The hundreds of flavors Tyler Malek has devised over the past six years already include a slew of coffee collaborations. Yet here he is, lanky frame hunkered beside the Diedrich roasting machine at tiny Broadcast Coffee in the Central District, wholly engrossed in owner Barry Faught’s description of the precise temperature curve he creates inside.
Of all the coffee joints in Seattle, he walked into this one because Broadcast swept his R&D team’s blind tasting back in Portland. The team brewed 20 different beans; each resulting coffee became an exploratory pint of ice cream. Broadcast’s Colombian single-origin Tunja roast stood up to cream and sugar—important qualities when turning coffee into ice cream. It’s also a rare brew that’s light and acidic but still retains darker chocolaty notes.
As Faught talks, Tyler peers through slender-framed glasses to scribble notes in a drawing pad where he’d sketched Broadcast’s logo. Each subsequent page bears a different penciled logo—an illustrated itinerary of the busy day ahead.
“That’s it,” Tyler whispers exultantly as he leaves the storefront and steps onto Jackson Street: the thing that will make this coffee ice cream different from all his others.
Soon he and his cousin, Salt and Straw founder Kim Malek, will open their first Seattle scoop shop, on a windowed corner at Pike and Boylston. Some flavors will be the Salt and Straw classics present at their nine other locations in Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, but most will be specific to Seattle. Not just specific, says Tyler—deeply representative of our food scene.
To say Salt and Straw is popular in Portland is like saying Pike Place Market is kinda busy in the summertime. Patrons might wait up to 45 minutes to reach the front of its reliable lines, where cheery staffers call each party up. It’s like a papal audience, if those involved endless free samples. Scoopers are better trained than many sommeliers; they might recommend that flavors with chunkier add-ins be on the bottom of a double scoop. Or explain the centuries-old technique behind the tangy Woodblock chocolate flavor versus the menu’s other chocolate ice cream, which mimics the nostalgia of brownies warm from the oven.
Salt and Straw’s rep is built on flavors that sound like they must be gimmicks—sea urchin, baked potato, foie gras s’mores. But they work. They work like crazy. That’s thanks to Tyler, and the freezy intersection the earnest 29-year-old has forged between geekery and wide-roaming creativity. Here ice cream becomes civic commentary.
Through an unflagging stream of collaborations, Salt and Straw’s ice cream defines Portland’s food scene. But how to replicate that in another place? Scaling a business is tough, even if its model didn’t include rotating menus that celebrate local farms or flavors designed by the fourth grade of the elementary school nearest each shop. Tyler’s got some work to do. So begins a jam-packed day zig-zagging around Seattle to introduce himself to people who might help with the task ahead: Render our city’s food scene in ice cream form.
In 2010, when a would-be investor reviewed Kim Malek’s ice cream shop business plan—which included insurance, vacation days, and paid parental leave even for part-time employees—he scribbled, “You can’t do this. Who do you think you are, Starbucks?” in the margin. Certainly not, but Kim did learn a ton of lessons working at Seattle’s homegrown coffee giant, her marketing roles ranging from director of coffee innovation to director of Frappuccino.
Her career began at the Starbucks at the Tacoma Mall in 1990, when a 22-year-old manager named Jody Hall hired a new barista, a petite Pacific Lutheran University student with a sun-shower of curly hair and a bubbling-over demeanor to match. The two became close as they stickered holiday merch and served customers still unsure how to pronounce exotic words like latte and grande.
Both women eventually ascended to the Seattle corporate office. After Starbucks posted Kim to Portland in 1996, she marveled at how people made new friends simply by walking around the neighborhood. Kim wanted her own business, something that fused entrepreneurship with community, a union Starbucks ingrained in employees like her and Hall. She liked ice cream, but Salt and Straw’s real inspiration stemmed from the idea that “people in Portland would run into their neighbors and spend time walking down the street eating ice cream,” she says. “The whole spirit of the city was reflected through this experience.”
The idea lingered (and the business plan developed) as Kim’s marketing career progressed to companies like Gardenburger, Yahoo!, and Adidas.
Meanwhile, Tyler, a much younger member of the Maleks’ 15 cousins, was back in his native Snohomish after earning degrees in Chinese and business from Western Washington University. Those degrees suggested a suit-and-tie job in Beijing or Shanghai. He traveled in Asia, then worked odd jobs back home (try to imagine this guy selling cars at a Ford dealership). But it was his home kitchen experiments that came to occupy his restless thoughts, and so Tyler decided to change course and go to culinary school. Kim—living in Seattle once again, but with plans to return to Portland—read his announcement on Facebook and posted an offer to crash at her place if he was interested in that town’s food scene. When he heard she intended to open an ice cream shop, he wanted more than a spare couch. He wanted in.
It was insanely serendipitous: Kim had devised Salt and Straw’s branding and its voice—pretty much everything but the ice cream. Previously, Tyler had tinkered a bit on a used ice cream maker from Goodwill, but suddenly this frozen treat became a conduit for all the ideas bouncing around in his mind. Foie gras or spruce tip ice cream wasn’t what his cousin had in mind, but he talked her into giving him a shot and made ice cream after morning sessions at culinary school. “We both moved in with my boyfriend,” she remembers. Salt and Straw was her vision, but “it wasn’t brought to life in any meaningful way until Tyler entered the picture.” The business was instantly busy. He never did finish culinary school.
After Broadcast, the next stop on Tyler’s roving Seattle flavor survey is tiny Cedar River Brewing Company, a sake operation hidden in a Greenwood Avenue basement. His trucker-style hat (which bears the logo of a Montana farmers state bank, somehow without a trace of irony) nearly brushes the low ceiling as owner Jeff James schools him on rice wine. He departs with a baggie of squishy kasu, sake’s umami-rich brewing remnants, and myriad possibilities: Perhaps a custard base. Using the kasu itself would be easiest, because there’s no alcohol to cook off. “But I can also see cooking the sake into a jam,” Tyler muses. “I like to know what I’m missing.” It’s an admittedly unconventional way to make ice cream—more anthropology than confection.
Earlier this year, the first whisper that Salt and Straw might expand to Seattle was a one-off collaboration with Tom Douglas, recreating the chef’s famed triple coconut cream pie dessert. Sure, Tyler could have stirred some frozen pie chunks in ice cream, “but that’s not going to be the same as if the pie were fresh off his counter.”
Douglas’s team helped him break Seattle’s best-known dessert down into its essential elements. Coconut custard mimicked the creamy filling, piped by hand into toasted coconut ice cream so it’s present in each bite. Actual toasted coconut gets soggy in ice cream, so candied coconut shavings supply that familiar texture. The whipped cream also posed a challenge ultimately overcome with a sort of merengue-marshmallow fluff. For such a soft-textured dessert, it comes through with tremendous personality.
Approached this way, ice cream becomes a means of continuing education—for both Tyler and his customers. At a restaurant, it’s poor form to ask for a nibble of chicken, maybe a few exploratory fries before you ultimately decide on the lamb. Salt and Straw traffics in the rare food that you can sample, repeatedly, before you make a decision. With that, says Tyler, comes a rare opportunity for someone’s undivided attention. A moment to talk about things that matter to you: “Ice cream has a great amplifying power.”
Some assumed the company would never expand to Seattle, given Kim Malek’s close friendship with Jody Hall, her former Starbucks cohort, now owner of Cupcake Royale. Hall’s bakeshop makes its own ice cream, launched with some guidance from Tyler. But the cupcake purveyor has been a Salt and Straw investor from the start; she even drove from Seattle to scoop ice cream on opening day at the original Portland store.
“I’m excited for Kim to come up here,” says Hall. “I think she ups the game.” Good thing, because Salt and Straw’s Seattle shop is four blocks down the street from Cupcake Royale’s Capitol Hill flagship.
At this stage, Tyler’s most developed Seattle flavor involves Rachel’s Ginger Beer; before he hops the light rail back to Sea-Tac, he meets up with its co-owner Rachel Marshall at Home Remedy, just to check in. Tyler’s team turned five RGB flavors into ice cream. Problem is, nobody on staff can decide which version is best. “This hardly ever happens,” he tells Marshall.
He’s not kidding. The first time Tyler really pushed ice cream off the grid was in culinary school. It was Cheetos flavored; his instructor said the taste was like riding in the backseat of a car with someone who’s puking. But the worst ice cream he remembers making was a take on a crab roll. He envisioned a savory Neapolitan of crab bisque, lemon, and housemade Old Bay seasoning, a shout-out to the Oregon Crab Commission. Even he couldn’t make crab work as ice cream. But that adventure yielded something new and better: sorbet made with milk.
Anyone intimidated by his unceasing tumble of ideas will be relieved to learn that successful creations don’t just spring full formed from his brain. Tyler estimates each finished flavor leaves eight to 10 rejected iterations in its wake. Fear of failure would preclude the most joy-inducing creations.
For few foods inspire joy like ice cream, and Salt and Straw isn’t the only one to grasp its possibilities as a cultural platform. There’s Full Tilt Ice Cream, whose flavors celebrate everything from Nancy Pearl to the Seahawks. There’s Kurt Timmermeister spinning summer tomatoes, bay laurel, and other labors of his Vashon Island dairy farm into memorable scoops. There’s Molly Moon’s buying Thin Mints for her Scout Mint flavor, but only from Girl Scouts courageous enough to suit up and give their sales pitch.
Just ask anyone—old and young, crunchy and preppy—in line for Salt and Straw on a lingering summer evening, or the soft-spoken guy hopping a flight home to Portland with a mind that hums with ideas and a Ziploc of squishy sake lees in his worn leather satchel: The things that make us happy have the power to transform us.