Longtime marketing professional Kim Malek opened Salt & Straw in Portland’s Alberta Arts District in 2011 and tapped cousin Tyler to make the ice cream. He dove right into his ice cream education, learning basic techniques at Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center and turning to surrounding farmers and food artisans for inspiration. The “farm to cone” approach seems to be working. The Alberta original continues to draw customers and in late April, they opened a second retail location in Northwest Portland. I met with Tyler on April 19 at Salt & Straw, and he shared insights into how Salt & Straw has achieved success.
What does the name Salt & Straw refer to?
It’s a nod to super old school ice cream making, where they’d take a churn and they’d pack it with sea salt and ice and then in the middle is this little churn where they’d churn the cream. Then afterwards, without freezers, they’d have to take that barrel of freshly churned ice cream and to freeze it, they’d put it in with more ice and salt and straw for an insulator. It’s kind of like an old school freezer…It’s fun because everything here is hand made in our kitchen. We basically make everything five gallons at a time, and we put a lot of love into every single batch, from making our candy and caramel to all the chocolates we put in there.
At what point did you know that you’d work with ice cream for a living?
It’s kind of serendipity. I was in culinary school talking to Kim, my cousin. Actually I’d just enrolled in culinary school. I’d gotten my degree in Chinese and Communications and Business already, and I was afraid that everything I ever learned before was just going to be…that my life was going to revolve around something that had gone in a completely wrong direction. I didn’t know where I was going, and I called Kim, and she was like, “I’m opening up an ice cream store.” She was kind of at the same point, and being able to come together at that same time, I agreed to make ice cream for her.
Have you had any mentors along the way?
Yeah. We started in the Food Innovation Center on the other side of the [Willamette] River. It’s run by Oregon State University. When we had the cart, I was making all the ice cream there, and there were quite a few food scientists there who were constantly able to help me with these different techniques. Sales slowly, steadily grew, as my skill level improved.
What does a Salt & Straw ice cream have to be?
Delicious. Really, the basics of it, is to work with really high butterfat. So 17% butterfat. Literally, we have to wash our machine off every couple times because it starts churning butter around the edges. We go in and scrape it off. We’re on the verge of churning butter, so we focus on really not churning much air into it. We use a gelato machine and we aim for about 30 – 40% overrun, where most ice creams are at 100 – 115% overrun. That’s just really significant. It’s a really dense and unctuous flavor. From there you can go in any direction of flavor you want.
What’s your top seller, and why do you think that’s the case?
This one right here, this is my personal favorite. [Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbons] It’s salted caramel, a sea salt ice cream with amber caramel ribbons in it. We burn the caramel here. I personally burn every single batch. Something about it, all the salt does is highlight the beauty of the cream, and we get our cream from Lochmead Dairy, just right outside of Salem, so it’s really fresh. They’re actually the only dairy near Portland that still owns their own cows. This one in particular, it is the essence of our flavors. This is the basics of our ice cream. From there, you can start adding flavors, but the base of it is salted caramel ice cream.
So who gets input when it comes to flavors that you serve?
It’s a huge collaboration, I think a citywide collaboration. We go to like our chocolate makers and we’ve got these ideas and, “We really want to work with you, but we don’t exactly know where it’s going to go.” They’re like, “I love chocolate like this, like this, like this. What if you did something like this?” All of a sudden we get challenges. David Briggs from Xocolatl de Davíd, for example, from here in town, he’s like, “Why don’t we do a riff off of a southern Italian breakfast, like olive oil, chocolate and sourdough bread. Why don’t you try making a sourdough ice cream?” That’s just like a key example. From there it’s like, “How do you make a sourdough ice cream?” I talked to brewers. We actually used a technique from a brewery to make a base.
Which brewery did you work with?
I’ve heard good things.
Their whole brewery is smaller than my kitchen. It’s crazy.
What kind of music do you like to listen to while you’re cooking or making ice cream?
It depends on the day, I suppose. This is “Buddy Holly” on Pandora. Whatever they come up with after that, we stick with the vibe. Yesterday was “Arcade Fire.” We kind of jump around.
What was the first batch of ice cream you ever made, and how did it turn out?
It was strawberry, just a straight strawberry ice cream. I put strawberries and cream and I actually got it from – he’s a legend in the dairy field in Oregon – his name’s Bud Haxby – he was here and we were just chatting. He’s like, “Let’s start mixing.” It was crazy. He was taking all these syrups and slowly mixing and tasting, and mixing and tasting, and he just put it in the machine. I was like, “You can do that?” So that’s how I make our ice cream from here on out. I mix a little and stir, and mix a little and stir, and we get a recipe. Something about that was just eye opening. Again, just being able to work in these environments, it’s amazing ice cream. It’s crazy.
How do you decide what else goes on the blackboard, other than ice cream?
A lot of it, you kind of want to base it off, if I were going to go to an ice cream shop, what do I crave? What is stereotypical ice cream? You have to have a root beer float, for example. You have to have a brownie sundae. So how do you make those better? A root beer float, in order to make that better, you use really, really good root beer. In this case, Crater Lake root beer is above and beyond some of the best I’ve had. One of our employees is a root beer connoisseur, so he’s got a list of like 50 different root beers from around the world that he’s rated.
A root beer sommelier?
Yeah, there you go. Crater Lake is quite high up there. Again, it’s what can we find around town? Pok Pok drinking vinegars, for example.
What would Salt & Straw be like in another city?
Listen, we’ve got our strawberries, which is Oregon strawberries. And the jam’s made by Oregon Hill Farms. We use a balsamic vinegar that’s made in Portland, Oregon. You can’t just take that and lift it and put it exactly somewhere else. We couldn’t just sell Oregon strawberry ice cream in New York, because it just doesn’t fit with our model. It would have to be a completely different menu, which is exciting in some ways and terrifying in others.