve wanted to open an ice cream shop since 1996. I love great neighborhood places and I thought an ice cream shop would be the perfect place for folks to run into their neighbors, spend time with friends and family and just treat themselves to a good time.
When I started working on the idea to create Salt & Straw, my cousin Tyler had just moved home from studying business in China. He had decided he was on the wrong path in life and wanted to become a chef instead. He bought an ice cream maker at the Goodwill, started testing recipes and sending me ideas. Before I knew it, he had packed everything he owned into his Subaru, moved to Portland to live in my basement and was making ice cream in our kitchen to get the company started. We had a push cart on Alberta Street in the late spring of 2011 and then opened our first brick and mortar shop later that same summer.
DM: Was it difficult differentiating yourself (and establishing yourself) in such a brand-dominated industry?
Kim: There’s a lot of great ice cream out there, so we knew ours couldn’t just be like everything else. It had to be special. We set out to use ingredients from local farms, but quickly realized that ice cream is a great product to reflect the local neighborhoods where we’re located.
We work with local artisans and producers to tell the story of what’s happening in our city. From chocolate makers like Woodblock Chocolate and Compartes, to charcuterie houses like Olympic Provisions, to cheese makers like Rogue Creamery and breweries like Three Weavers – if there’s a story to tell about what’s happening in our community, we’d like to share it through ice cream. There’s a term in the wine world called terroir; to me, it boils down to having a taste of place. We like to think we have our own version of that wherever we make ice cream.
There’s a lot of great ice cream out there, so we knew ours couldn’t just be like everything else. It had to be special.
DM: What fears have you had to conquer in striving to stand out?
Kim: I’m not sure I’ve actually conquered my fears, but I’m working on them daily. We’ve been lucky to have a really warm reception from the communities where we’ve opened. Every morning I wake up and worry that today will be the day that no one shows up, so I go about earning our customers’ business each day. We do our best to be a generous brand and feel very honored that people choose to spend their time with us.
DM: Was there a moment where you weren’t sure you’d make it? How did you learn and grown from that moment?
Kim: I am not kidding when I say that I feel this way on a weekly basis. As a four-year-old company that has grown somewhat quickly and experienced enough success to make it seem dangerous to lose, I cannot help but feel the stakes are rather high.
One of my favorite quotes is “To those much success has been granted, much is expected.” We have an amazing team of talented people who are turning Salt & Straw into a company that is greater than I ever could’ve dreamed. I feel an incredible sense of responsibility to those people and the wonderful communities who have welcomed us with open arms.
DM: Where do you get inspiration for your flavors? Which have been the most fun for you?
Kim: We meet people almost everywhere we go who provide inspiration for new flavors. Customers and other collaborators are always suggesting new people that we can partner with.
The most fun projects have always been those where we’ve been fortunate to develop a personal relationship that also has an impact on our lives and the business. For instance, right now we are working on a tea series with Steven Smith Teas. The founder recently passed away and he was a creative and business mentor for all of us. Getting to work on a tea in his honor is something we could have never dreamed of happening.
DM: What’s been some of the most encouraging feedback that you’ve received from guests?
Kim: I find it interesting that the people who visit our stores remark over and over again that we made them feel special, that they felt it was the anti-rush experience, and that they use words like ‘feeling human’ to explain how we took care of them.
We often discuss how lucky we are to get to see lots of people every hour throughout our days. And you just never know what’s going on in someone’s life that’s brought them there in front of you. It could be a dad who only has his kids on the weekends and is going for ice cream, first dates or someone just treating themselves. So, we discuss how we can really slow down and connect with the person standing in front of us and honor that moment we get to spend together.
… there are always amazing stories of what happens in our lines: Job offers, marriage proposals, and the incredibly frequent occurrence of someone whispering when they go to pay, ”I’d like to buy his ice cream”…
We are certainly here to serve one-of-a-kind ice cream like Black Olive Brittle & Goat Cheese or Avocado & Strawberry Sherbet, but we are also here to provide some kindness. And although we really appreciate and are incredibly grateful for the lines of people who gather to get ice cream, that’s clearly not the only gauge for our success. Instead, the magic really happens between the people who gather there. When we meet as a team, there are always amazing stories of what happens in our lines: Job offers, marriage proposals, and the incredibly frequent occurrence of someone whispering when they go to pay, ”I’d like to buy his ice cream” as they motion to the person behind them. “We just met in line and they are…” fill in the blank: so nice, funny, having a hard day, visiting from out of town.
DM: What would most people be surprised to learn about the ice cream industry?
Kim: My favorite thing about ice cream is that it’s melting from the moment you get it. You must enjoy it now. There is no later.
DM: What’s the secret to scooping the perfect scoop?
Kim: It’s all in the back. You don’t want to use your wrist, because you’ll get injured. Plus, lots of stretching. It’s like a competitive sport to be scooping for a long line of people for hours. You cannot be too prepared.
DM: What are you excited to see Salt & Straw develop next?
Kim: With three shops in Portland, we were excited to open our first shop in Los Angeles. We re-created our menu there working with a local dairy and artisans, makers and farmers from Southern California. It’s been exciting to see how people respond.
Customers are having so much fun exploring their city through ice cream and learning about places like local distilleries, chocolate makers and doughnut bakeries that they didn’t know about. And the coolest part has been seeing these local partners start to collaborate with each other, so I am excited to see what else comes out of these creative minds. It’s all about community for us and seeing this come to life with these kinds of connections is really rewarding.
Salt and Straw is located at 240 N Larchmont Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90004. Visit before the end of June to try this month’s unique street food inspired flavors such as: Peking Duck Buns, Green Corn Tamales, Bratwursts & Mustard, Mole Rojo Flan and Papi’s Korean Fluffernutter.
Have you discovered Salt & Straw yet? Which flavor is your favorite?
Images via Milena Mallory