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Brand Experience

Salt & Straw CEO Kim Malek: ‘Community is the power behind our flavors and our philosophy’

As part of our Breakthrough Builders podcast series, our VP of Tech Jesse Purewal chats with Kim Malek, CEO and Co-Founder of Salt & Straw on how she had the courage to sink her life savings into a long-held dream, and how she knows that a scoop shop can change the world.

Listen to the complete podcast episode of Breakthrough Builders with Kim Malek.

Early reflections

It was under the big skies of Montana that Salt & Straw founder Kim Malek understood and intuited the power of community. Kim describes growing up as a “free-range” kid in a town of 60,000 in her recent conversation with Jesse Purewal on our Breakthrough Builders Podcast:

“I was running in the streets of Montana with my pals and our bikes,” says Kim. “I think that experience just always stuck with me in terms of just being part of a community and having that feeling that you really fit in.”

Kim recounts how that feeling of inclusion, combined with a passion for civic engagement passed to her by her parents, instilled within her a powerful desire to make the world a better place by tapping into the power of community.

Behind the breakthroughs

The idea of an ice cream shop as a neighborhood gathering place was on Kim’s mind as early as the mid-1990s, but for the same reasons that many of us defer dreams – fear, risk aversion, equating contentment with happiness – Kim didn’t put her idea out into the world for almost 15 years.

She built a successful career, starting as a barista at Starbucks, when the chain had a mere 30 stores. While there she remembers being inspired by Howard Schultz’s vision of a coffeehouse that could bring people together.

She carved out the start of her career at Adidas and Yahoo!, and grew through corporate leadership roles at Starbucks, building expertise in product development, marketing, partnerships, community outreach, and more. But then, one day, it was time to take the leap.

“A copy of The New York Times magazine fell out on the kitchen table and the front cover was Humphry Slocombe [the San Francisco-based artisanal ice cream shop]. I just raised my fists at the heavens, I was so upset that someone had taken my idea.

“I felt I had lost my opportunity. My partner Mike sat across the table, let me finish, and he kind of tilted his head and he said, ‘well, you should do it.’

“It's like one of those moments where someone calls you on your dream that you've been carrying around safely, tucked away in your back pocket forever. I remember standing up and saying, ‘well, maybe I will’. Two days later, I started work on dusting off the old business plan and got things going.”

Serving a community

A current sampling of flavors shows how fearless Kim is in her quest to go beyond the boundaries of ice cream as summer treat: Pear & Blue Cheese, Cold Brew Coffee Cashew Praline, Arbequina Olive Oil, Green Apple and Wasabi Flowers Sorbet.

To Kim, these conversation-starter flavors, and the ultimate success of Salt & Straw, are made possible by a community of partners, suppliers, employees, and customers who have been her focus ever since she was selling ice cream out of a pushcart in the Portland arts district.

And funnily enough, when they first started they didn’t even know how to make ice cream. “That put us out in the community, looking for ways we can partner with other people to figure out what our recipes could be.

“Pretty quickly, this idea of community started to be reflected through our recipe development. I think it's one of the key reasons our flavors and our philosophy have been so different.”

Kim continues to celebrate local ingredients and build community through Salt & Straw’s 21 (and growing!) locations across the country.

Listen to Kim chat with our Chief Industry Advisor, Tech, Media & Telecom, Jesse Purewal in a recent episode of our Breakthrough Builders podcast.

Breakthrough Builders is about people whose passions, perspectives, instincts, and ideas fuel some of the world’s most amazing products, brands, and experiences. It’s a tribute to those who have the audacity to imagine – and the persistence to build – breakthroughs.

Listen to Kim's full conversation with Jesse Purewal