Kim Malek of Salt & Straw on Modernizing the Ice Cream Industry

The co-founder and CEO of Salt & Straw discusses organic storytelling, brand collaborations, remaining authentic during business expansion, and building back after tragedy.

learn more about Shawn P. Walchef

By Shawn P. Walchef

Key Takeaways

  • Ice Cream as a Storytelling Platform - It took a large leap of faith for Kim Malek to open the doors of Salt & Straw. Without much of an idea how things would go, the partnerships and organic collaborations that resulted proved that ice cream was the perfect medium for mutually beneficial storytelling.
  • Stay True to the Story - Every business dreams of scaling. Salt & Straw reached a high point when they received a placement in the Downtown Disney District. Though an obviously huge win for the brand, strict corporate laws contradicted the culture Kim Malek had created. However, Malek and company stood firm on their beliefs and ended up being change agents for businesses that followed.
  • Building Back After Tragedy - In 2022, Salt & Straw experienced a devastating fire. Luckily, all escaped without injury, but the soul of the business was bruised and safety was now in question. Kim Malek and other local business owners banded together to help improve safety measures for businesses across the city of Portland.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Kim Malek of Salt & Straw bet everything on the idea of a new type of ice cream shop — one that builds community and helps people, while innovating along the way.

Drawing inspiration from her time at Starbucks as it revolutionized the coffee experience, the Salt & Straw CEO and co-founder sought to do the same with her ice cream enterprise.

The cofounder and CEO of Salt & Straw had a front seat to what a true community can create as an employee of Starbucks during their early expansion stages.

"Just seeing the power of business to turn that on and a community and to make a difference in people's lives, it gave me that entrepreneurial bug that I never got rid of," the Salt & Straw CEO and cofounder says of her initial inspiration to Restaurant Influencers host Shawn Walchef of CaliBBQ Media.

Starting with just a big idea and very little knowledge of ice cream making or how to create a business around it, Kim Malek and her co-founder and cousin Tyler Malek went from driving around conducting taste tests and gathering feedback from local business owners, friends, and family to having dozens of Salt & Straw locations across the country.

For Kim Malek, Salt & Straw is much bigger than just ice cream. The company prides itself on "becoming a part of the community where we scoop".

One of the ways they do so is allowing the local artisans to shine through their flavors.

"As we started to get going, it was sort of an embarrassment of riches in terms of all these collaborations and people that came forth that we wanted to work with." remembers Malek. "It ended up resulting in using ice cream as a platform for storytelling. And it wasn't necessarily the intention when we started, but it became so central to everything that we were."

That organic storytelling and focus on hospitality played a role in materializing famous collaborations and investment from superstar Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and placement at Disneyland's Downtown Disney District.

The growth did not come without trial, though. With only four stores at the time, the CEO remembers being in a tense room when presenting her store to Disneyland due to, in their eyes, the lack of notoriety.

Tapping into the same grit and unwavering determination it took to cash in on her retirement and get a loan to open the first store, Malek pitched Disneyland with her heart and faith. She came away with the deal.

But that wasn't the end. At the time, Disney policy did not allow their workers to have visible tattoos, colorful hair, or piercings. That went directly against the inclusive environment that had been built at Salt & Straw when they opened their first shop in Portland, Oregon. Not easily deterred, they fought back.

"Being able to show up and be who you are and express yourself, it's so important to our brand," says Malek. After negotiations "we were the first brand in downtown Disneyland to be able to allow our team members to show up as who they were." Disney has since revamped the policy.

Telling amazing stories and remaining true is the foundation on which Salt & Straw was built. They are strategic in their growth and intentional in their operation. Even through a fire in 2022, Salt & Straw found a way to galvanize the community and, yet again, be a change agent for businesses to come.

Be sure to check out the entire Restaurant Influencers interview to hear how the dream of building a community sparked "the busiest ice cream shop in the world".



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Shawn P. Walchef

Shawn P. Walchef is the founder of Cali BBQ Media, podcast host, business coach, and proud dad. Since opening Cali BBQ in 2008, he has grown his San Diego restaurant and media company into a global brand using digital tools and smartphone storytelling. 

As a restaurateur who opened during the Great Recession, Shawn learned to use the power of the Internet to stay in business. During the Pandemic, Cali BBQ developed a scalable growth plan that is three times more profitable than the traditional full-service restaurant model.
Email to get in touch.

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