When we lived with my grandfather, I could always count on the prompt arrival of the ice cream truck every evening, five days a week. I would strain my ears to pick up the whirr of the diesel engine, followed closely by the sound of his bell, ringing loud and clear. It was a welcome distraction from math equations and a chance to catch up with our neighbors. Brought together over our common love for ice cream, the ritual of the ice cream truck offered the opportunity to exchange pleasantries and connect faces with the houses just down the street.
It’s this vision of community that inspired Kim Malek to open Salt and Straw, Portland’s first cow-to-cone scoop shop in the city’s Alberta Arts district. The name is a nod to 18th century origins of ice cream-making, when cream was churned in a tin pail packed with salt (to keep it cool) and straw (to insulate the pail from external temperatures).
“I’ve had this idea for a local, community-focused ice-cream shop since 1996,” shared Kim, who’s worked at Starbucks, Yahoo! and (RED) before starting Salt and Straw out of an ice cream cart this May.
“When you think of ice cream, fun and celebration come to mind. We want to use that as a springboard to build a community — not just around a shared love for ice cream, but also an appreciation of the ingredients we use and the people who produce it.”
Kim’s cousin Tyler Malek is the head ice cream maker and the creative mind behind flavors like Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbons and Pear and Blue Cheese. “I start with an idea, with what’s in season and tinker with it,” he said, when I asked about his process of recipe development. “There’s a lot of testing going on, all the time. Some flavors work perfectly, like our Lemon Basil Sorbet, but others, like Lavender and Rosemary, don’t do so well.”
Each Salt and Straw ice cream begins its journey at Lochmead Farms near Eugene, OR, where the dairy man reportedly sings opera to his cows to relax them. Once it reaches the Salt and Straw kitchen, it’s then mixed with strawberries and jam from Oregon Hill Farms, chocolate and cocoa nibs from Holy Kakow chocolate, or infused with Steve Smith Teamaker’s Big Hibiscus tea.
“At Salt and Straw we like to sit down with our suppliers and brainstorm flavor ideas featuring their ingredients. For this year’s Portland Beer Week, for instance, Tyler worked with local breweries to develop a new flavor featuring their brews for each day of the festival,” said Kim.
“We also work closely with Stumptown Coffee for our coffee ice cream where we feature a single origin coffee that changes throughout the year, depending on the coffee harvest in different parts of the world. Many of our customers don’t realize that coffee is a seasonal product, so we use the opportunity to tell them about coffee production and the farm that produces the beans we use.”
Four months after the first scoop out of their ice cream cart, the month-old store is rushing to cope with the long lines out the door, especially on weekends. But even in the sweltering afternoon sun, there’s no nastiness or impatience. Instead, there’s small talk about flavor choices, restaurant recommendations and goings-on in the city. Like most small businesses in Portland, Salt and Straw is a microcosm of the city’s attitude toward local businesses, grounded in the belief that working together to create a thriving local economy will, ultimately, benefit everyone else. And there’s hardly a better way to achieve that than through ice cream.
About the author: Danielle Tsi grew up in Singapore, a tiny, food-obsessed island on the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula, where every waking minute was spent thinking about what her next meal was going to be. Landing in the United States with her well-traveled Nikon, she turned her lifelong love affair with food into images and words on her blog, Beyond the Plate. When not behind the lens or at the stove, Danielle can be found on her yoga mat perfecting the headstand.