Tyler Malek is the wunderkind ice cream chef who co-founded Salt & Straw. He’s created over 600 flavors of ice cream, been listed on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 and is reinventing how small businesses grow.
As you can imagine, life is busy for Malek. And yet, he is mindful of creating routines that work for him. With the Salt & Straw kitchens getting to work at the crack of dawn, Malek’s weekdays kick off on the early side. “We start our kitchen at 6:30, so I’m just up and at ‘em,” says Malek. “So for me a weekday morning is early. The foundation for a good breakfast is quick scrambled eggs and a piece of toast — you can always grow from there. You can add sautéed kale, mushrooms, bacon. But being able to start with something clean and simple — eggs and toast — that’s comforting.”
It’s on the weekends that Malek tries to slow down. “To me a perfect Saturday morning is spending as much time with our family as possible. We have two dogs and two cats and we load everyone on the bed and we’ll spend the first hour cuddling. It’s the most comforting thing in the world. There’s something about waking up knowing all you have to do today is love each other. One of us will eventually peel off and make coffee. We’ll take our coffee outside and go for a nice walk and take it easy.”
For Malek, his intention is to be in the present moment, to spend time together just being. “To be able to start your morning with something mindful — we call it our insurance policy. No matter what happens the rest of the week, we always know we have that time together.”
Malek’s life goal was to be a banker in Beijing. He loved Mandarin and was excellent at calculus. And yet, he somehow wound up making ice cream. “We started making ice cream almost on accident,” says Malek. “My cousin, Kim, was starting this business in Portland and I pleaded with her to let me help her. Somehow she let me make all of the ice cream.”
The cousins had an ice cream cart and a $16 ice cream maker from the Good Will. That's it. But the company blossomed and now the duo are poised to open their sixth location in the United States. “We’re growing,” says Malek. “We’re about to open in Miami and we’re thinking, can we rethink how businesses grow? How do we not become a cookie cutter business? How can we be unique in every city we open in?”
So many small businesses get trapped in the growth model. They create a formula and use that same formula all across the country. But Salt & Straw is doing the opposite. “We want to start over in every city,” says Malek. “It’s a lofty goal, but it would be really cool if we could do that. We want to prove that that is a sustainable growth model. If we’re right, that could change how the business community thinks about growth. That’s my big, hairy audacious goal.”
Malek likes to think big and have audacious goals. That’s how he got where he is today. When he and his cousin set out, they didn’t set out to create just another ice cream shop. They set out to do something different. “When we first started Salt & Straw we wanted to be one of the first ‘farm to cone’ ice cream shops,” he says. “I wanted to create more than just good ice cream. We’re about more than just creating epically delicious flavors. That’s a third of it, sure. But really, it’s about taking someone into your ice cream shop and transporting them into your world, taking them on a journey,” says Malek.
Inspired by his habitat in the Pacific Northwest, Malek set out to tell the story of his surroundings. “In Oregon, we have one of the coolest agricultural systems in the world. As you go from one side of the state to the other there are so many microclimates. We have one area where we’re growing some of the best wine in the world. We have one microclimate, we are one of the only places that can grow wasabi outside of Japan. We grow pears, hazelnuts, olive oil; we have a great dairy industry! It’s wild how different and diverse Oregon is. We wanted to tell that story with our ice cream.”
Malek’s creativity is driven by this idea of telling stories and creating experiences for people. “I’m using ice cream to create experiences for customers,” he says. “Experiences that push them out of their comfort zones and provoke conversations. Something far beyond just serving ice cream, it becomes a life-changing experience. We want to make sure we are driving change for our community. We want people to try things they’ve never heard of.” Malek is inspired by the connection he has to his customers, and the opportunities this connection presents him with. “What’s become most fulfilling for me,” he says “is that ice cream is a tool I can use to create dialog.
We are using the ice cream as a soap box to tell stories that I think are important. Once you provoke a conversation you can take that a thousand different directions. Sometimes it’s light and fun and sometimes we can get more thoughtful. For example, we create a dialogue about food waste or being vegan. We are purposefully trying to get people to think about things and ask questions. That’s such a powerful tool I’ve been given with cooking.”
But Salt & Straw isn’t just about starting conversations. They are very focused on flavor too. “We think of flavors very uniquely,” says Malek. “There’s a logic behind every flavor. It’s about piecing together a story from scratch. I’ll write eight pages of information on a flavor before I get into the kitchen. I think about the story of each flavor — the ride I want your tastebuds to go on, how I want the flavor to come off, the story I want to build.”
And Malek has his hands in every flavor that gets created. “I’ve got about 60 people in my kitchen and we start off with a morning huddle and talk about what we’re making and what each team is working on. And then I’ll spend the first hour of each day in the R&D room where we’re thinking about how the flavors come together. I eat ice cream for breakfast every morning. Not on purpose! But we start every morning tasting what we made the day before after it sat in the freezer over night. I eat a pint of ice cream every day before 10 AM. There’s something perfect about ice cream in the morning. It’s like the freshest bowl of milk you could ever dream of.”
Co-Founder & Head of Innovation at Salt & Straw
Tyler Malek is the Co-Founder and Head Ice Cream Maker for Salt & Straw. Together with his cousin Kim Malek they started in 2011 serving eight flavors from a push cart using an ice cream maker found at the local Goodwill. They’ve built their family run business around making unbelievably delicious ice creams designed to tell the narrative of artisans, meaningful food movements, and important social causes. Tyler has created more than 600 flavors, collaborating with James Beard Award-winning chefs, renowned microbreweries, local and organic farmers and a variety of food experts. In 2019 Malek led his team in dedicating 20 percent of Salt & Straw’s menu to be vegan, focusing on bringing the same level of thoughtful indulgence to non-dairy flavors. The company continues to create a unique menu in each city they operate, changing every four weeks, still making ice cream by hand and in small batches.