Continue to Site

    How a Starbucks Employee Started an Ice Cream Sensation

  • Cofounder and CEO Kim Malek shares why Salt & Straw's community first, artisanal approach continues to gain momentum.

    Salt and Straw / STUART MULLENBERG
    "My idea was less about what was happening in the ice cream industry and more about what I thought an ice cream shop could be in a neighborhood," says Kim Malek.

    I started working at Starbucks when there were 30 stores, and when I left there were 3,000, so it was quite an incredible experience. When I lived in Portland in the mid to late ’90s, I was really struck by the community feeling and thought an ice cream shop would be a good way to reflect that. I started working on this idea in 1996 and finally was able to bring it to life in 2011, so it was a long time in the making.

    My cousin [and cofounder] Tyler heard I was starting this company and wanted to help. He had an ice cream maker from the Goodwill, and we started making ice cream in our kitchen. Fast-forward to 2015 and he was on Forbes’ 30 under 30 list. I always say I hold the short end of the stick because I manage landlord relationships and things like that while he’s making ice cream, but it’s a true partnership that works because we have such different expertise.

    My idea was less about what was happening in the ice cream industry and more about what I thought an ice cream shop could be in a neighborhood. It could be the place you run into your neighbors and spend time with friends and family. Tyler and I quickly realized this idea could be reflected through the ice cream flavors. Every single flavor that’s on our menu has a story behind it. As we grew, we actually created a menu for each city that was unique to that place.

    The most memorable experience from my time at Starbucks was when Howard Schultz came to our store meeting and told us about the future of the company: what we hoped to achieve, how we were going to do things differently, and how we were going to take care of our employees. When I wrote my business plan for Salt & Straw, that idea was central to what I wanted to create. I got feedback from folks I tried to get funding from, “Who do you think you are, Starbucks?” I told Howard Schultz that later, and he laughed and said he wished I had told him. I really believe you can create a business that is good first and foremost for the employees, which results in a successful platform for your company.


    What was your first job?

    I had applied for a bunch of jobs and got two, so I took both. One was at Fuddruckers and the other was at Herbergers Shoes. I would drive from one to the other and change clothes during the stoplights to try to get to work on time.

    "What’s your favorite flavor at Salt & Straw?

    I really love the Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper. It’s made with Oregon strawberries, which are red all the way through and super flavorful.

    "What is your favorite type of cuisine?

    I have three little kids, and our whole family eats sushi as much as we can.

    "What’s the best piece of advice you think restaurant leaders should hear?

    Don’t take people’s advice. I think it’s important to learn as much as you can from other people and study what worked and what didn’t work, but at the end of the day, it’s really important to stay in tune to what you believe to be right and true and to not lose that North Star.

    "What are some of your interests outside the business?

    I’m excited for the winter, which you don’t hear many people say in the ice cream business, but I love to ski. And also travel. Our last big trip was to Cambodia, and I’m excited to bring my kids out to see the world.