She Cashed in Her 401k and Sold Her House to Fund Her Dream. Now She Has Ice Cream Shops All Across the Country — Including Disney. Owner of Salt & Straw, Kim Malick, explains the ice cream shop's journey from a pushcart to a multi-location franchise.

By Emily Washcovick

Key Takeaways

  • Paying attention to local culture demonstrates care and intentionality behind your product and can contribute to building customer loyalty
  • Personalizing the customer service experience to your brand helps customers feel prioritized and engaged
  • Collaborating with other business owners in your industry can help you expand your business and your audience reach
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Courtesy of Salt & Straw

Salt & Straw, a West Coast ice cream hub, has scooped up delicious and unique flavors in Portland since 2011 and is now celebrating its expansion to the East Coast, namely Miami. As owner Kim Malick explained, integrating into Miami culture was about relying on established local businesses and tapping into local knowledge.

With multiple locations across the country, Salt & Straw isn't exactly a "small" business, but Kim didn't originally plan to have more than one location. In fact, she started with only a pushcart. Now, however, Salt & Straw has grown into a household name across the United States, bringing Kim closer to achieving her dream of creating more spaces to foster togetherness.

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

Growing unintentionally, naturally

Before founding Salt & Straw, Kim worked at Starbucks Coffee as an early employee, a formative role that gave her the experience of expanding a business on a large scale and creating a communal space that allowed patrons to interact with one another.

"There were 30 stores when I started and 3,000 when I left. So I was part of this little group that was figuring out how to grow the company and how to introduce the idea of a latte to people throughout the United States and throughout the world," Kim said. "I fell in love with just the entrepreneurial spirit of that and really this idea of a third place. It's not your home. It's not your office. It's this third place where you can spend time for yourself. And I thought an ice cream shop would be a great way to reflect that. You could run into your neighbors and spend time with friends and family and just meet people. So for me, that was the inspiration, that idea of community and reflecting that community spirit."

Related: Her Ice Cream Bike Side Hustle Became a $20K Income Stream

With a desire to create an ice cream shop that would both harness the spirit of the community around her and deliver "pure joy" through a classic dessert, Kim began to create a business plan and explore options for retail spaces within the Portland area. Despite knowing the challenges of being a small business owner all too well (her father had gone bankrupt running a small business), she persisted.

In the summer of 2011, Kim opened a pushcart to sell ice cream to locals. That August would see the very first storefront of Salt & Straw.

"I was sure no one would show up, [but] people really showed up to support us right out of the gates. It was really, really busy. We had to hire a bunch of people, and no one feels sorry for you when your problem is you're too busy. But it was crazy. I can remember setting my alarm just to get a couple hours of sleep and then rushing back to be there to scoop ice cream, and my cousin was making ice cream in the back," Kim explained.

Soon after, she and her team opened their second location, despite expansion not being in their original business plan.

"When we opened our first shop, we didn't have any money. I cashed in my 401k. I had a garage sale. I sold my house, maxed out my credit cards. We did everything to get that store open, and here it was, less than a year later: We want to open a second store."

Expanding thoughtfully, with respect to local culture and those who came before

Salt & Straw views each expansion as a collaboration between its hometown of Portland and the locations it expands to, rather than an "exportation" of its ice cream. According to Kim, this mindset helps Salt & Straw maintain its brand identity while simultaneously drawing upon the culture and flavor of new cities.

When opening the Miami location, Kim kept local culture and community top of mind—and for Miami locals, it resonated.

Yelp Regional Manager and Miami local Diandra Lamas praised Salt & Straw's adoption and respect for the area's culture.

"[What] stuck out about them to me is that they decided to do their announcement of their stores at Panther Coffee. When you talk about the timeline of local businesses being important in Miami, and when people started really caring about these local brands and what they were doing and the impact on the community, you have to talk about Panther Coffee. They were the first local coffee roasters here, and they have really paved the way for a lot of that inspiring community-driven outreach and innovation. So they did their event to meet them and try their ice cream there. I don't know many brands that are large that do that type of work.

Related: Why This Entrepreneur Who Took Over a 70-Year-Old Ice Cream Brand

"I'm born and raised in Miami, so I am always going to try to find the local ice cream shop, the local tattoo parlor, the local bar, because that's just what we do intrinsically as community managers. So it was kind of like a respect thing.

"They know the people that they're supposed to work with—and they know the people that have really built this runway for businesses to come in here and flourish like these local businesses that really hustled—and they're working with them. I thought that was amazing."

Integrating customer service into the culture of each new store

The sense of community is tangible within all Salt & Straw locations, according to Diandra, and, on top of the excellent customer service, is what keeps customers coming back again and again.

"My cousin Tyler, who makes all the ice cream, will say that the ice cream is only 49% of the experience, and 51% is when you come in and [receive what] we call 'giving a moment of full-face attention…' where we encourage people to spend just a little more time than you might think would be logical with each guest and connect with them in their own way while coming to work and being your best self, not a cookie cutter person," Kim said.

Kim and her team have created a product and experience that keeps customers returning all over the country. Salt & Straw's other keys to success include:

  • Letting employees' personalities shine. Chatting with Salt & Straw staff is an important part of the overall experience. The time they spend with customers enhances the feeling of community and helps people find an ice cream they'll love.
  • Embracing feedback. Kim reads and responds to online reviews to be part of the conversation about her business. She uses feedback as a tactical advantage to identify trends among customers, competitors, and her own stores.
  • Expanding with grace. When moving into Miami, Kim's team did their research on the local business scene and community to find the most natural way to introduce themselves, rather than just setting up shop without ingratiating themselves to locals.

Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Kim and Diandra and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.

Available on: Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pandora, and Soundcloud.

Emily Washcovick

Small Business Expert at Yelp

As Yelp’s Small Business Expert, Emily is meticulously focused on helping local business owners succeed and grow. Her expertise lies in customer engagement, reputation management, and all things digital marketing. Through speaking engagements and thought leadership, Emily shares industry insights that entrepreneurs in any business category can leverage for the growth and well-being of their businesses. She is also the host of Behind the Review, a podcast from Yelp and Entrepreneur Media, where each episode features conversations with a business owner and a reviewer about the story and lessons behind their interactions.

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