In 2014, I set out to explore Salt & Straw’s unique approach to flavor-making, through five unusual scoops. My theory: the three-year-old Portland company had transcended the frozen medium to become, like wine grapes, an actual taste of “place.” Owner/cousins Kim and Tyler Malek had literally put local farms, forests and food artisans, not to mention a cavalcade of wacky ideas, front-and-center in wild seasonal flavors. The methodology included deep engagements with the community—student inventors to just about anyone with a good idea.
Essentially, an ice cream shop had cracked the code to Portland.
At the time, Salt & Straw was readying to take its model to Los Angeles, building a taste of California from scratch. Could it work? And would another city’s food community jump in? Would locals view Salt & Straw as an outsider or embrace it as their own?
The answer is in: Eight years after opening in Portland, Salt & Straw has planted flags in four West Coast cities—Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and San Diego, each with multiple outposts, unstoppable lines, and bloggers who brag on their “local flavors.”
Now comes a giant next step. As Portland Monthly has learned, Salt & Straw, will be taking it talents to Miami, with two shops slated to open in 2020 (one in the Wynwood arts district, the other in bohemian Coconut Grove).
“Taking our first step off the West Coast is a big new chapter for Salt & Straw,” says Tyler Malek, the company’s chief flavor maestro. “We’re excited to see how our model of exporting the values and ethos of Portland will work so far away from home.”
Why Miami? According to Kim Malek, Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer—the acclaimed New York restaurateur who made a financial investment in the company two years ago—introduced them to the city. “It immediately felt like an incredible fit for us,” says Kim. For the past 18 months, the cousins have been making trips back and forth to Miami and studying “flavor stories” for Salt & Straw, which is typical of their ground-game process. They’re already tested 60 different recipe ideas, including “a study of donuts in ice cream” via local spot The Salty Donut.
“I’m fascinated to find a ton of analogues to Portland,” says Tyler, “the great breweries, incredible coffee shops and innovative chocolatiers. But the ingredients and agriculture are completely different. I'm excited to start using locally-grown cacao beans & coconuts or using one of the 36 different varieties of mango.”
Ultimately, it is this commitment to food-sleuthing that makes Salt & Straw so interesting. The Maleks have evolved their own brand of culinary anthropology, and in turn, they’re becoming keen observers of America’s food cities.
In Miami, they see a place long overdue for its close up. “South Florida’s food scene is uniquely positioned,” says Tyler. “It has this insane collision of tourists looking for a unique experience. It has some of the country’s top chefs. It grows some of the most incredible produce in the world. But, at the same time, its horribly underrated. In many ways, it reminds me of Los Angeles 10 years ago.”
Is this the beginning of a Salt & Straw’s takeover of America? Are other cities on the horizon? The Maleks emailed me a big “haha” at the question. “We’re laser-focused on Miami,” they said. "The way we've set up our menu to develop new flavors for every city limits our ability to grow fast." That said, Tyler confesses the excitement of this journey has led him down rabbit holes in nearby New Orleans and Atlanta. Just saying. You heard it here first.