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Slimming Down To The Soul Of Ice Cream

Cut to the bone by the pandemic, a West Coast ice cream shop roars back to chill in Miami.

Tyler Malek is co-founder and head ice cream maker of Salt and Straw, a chain of ice cream shops that started up in Portland, Oregon, then spread along the West Coast, and now has opened two locations in Miami. See our previous interview with Tyler’s cofounder and cousin Kim Malek, CEO of Salt and Straw.

By the end of March 2020, over the course of two weeks, we had slimmed down from 600 employees to 12. It was horrible. A year alter, we’ve officially hired back about 600, and we’re avidly hiring a lot more. We’re fighting for them. We need great people.

We’re getting ready for the summer and going back to a little bit of normalcy. We feel so ridiculously lucky to be here and to have the customers that we do. They’re understanding about the growing pains—it’s like we’ve started a company from scratch over the last year, and it’s been really, really hard. But I feel so honored that we’re here.

And we’re opening in Miami. That didn’t even seem feasible just six months ago. We chose that location well before we even heard of COVID. We’ve been working on this for almost three years now. That obviously starts with real estate, but the product creation happened concurrently. Kim and I were both on the street in Miami looking for real estate while we were also looking for great artisan partners and ingredients and flavor inspirations. So it’s been a long process.

Tyler Malek. Photo: Courtesy Salt and Straw.

The pandemic has completely changed the world. It changed even what we’re doing with this opening. On the West Coast, and especially in LA, it’s like trial by fire. We’ve placed some of the strongest restrictions on ourselves to make sure that our team is safe and our customers are safe. And we’ve been able to replicate those conditions really easily in Miami. Some of the laws themselves are pretty strict, but we go 10 steps further because that’s what we do.

For us, one of the hardest things straight out the gate was figuring out what we were willing to give up, and what we weren’t. We had a lot of sacred cows. Just 12 months ago, I would have said that there’s no reason to stay open if we can’t actually serve the ice cream to people, for example, or we can’t serve it in craft containers. We were in our board meeting in March or April of 2020 with Danny Meyer. He was like, “This is going to be hard for all of you. There are going to be some things that are just wildly precious, and you’ll get those back, but it might take a couple of years. You’re going to have to slim it down to all the way to—what is your soul?”

We have monthly flavor rollouts—we call them theater flavors. I’ve always been inspired by Broadway shows, how you have this excitement leading up to the show and people waiting in line for it. We treat our flavors very similarly. And we never lost that. Never did we even miss a month of flavor launches.

But tastings are something that we did lose. We’re trying to start those again in the summer when things have calmed down. We’ve gone over a year without tastings, which I would have said was the heart and soul of Salt and Straw—coming in and spending 15 or 20 minutes tasting all the flavors, and learning about the ingredients, and then you end up buying salted caramel or vanilla ice cream. That experience is the epitome of Salt and Straw to me. You’re paying for way more than just the ice cream.

Photo: Courtesy Salt and Straw.

Our customers and our team have been so understanding. When we first closed, we kept our e-commerce channel open. We ship ice cream from our kitchen, and we had some leftover ice cream when we closed. Literally overnight our sales jumped 50-fold. We got the nicest notes from customers. When I’d find a good one, I’d read it aloud to the team as they were packing ice cream. And honestly, that little flow of income is possibly the only reason we’re still a company.

Now, customers can experience Salt and Straw in a variety of different ways, and we can create different dimensions for each. We were so focused on the shops for 10 years that we had no idea that this was even possible. We’re creating flavors and really cool partnerships with folks like the Salty Donut or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson with his tequila brand, and treating them almost like sneaker drops. They’re “flavor drops.” It’s cool because we realized we can create these other experiences and still have a really precious experience in the shops. They can live next to each other.

For example, in 10 years we had never made a flavor and not served it in the shop. We always figured that if we’re going to create and brand a new flavor, then our customers that come into the shop should feel like they have access to it. Now we’re like, “Oh, we can change that. We can actually evolve.”

We didn’t deliver ice cream before because we felt like it would melt. We had to jump in with both feet, and it’s worked out great. It’s been incredible. We launched to-go packaging for a flight of ice cream. We felt that if customers couldn’t come in and taste all of the flavors at once, maybe we could at least create a compelling pack so that they can get a variety. People being able to access ice cream from their home is incredible. It’s like we’re living in the future. Why would we be scared of it? And I only say that now.

Our Wynwood and Coconut Grove locations are now open in Miami. We definitely want to double down on our growth in Florida. We’ve got a foundation there. It’s almost a blessing in disguise that instead of thinking about major growth everywhere, we can think about growing in the cities that we’re in, and where we’ve got a strong presence. Let’s focus on Florida.