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Welcome to Becoming the Boss, our series celebrating small business owners who have made the transition from solo-entrepreneur to employer. Check back periodically for new installments.
Cousins Kim and Tyler Malek screamed for ice cream together as kids. Now they make a living off of the sticky-sweet stuff together in some really cool and unique ways — one of them having to do with trash.
And by trash, we mean foods destined for the garbage simply because their ugly, imperfect or overstock.
The entrepreneurial cousins, who launched the Portland, Ore.-based ice creamery called Salt & Straw in 2011, are banking big on reclaimed food waste as a core ingredient of their artisanal scoops. Last summer, all of the flavor’s on their many ice cream shops’ menus were handcrafted using unwanted foods or foods that were on the brink of expiring.
“We were shocked to learn that we waste about 40 percent of our food here in America,” Kim Malek told Free Enterprise. “We thought, ‘What if we could deliciously blend that food — a funky-looking apple or an overly ripe strawberry, that might otherwise get chucked out — into our ice cream flavors?’ Then we could bring attention to our country’s food crisis, and maybe in some way help individuals grappling with hunger at the same time.”
And that’s just what the ice-cream-loving kin did, starting with the recent release of Salt & Straw’s Sri Lankan cinnamon- and Moroccan peppercorn-spiced apple butter ice cream. The chilly dessert is made in part from bruised, unwanted apples sourced from Portland’s East Side Distillery. More ugly fruit- and vegetable-infused flavors quickly followed, and to sweet success.
Malek’s unusual chilled creations are a slam dunk with customers, and business is booming. So far, she and her cousin have opened up 11 Salt & Straw shops along the West Coast, in Oregon and California. Along the way, the company has multiplied from a party of two to a sprawling company of 400-plus employees.
We recently chatted with Kim Malek — who left a six-figure-income corporate job to brave the entrepreneurial leap — to find out how she and her cousin co-founder scaled their business so fast, and what they learned along the way. Here’s what we found out:
What inspired you to start Salt & Straw with your cousin Tyler?
“I first had the idea to open a small-batch, locally-sourced ice cream shop in Portland, Oregon, as a dream back in 1996. I had started my career at the time working for a really small company, called Starbucks Coffee. I was transferred to Portland, and while I was living here I was really blown away by the sense of community.
Fast forward to 2010, when I came to Portland for a birthday party weekend, and I met a guy, fell in love and had a family with him. We settled here and the stars aligned to start bringing Salt & Straw to life.
In 2011, my cousin, who had been studying business and living in China, moved to Portland and we began making ice cream together in my kitchen. We put our heads together and decided to go for it. He makes the ice cream and I run the business operations, so this business naturally fell into place for us.”
How did you come up with the name Salt & Straw?
“We wanted to give a nod to the way that ice cream was made at the turn of the century in the United States. They hand-cranked it, then put salt in the ice to make it freeze. When it was done, they packed the ice cream on straw in the barn because they didn’t have refrigeration.”
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in launching your business and how did you overcome it?
“The people part. Hiring people has been the most challenge aspect of growing this business. We’ve almost doubled our size over the past year and a half. We’re really good at ice cream, we have terrific spots for our shops and we’ve always organically grown our team. But when we hit this level of growth, it really hit us hard that we can’t do it all — we have to be really intentional about how we grow.”
What advice do you have for early entrepreneurs who hope to scale up as quickly and successfully as you have?
“Have a people plan. Don’t hire anyone without a thorough people plan in place. If you’re putting people on the frontlines of your business without proper training, you will run into roadblocks because they don’t have your DNA yet.
Study successful companies and find out what their hiring plans are. How did they create a winning people plan? Find out and put your own spin on it. Then weave it into your hiring and training program.”
What does it mean to you to “Be the Boss”?
“Being the boss means that I make sure that my team and my company have the resources that they need to succeed. When I think about being the boss, I think about how to keep my team safe and happy, and how to get them what they need to thrive. Also, how do I give the right benefits and offer the right amount of time off to let people do what they need to do in their lives, and how do I offer the right kinds of growth opportunities?”
What does it mean to you to create jobs not only for yourself (and your co-founder cousin), but also for others?
“When we hear that one of our employees is able to buy a house or to start a family, we feel that we’re helping to support those milestones in their lives. We’re proud to create jobs in the kind of business we always wanted to work for — places that are really supportive of individual employees as people, not just ‘workers.’”