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Remaking The Pandemic Ice Cream Shop

Crowded lines and handmade flavors make way for social distancing and new ribboning machines.

Kim Malek is CEO and co-founder of Salt and Straw Ice Cream, a regional chain based out of Portland, Oregon.

Back in early March, we were on cloud nine. Things had literally never been better for the company. We manufacture all of our own ice cream in our own kitchens in Portland and LA. We had 21 shops up and down the West Coast. We were just getting ready to head into our spring and summer months. We change our menu every month, so we had some exciting plans for the summer. We had just announced that we were going to be expanding to the East Coast and Miami.

When the pandemic hit, we stopped everything and reworked our business model and all of our recipes and our kitchens. Manufacturing has come to be known as such a hot spot for the coronavirus. We were lucky to get out ahead of that and start from scratch. We took a breath and closed for about a month and a half. With our stores not up and running, we could reconfigure how we were making ice cream—what the recipes were, how many flavors we thought we could make, and social distancing for the teams working in the kitchen.

First of all, we went down to a menu of five flavors. Now we’re up to 12. That was just in terms of capacity, because it’s slower to manufacture by hand like we do. Secondly, we typically have different flavors in every city. But for the initial coronavirus relaunch, we went to one menu throughout the entire West Coast. So we cut back the number of products we were making. And then lastly, we picked the easier flavors. We have some ice cream flavors that require three or four people gathered around a small ice cream maker putting inclusions in. We couldn’t do that.

For example, almond brittle is one of our most beloved ice creams, and we can’t make that right now. We just took it off the menu. It took us a long time to be able to bring sea salt caramel ribbons back, because we have to have somebody standing there ribboning in the caramel. We couldn’t do that, because it would require two people standing next to each other. So instead, we ordered a piece of equipment for ribboning. It wouldn’t do exactly what we needed to do right off the shelf, which is why we never had used this equipment in the past. So we modified it, and then we worked with the manufacturer to modify it some more. Going back and forth, it’s almost to a place that it’s going to work for us. In some ways it’s going to be a silver lining coming out of this, because we’re able to automate some of these processes a little bit more.

After we reconstructed our kitchen in Portland, we were able to start opening stores again. In early May, we opened one store in LA and one in Portland to test how that would work. By the first couple of weeks of May, we opened the rest of them. We’ve been operating just as doorfront service. Just recently we’ve been able to put in all the protective equipment that we needed in our stores to allow people to come inside and order.

Photo: Courtesy Salt and Straw.

Salt and Straw is known for really long lines at our shops. As soon as we reopened, we knew we had to come up with a way for people to to order ahead if they didn’t want to wait in line. We always wanted to offer that, but it seemed really complicated and hard beforehand. But the pandemic gave us no choice. For a while, when our stores were first re-opening, the only way you could get ice cream was to preorder it through our website. Then we went back and added the ability to scoop for someone on demand. So we kind of rebuilt the business backwards.

All of our team members are wearing masks, and we’re only allowing customers inside if they wear masks across the board. We’ve added plexiglass in front of our dipping freezers. So for our team that’s scooping for customers, not only do we have double masks, but we also have plexi between everybody for extra protection. We’ve created waiting spaces so that people can socially distance while they’re in line. We’ve added additional positions in our shops where people manage the lines and the flow. You have to be allowed into the store and told where to stand. We give out masks if people don’t have them, so we’re not turning anybody away. And we have a very specific cleaning regiment that our team is executing on a half-hour basis throughout the stores.

We really appreciate the government’s requirements for everyone to be wearing masks. That’s really helpful for us, because we require it ourselves. It’s just much easier when we’re not putting our team members in the position where they have to be the ones to have those conversations with customers. The more that we can have consistent rules and regulations that are made really public, the better—so that restaurants aren’t put in the position to have to police and mandate this stuff on their own.

This may be stating the obvious, but anyone who was struggling before this, it’s taking them out at the knees. But we were really strong. If we can get back to where we were, we hope to be able to operate in a pretty similar fashion. In fact, I think we’ll be able to be even stronger coming out of this. We’re adding on some additional sales channels, where we’re able to sell ice cream beyond our retail stores. We make all of our own ice cream, so we’ve never been in a position to be able to focus on channels outside of our own stores because we’re so busy and it’s all-consuming.

Still, we’re operating at a fraction of where we were in terms of business. Along with everybody else, we’re experiencing pretty severe losses. We’re also having to invest thousands of dollars into improving our stores in the ways that are necessary to operate safely. So I think funding is going to be needed, especially as we see further shutdowns and restrictions. We’re all barely holding on. I don’t know how the industry is going to be able to make it if we get shut down again.