Business People

Tyler Malek – Ice Cream Guru, Co-Owner of Salt & Straw

By PDX People

One of the great things about living in Portland Oregon over the last 10 years has been the wide variety of restaurants and dessert restaurants like Salt & Straw.

Started in 2011 by cousins Kim Malek and Tyler Malek, Salt & Straw first started out as a food cart on Alberta Street in Portland before opening their first “brick-and-mortar” location just three months later.

Today Salt & Straw is recognized as one of the top artisan ice cream brands in the United States since they have locations in Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles plus ice cream fans can also order delicious ice cream online from http://www.saltandstraw.com and have a pint delivered to their house, packed in dry ice so it’s as fresh as when you buy a scoop from one of their shops.

Tyler Malek

About Tyler Malek

Without a doubt, Salt & Straw is a co-venture, owned by Kim and Tyler Malek, but Tyler has often been described as the “brains” behind salt and straw because long Kim started the company, Tyler was conducting his own ice cream “experiments” from home and many of those experiments became the Salt & Straw flavors that fans know and love today.

Tall and lanky, the bespectacled 28-year-old is the official head ice cream maker and creative mastermind behind the flavors at Salt & Straw and has been on board since the company was founded by his cousin Kim Malek in 2011. The popular Portland, Ore.-based ice cream company has just opened its third Los Angeles location, in Studio City.

Tyler Malek finds inspiration for ice cream flavors in a variety of sources, including the Oregon Symphony Orchestra. “They came to our Portland kitchen last year and played, and we translated the music into flavors. I saw the musical notes and they read like a recipe,” says Malek. “One was a Bach piece. The way the flavors would transform and melt in your mouth for 1 1/2 minutes follows a particular 1 1/2-minute piece of music.”

To date, Salt & Straw has come up with more than 300 unique recipes, and Malek has played with ingredients as diverse as berries, chocolate and his grandmother’s almond brittle, as well as more unconventional flavorings such as sea urchin and fermented carrots.

Where to get ice cream and gelato in and around Los Angeles

Why ice cream? “You don’t need it — it’s fun,” says Malek. “But more importantly, you can tell whatever story you want on that frozen canvas.”

Malek originally studied Chinese and business, graduating from Western Washington University in 2010. He discovered his passion for blending flavors while studying in China and traveling throughout Vietnam and Cambodia and was enrolled in culinary school when his cousin told him about her dream of starting an ice cream business. He joined her in Portland, and Salt & Straw was born, first as a food cart, then with its first brick-and-mortar shop.

In the beginning, Malek knew nothing about the ice cream-making process. “I had all these crazy ideas, but no idea what they actually meant in practice.” He visited experts in various fields — including chocolatiers and beer brewers — to learn about their processes so he could translate the flavors into ice cream. “They were so open to sharing and helping me out. It’s that true cooperation that leads to all these great stories and flavors.”

While Salt & Straw has a selection of classic flavors it sells year-round, Malek is always coming up with new recipes and themed series. “I’ll start thinking about ideas a year in advance, and we come up with new flavors every four weeks. It’s that constant drumbeat.” For Malek, developing flavors is much like storytelling. “I’ve tried to go different routes, but I find it’s easiest to come up with a cohesive story in developing flavors. I like to look at it through themes.”

Inspiration comes from anywhere, be it the latest offerings at the farmer’s markets, the notion of time or a partnership with a chef. One of his first collaborations was with Michael Voltaggio when the chef came for a food festival in Portland. “He offered to send me some ice creams he’d done and I said, ‘No, let’s talk about the restaurant and your passions. What is the verbiage you use to explain that and how can we translate that in a scoop of ice cream?’” They ended up creating a loaded baked potato ice cream.

Named to Forbes 30 Under 30 List

Since launching Salt & Straw Tyler’s been the face of the company and artisan ice cream movement across the United States, including being named to the Forbes 30 under 30 list in 2015.

Besides becoming one of the most recognized ice cream companies in the United States, Salt & Straw also has gained a lot of recognition in recent years from politicians like former Vice President Joe Biden who enjoy stopping by their locations in Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles while on the campaign trail or if they are on a quick trip through town.

Biden, a noted ice cream lover, was in town Wednesday to campaign for Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who had been told the Vice President was a fan of ice cream and burgers.

“When we heard that, Sen. Merkley recommended they stop by Salt & Straw on the way to the airport,” said Jamal Raad, Merkley’s campaign spokesman. Raad said the Senator “used to live in the neighborhood,” but wasn’t sure whether Merkley had ever visited the shop before.

It was a good pick. While many politicians pause mid-campaign for ice cream, both for the all-American photo-op and to mingle with a carefully selected crowd of customers, Biden goes the extra mile. The Vice President has called himself “a genuine lover of ice cream” and seems to make time for frozen dairy products on every stop. There’s even a Tumblr page called Joe Biden Eats Ice Cream full of photos of, well, you guessed it.

A photo taken of Biden at Salt & Straw, dressed in his blue shirt, tie, and aviator glasses, licking his waffle cone while handing over a pair of $10 bills, has since gone viral, with versions still being posted under different captions today. According to owner Kim Malek, moments before that meme-ready photo was taken, Biden had asked for the “closest flavor to chocolate chip.”

Salt & Straw

What Makes Salt & Straw Different?

In a world of countless options, an ice cream fan who hasn’t tried any of Salt & Straws flavors would have to wonder what the company can offer them when compared to other global brands like Ben & Jerry’s.

Salt & Straw stands out from a long list of competitors because they excel at creating unique blends of farm-to-table ice cream, this means that when you try any of their wonderful flavors you’re going to know exactly what you’re putting in your body and you won’t be left questioning the ingredients.

After reading this article one of the many flavors that you should try is their Bourbon Distilled Cherries Ambrosia.

Made by steeping real Oregon cherries in aged small-batch whiskey, the spirit soaks up the juicy sweetness and deep color of the fruit. For this flavor, we’re using the cherries after this process, re-steeping the fruit in cream for a delicious non-dairy ice cream spiked with an extra creamy kick from Vegenaise rescued from Urban Gleaners.

Since opening, Salt & Straw has gained national media attention for its exotic ice cream flavors. Standout flavors, such as Bone Marrow with Bourbon Smoked Cherries and Arbequina Olive Oil, have served as some of the main reasons Salt and Straw has been included on lists of America’s best ice cream.

Flavors offered at the ice cream shop vary depending on the seasons and ingredient availability, as all main ingredients are locally sourced. A list of regular Salt and Straw flavors is as follows:

  • Double fold vanilla
  • Pear and blue cheese
  • Sea salt and caramel ribbons
  • Chocolate and gooey brownies
  • Strawberry balsamic and black pepper
  • Coffee and bourbon
  • Almond brittle and salted ganache
  • Freckled Woodblock chocolate

In 2015, Salt and Straw partnered each shop with different elementary schools to create flavors designed by children. Stop, Guac & Roll (avocado-vanilla ice cream with cinnamon-sugar-dusted fried tortillas) and Honey Bear (vanilla custard with chocolate honeycomb candy and edible glitter) were two of the flavors created.

Salt & Straw has become as essential to Portland iconography as a trip to Powell’s Books or wings at Pok Pok. People used to come here to hike or ski. Now, visitors arrive and say, “Take me to Salt & Straw!” Can ice cream be that good? At Salt & Straw’s best, its flavors are off the charts; the worst evoke your first breakfast-in-bed for Mom. But in fascinating ways, the company transcends its humble frozen medium. With no food experience, the Maleks set out to create an ice cream store informed by a charitable bent and a “farm-to-cone” cry straight from the foodie cliché handbook. In an act of accidental brilliance, they unleashed something more: a new kind of ice cream entirely, with collaboration at the heart of its formula, bundling all the happiness of Portland in a fresh-made cone with a vanilla perfume that grabs you a block away. 

 These days, their menu reads like a cheat sheet to Portland’s food world: Salt & Straw pulls in local chefs, bartenders, bakers, brewers, coffee roasters, and chocolatiers to guest-star in ever-changing collaborative creations. What grows here, literally and spiritually, churns through these flavors: the entrepreneurial spirit, love of brazen flavors, pet charities, an almost parody-level local pride. (“Fresh-picked dandelions” featured recently. Is there another kind?) Even black truffles get into the act, scrounged from beneath the earth to lend a taste of Oregon’s spooky woods, frozen in cream. 

Salt & Straw has transplanted the semimystical idea of terroir—that every place has a unique flavor that springs from its soil and environment, typically expressed through wine—into an ice cream cone.

Passionate About the Salt & Straw Brand

Tyler Malek is certainly passionate about the Salt & Straw brand and every new flavor that he comes up with continues to show his commitment to keeping his company on the top of the minds of ice cream lovers in Portland Oregon and across the United States.

He didn’t start out with the desire to manage an ice cream company though, Tyler completed his business degree, studied abroad in Asia and was considering enrolling in culinary school when he saw a post on Facebook from his cousin Kim that she was considering moving back to Portland Oregon.

Kim was in her late thirties at the time and after having a long, successful career with Starbucks she was ready to launch her own business in Portland when Tyler reconnected with her.

Kim Malek – Co Owner – Salt & Straw

From Kim:

Our story is part luck, part strategy and part love (for ice cream, family, local foods, and other stuff we can’t mention here). I (Kim) have been wanting to open an ice cream scoop shop since 1996. I thought it would be nice to have a local spot where you could run into your neighbors, celebrate with your family, reward yourself…whatever! And I love exploring fun, interesting new flavors. After toiling away in safe mode working for several amazing Fortune 500 businesses, I moved back to Portland for love and found the window of opportunity and support that I’d been lacking to jump start my idea.

In the meantime, my cousin Tyler had been studying in China and traveling in Asia. He completed his business degree and had just announced to the family that he was going to enroll in Culinary School. I actually saw a posting on Facebook that he was considering moving to Portland and phoned him up…not even knowing about his plans! We traded stories and updated each other – coming to realize we are on similar paths by coincidence. Next thing I knew, I was getting reports from Tyler regarding ice cream tests he was running with his friends and family as tasters. He had a million ideas and wanted to join me in this crazy idea. How could I resist? He literally dropped what he was doing, loaded up his car and drove to Portland from Seattle to start work as our head ice cream maker the very next day. I would probably be somewhere rocking back and forth in a corner without him. He’s amazingly talented, super smart, hardworking, and quite possibly the nicest person ever.

So…I cashed in my 401K, signed a lease, created a custom push cart, and spent days and days in Sarah Masoni’s kitchen (head of R &D at the Oregon Food Innovation Center) creating ice cream recipes. And now, here we are.

We’re hoping to create the kind of company that’s fun to support, work for, and partner with. We’re about building strong local community – both in the neighborhoods where we do business and by purchasing as many local products as possible (to keep our money in Oregon and help create stronger local economies).

Moon over PDX - photo by @juststevv

Moon over PDX – photo by @juststevv

Passionate About Portland’s Food Scene

When he’s not innovating or creating new flavors for Salt & Straw in their R&D “dungeon” one of the top questions that his fans want to know is where does Tyler Malek dine out in Portland Oregon?

I love how supportive the food community in Portland is. Every cook in Portland is consistently going out on a limb trying to create something new, memorable and delicious. I love that the food scene is conducive to this creativity and that customers appreciate both when you get it right AND when you get something wrong.

Name the top restaurants that you think every visitor in Portland should try. 

AviaryBollywood TheaterSunshine Tavern.

What’s your favorite neighborhood to dine out at?

I live in NE Portland and love going to Free House on 15th and Fremont. Their back patio is so perfect to bring your dog to, sit with drinks and relax!

Since it’s Portland, we have to ask: what’s your favorite food truck?

I LOVE a lot of food trucks! Actually, we’re currently working with five different food carts for a special ice cream menu. Right now, I’ve been jamming on lefse roll-ups from Viking Soul Food

Aviary, 1733 NE Alberta Street (Alberta Arts); French/Asian, dinner only Monday-Saturday.

Bollywood Theater, 2039 NE Alberta Street (Alberta Arts); Indian, lunch, and dinner daily.
Second location: 3010 SE Division Street (Richmond); lunch and dinner daily.

Sunshine Tavern, 3111 SE Division Street (Richmond); American, lunch Saturday-Sunday, dinner Tuesday-Sunday.

Free House, 1325 NE Fremont Street (Sabin); bar, open daily.

Viking Soul Food, 4262 SE Belmont Street (Sunnyside); Scandinavian, lunch and dinner (if not sold out) Wednesday-Sunday, closed Monday-Tuesday.

What’s Next For Tyler Malek And Salt & Straw?

Since opening Salt & Straw in 2011 Tyler Malek and Salt & Straw have literally created almost every possible flavor that one can imagine should be made into ice cream and he’s literally created a following everywhere he goes with fans wondering what he’s going to do next.

Case in point: the truffle gummi bears that topped a tri-truffle sundae at the Oregon Truffle Festival’s Walk on the Wild Side event last Friday. For the sundae, co-owner/mastermind/Forbes wunderkind Tyler Malek layered vanilla ice cream with black truffles. He then drizzled scoops of it, and his popular Woodblock Chocolate ice cream, with white chocolate truffle “magic shell,” and topped that with white truffle-infused gummi bears.

That’s right. He made his own gummi bears.

To make them, he created molds by hot-gluing Haribo gummi bears to the back of a baking sheet and pressing them into another baking sheet filled with cornstarch. Malek says he insisted on using Haribo Gold-Bears, with their teeny belly buttons, because they are the “gold-standard.”

Who Inspires Tyler Malek?

Like Picasso and all other types of artists who create on a daily basis, fans of Tyler Malek want to know more about the co-owner of Salt & Straw plus what inspires him on a regular basis.

Foodable: What’s the first meal (that you can recall) that changed your life?

Tyler Malek: When I was ten I spent the summer with my grandparents in Valier, Montana (aka my cheap dad’s idea of summer camp). After tactful pleading with my grandma for creative control of her oven, she let me build the most epic cheesecake of my life. Imagine, twenty pounds; filled to the brim with baked and sugared cream cheese, loaded with fruits cut in the shape of flowers and a plethora of homemade jams. It was completely over the top and took us two weeks to eat but, to this day, one of the best things I’ve ever made.

Foodable: Who is one person that you would love to cook for (or in this case, serve) that you haven’t already?

TM: Very tough… I love this trend towards these “supper clubs” because hanging out and cooking for my friends and family is pretty much the best thing in the world.

Foodable: Who is your culinary mentor?

TM: When we first started Salt & Straw in a little food cart, I was making all of our ice cream in a kitchen run by Oregon State University, called the Food Innovation Center. While there, I got to work with some of the best food scientists in the country. I learned a lot from Sarah Masoni, someone who has personally had a hand in incubating most of the great food companies in Oregon.

Foodable: Where is your favorite restaurant to eat at when you aren’t working?

TM: Yum, I love eating at Burgerville here in Portland. They have worked so hard on building a business that takes care of the food community and farmers around them. They also have pretty bomb.com fish n’ chips.

Foodable: One ingredient you could not live without?

TM: Oh easy! Cream & Sugar.

Foodable: What’s the most important lesson you learned (good or bad) in your first year of running a restaurant?

TM: In our first year of running Salt & Straw, the most important thing we learned was to be kind to vendors and contractors. When you go out of your way to take care of your partners (i.e. refrigeration mechanics), they’ll go out of their way to take care of you (i.e. come in at midnight on a Sunday when you call them panicking that all of our ice cream is melting!)

Salt & Straw can be found in various locations around Portland Oregon: 838 NW 23rd Ave, 3345 SE Division St, 2035 NE Alberta St, 126 SW 2nd Ave and various locations in San Francisco, Los Angeles CA and of course you can order their ice cream online at saltandstraw.com

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