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Scooping Success: How Salt & Straw Expanded to Miami With Community and Creative Flavors as the Focus

Season 2: Episode 32


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Ice cream is elevated to new and delicious heights at Salt & Straw ice cream shops, with flavors like honey lavender and peanut butter brittle caramel fudge. When the time came to expand beyond the shop’s West Coast roots, co-owner Kim Malek decided to embrace a new city—Miami—and introduce her unique ice cream brand through established local businesses. Miami-based Yelp Regional Manager, Diandra, shares her experience as a Salt & Straw consumer, and what keeps her coming back.

On the Yelp Blog: Discover Salt & Straw’s secrets to maintaining local sensibility while expanding to new cities.

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Behind the Review features conversations with business owners and customers who wrote one of their Yelp reviews. In our discussions, we talk about lessons they’ve learned that can be used by other businesses to improve their own reviews…and their bottom line.

This week, I’m talking about everyone’s favorite treat—ice cream—with Salt & Straw co-owner Kim Malick, and Yelp employee Diandra L, a regional lead who manages a team of Yelp community managers in the Southeast. She discovered the ice cream shop a couple of years ago while organizing a tasting event for her team.

The event went so well she became a fan of the shop, and as she normally does, wrote a review as well! Let’s listen to it.

Diandra: Everyone’s favorite California ice cream shop has made it to Coconut Grove. It’s beautifully decorated and located front and center in the new CocoWalk. Their ice cream is widely popular, and what I loved about this location is how they created a few Miami inspired flavors.

What a way to bring your brand and immerse yourself into the flavor of the local community. I opted for the vegan hazelnut cookies and cream – made with chocolate from a local chocolatier. They also have a few other Miami inspired flavors I can’t wait to try. Welcome to Miami Salt and Straw – you are certainly a sweet addition.

EMILY: Salt & Straw isn’t a true “local” small business to Miami, in the sense that it started in Portland, Oregon, 3,200 some miles away from the Miami location Diandra visits regularly. In fact, Miami is the first physical store for the Salt & Straw brand located on the East Coast.

But something that impressed me and Diandra both was the way that this Oregon-based ice cream shop made itself at home in Miami by becoming a part of the scene before opening their doors. Anyone who’s been to Miami knows the flavors found locally are reflective of the cultural melting pot that is the port city. Rather than just insert themselves into the city with little introduction, Salt & Straw’s owners took a very conscientious route to opening their first East Coast location. They started with almost a pop-up shop mentality. And partnered with well known local brands, before committing to serious real estate space, which to me is just a brilliant idea and a great way to make introductions to the neighborhood.

DIANDRA:  So they were going to be opening in Wynwood and Coconut Grove in the spring of 2020. I can’t remember now if that’s exactly what happened because as we know what also happened in spring of 2020 was COVID. But what I do remember that stuck out about them to me, is that they decided to do their announcement of their stores at Panther Coffee. Panther Coffee in Wynwood.

When you talk about the timeline of local businesses being important in Miami, and small businesses make our communities every single day, but when I think about as being born and raised here, when people started really caring about these local brands and what they were doing and the impact of the community, you have to talk about Panther coffee.

They were the first local coffee roasters here. And they have just really paved the way for a lot of that inspiring community driven outreach and innovation. So they did their event to meet them and try their ice cream there. I don’t know many brands that are large that do that type of work.

And that’s something that really stuck out to me because as I mentioned, I’m born and raised in Miami, I am always going to try to find the local ice cream shop, the local tattoo parlor, the local bar, because that’s just what we do intrinsically, right? As community managers. So it was kind of like a respect thing.

I was like, okay, I see you, I want to try you. And then when I saw that they were doing collaborations with other small local brands like The Salty Donut. Another small local brand that now has expanded in Florida and other states; and to see them grow and they’re from Miami – it makes my heart sing truly. They know the people that they’re supposed to work with and they know the people that have really built this runway for businesses to come in here and flourish like these local businesses that really hustled and they’re working with them.I thought that was amazing.

And then they do seasonal flavors and every time you go into a Salt and Straw, I think it’s awesome because the seasonal flavors don’t always feature only local partners, but they definitely feature a few of them, and they’re really these niche, like one of their times they worked with Wynwood Brewing Company, one of our first local brewers.

One of the times they worked with Exquisito Chocolates, which is a very small, beautiful chocolatier. So it just makes me excited to try them. And also it’s like this fusion of, cause at one point they were a small local family run business that now has grown and we love that for them.

EMILY: Owner Kim Malick had already opened multiple locations up and down the West Coast, so she had a pretty solid game plan for moving into a new market. But the West Coast vibe isn’t anything like the East Coast, so keeping Salt & Straw true to its Portland roots while infusing it with Miami flavor could have been a real challenge.

KIM: Oh, this is such a good question of how to expand and stay local while also staying true to yourself. When we opened in Miami we had opened up and down the West coast. And even when we opened in Disneyland in California we did these local collaborations and people responded to it so strongly.

It was really cool. Even recently, I’ve met with people in northern California and southern California who have had full on fights about whether or not Salt and Straw is based in California or, you know, where? And so that kind of level of ownership and local collaboration is really important to who we are.

We always say, instead of just exporting our ice cream, we export this ethos of Portland and these collaborations. And so opening in Miami, we actually got a little bit of some questions from people locally in the food scene who were like, ‘yeah, we’ll do collaborations with you and we’re excited to do it. And it’s really fun. And we’ll introduce you to more people. And we really want your ice cream, like what we had in Portland.’

And so it was a fun conversation to have, and a balance to strike. We met the guys at Salty Donut and Panther Coffee, and they started to introduce us to different chocolate makers and jam makers. And, oh my gosh, it’s just, it’s so fun to have that network unfold in front of you. And it’s all about those people you get to meet. I mean, here we are, whatever, 12 years into it. And I think the top reason that we’re so invigorated today, as much as we were on day one, is because of those people and relationships. And you come across ice cream flavors at Salt N Straw that you might not expect. And so much of it is due to these people we meet in these collaborations and storytelling.

And so being able to do that all the way across the country in Miami, was just mind blowing and such an honor, that people showed up like they did and keep showing up.

EMILY: The entrepreneurial bug bit Kim early in her career at one of the West Coast’s most famous small business success stories—Starbucks. If any company can teach conscientious expansion, it’s the coffee giant, which now has more than 35,000 stores worldwide.

KIM: The genesis of Salt and Straw, the kind of glimmer in my eye, came to be in the mid nineties. And long before that, I was an early employee at Starbucks coffee. There were 30 stores when I started and 3,000, I think when I left. And so I was part of this little group that was figuring out how to grow the company and how to introduce the idea of a latte to people throughout the United States and throughout the world.

And I fell in love with just the entrepreneurial spirit of that and really this idea of a third place. So it’s not your home. It’s not your office. It’s this third place where you can spend time for yourself. And during that time I was stationed for a little while in Portland, Oregon. And I don’t know, folks who have spent time there can tell you that it is really very community oriented. And we don’t have a bunch of big fortune 500 companies, it’s super entrepreneurial, very grassroots, people are supporting each other. And I always say people kind of take you in and lift you up and it’s really special from that perspective.

One of my best friends, I met her standing on the street, putting money in a parking meter. And so that idea that people just will talk to you and take you home is true. And I thought, God, an ice cream shop would be a great way to reflect that. You could run into your neighbors and spend time with friends and family and just meet people.

And that idea of a third place could come to life in a way that’s, you know, it’s all good. You got to get your caffeine, you got to eat, but ice cream is just pure joy. And so for me, that was the inspiration, that idea of community and reflecting that community spirit. So I started working on a business plan and looking at real estate and ended up just it’s really kind of shelving the idea out of fear. Because in college a few years prior to that my dad had gone bankrupt running his own small business and so the idea of starting your own company was really scary to me and I thought I better keep my day job and, not chase after this foolish idea. So I went about my business of working for a few different incredible companies until I moved back to Portland in 2009.

And the stars kind of aligned to actually bring this crazy dream to life. That was the original kind of genesis of starting the company.

EMILY: While she might be expanding across the coast now, Salt & Straw started as a small business—a very small business, in fact—which is a financially sound place to start. But as many business owners know, even a fiscally sound starting point can run into its own set of problems.

KIM: Well, Salt and Straw actually started as a push cart. So even before we had a shop, we were a push cart for a whole summer. And ended up being the wettest summer on record in Portland. So people really were worried about us standing out there trying to sell ice cream. Me and my cousin who joined me to help start the company.

And then in August, we opened our own shop and it was the first day I was sure no one would show up. And so I committed to catering a wedding. So I was out in the Oregon wine country with our little cart and my friends who had come to support the opening were calling me and they’re like, you’ve got to get back here! We’re all working cause it’s so busy.

People really showed up to support us right out of the gates. It was really, really busy. And I hurried back and we had to hire a bunch of people and no one feels sorry for you when your problem is you’re too busy. But it was crazy.

I can remember setting my alarm just to get a couple hours of sleep and then rushing back to be there to scoop ice cream. And my cousin was making ice cream in the back. And, I had a marketing background and I remember saying well, you know, I’ll never hire a PR firm and all that kind of stuff. Cause I can do it myself. But when, you know, it like my days were full of ordering toilet paper and making sure the light bulbs didn’t go out and just training people and all the just bare, bare, bare basics was what consumed me. And it was a wild, crazy, crazy, crazy time.

EMILY: It wasn’t long after the first shop that Kim and Tyler expanded to a second, and then a third shop. That expansion wasn’t part of their original plans, but sometimes fate steps in and makes that next step in your business’s growth pretty clear, as it did for Salt & Straw.

KIM: It was an interesting journey to decide when to open another store and what that path was going to look like. Our original business plan didn’t call for more than one shop. I had spent most of my career doing some pretty serious cross continental travel, and my dream was to stay home and work in this ice cream shop.

And the original genesis was around this idea of community, and so… Someone came to me and said, gosh, there’s this location coming available in northwest Portland, and it used to be a Torrefaccion coffee shop. And back in the day, in the late nineties, back in my day, it was the place where we would all meet up, drink coffee, plan this brilliant future for how we wanted our world to be.

Over the years, it had gone into disarray and it was just a shadow of its former self. And I knew if we really wanted to pursue this idea of community that this location would be really important. So we started to work on a way to make it happen. When we opened our first shop, we didn’t have any money.

I cashed in my 401k. I had a garage sale. I sold my house, maxed out my credit cards.  We did everything to get that store open and here it was less than a year later, we want to open a second store. So it seemed daunting, but our friends and family stepped up and invested and loaned us money and we were able to hobble it together and get that next store open. And it really was about this dream and mission of creating community.

The next one came about a year later. It’s kind of Portland’s restaurant row right by my house. And so all of that happened really organically. We got a phone call from a woman in LA who runs Joan’s on Third and she’s one of the most iconic food personalities in Los Angeles.

And she wanted to know if she could sell our ice cream in Los Angeles. And it was like, what? We were blown away and we flew down to meet with her and it just felt like family by the end of the meeting. And so we decided to take a leap and figure out how to do it and make local flavors down in LA.

And of course that kind of, through those collaborations, led us down the path of opening a store there. So everything just happened very, very organically in the early days. And it was super exciting and really fun.

EMILY: One of the things that sets Salt & Straw apart from other ice cream shops is their unique flavor combinations. We’ll talk about those later in the podcast. But before we go there, I want to touch on something that Diandra emphasized, which is the atmosphere and the customer service. The experience begins before you walk in the door at Salt & Straw. And many customer expectations are set, before they even get their first taste of the product.

DIANDRA:  I think they definitely, first of all, did their research on areas that have a lot of walkability because to me, there’s never a time that I’m not down for ice cream, but especially if I’m walking by it. Every time you walk by it, you can tell they make like the waffle cones in there and it smells so good.

So you walk in there and it smells just delicious. So you naturally want to be there. The vibe of it, if I could describe it, reminds me of something that would make me happy in my childhood. You walk in there and there’s nostalgia. And I guess that is the nostalgia of being a child.

Cause I grew up with ice cream as the treat. So we would go and get ice cream as a family. So when I walked in there, that’s the vibe. It’s very welcoming. It looks very non-pretentious, even though some of the ingredients are definitely intense, there’s an olive oil one and a lavender one. And so it’s not like your typical basic ice cream shop.

But when you walk in, you feel this sense of welcome – that I really, really appreciate. And then you can try as many ice cream flavors as you want. And you can get in a cup or a cone. You can buy pints to take home. And the experience is very sensory because it just smells really good and you might know your go to flavor, but you want to try a bunch of the little and they never are going to be mad at you. The line could be out the door and you could try six ice creams and no one in the line is also annoyed, which is an unlikely Miami situation because people are always in a rush.

But I guess you’re just waiting in line at Salt and Straw, so you’re fine.

EMILY: I think it’s interesting that Diandra was so impressed by the customer service, because it’s really hard to be sad when eating a delicious dessert. With happiness built right into your product, you might assume that customer service can be less-than-stellar and your customers will still have a great experience. That’s not the case at Salt & Straw.

KIM: Even my cousin Tyler who makes all the ice cream will say that the ice cream is only 49 percent of the experience and 51 percent is when you come in and we call it “giving a moment of full face attention,” where when you get to the front of the line at Salt and Straw, there’s generally a big team working. And we encourage people to spend just a little more time than you might think would be logical with each guest and connect with them, in their own way and coming to work and being your best self, not a cookie cutter person.

EMILY: That kind of support for your team goes a long way in employee satisfaction, and we’ve heard time and again that great customer service depends just as much on how you treat your team as how you treat your customers.

And great customer service leads to great reviews.

KIM:  It’s always been a head scratcher to me when business owners feel contentious about reviews. I mean, gosh, sure, they’re not all positive. And sometimes it can feel like it’s unfair or whatnot, but at the end of the day, especially for a small business, even our size, it’s probably the most valuable way for us to get feedback from our guests on a regular basis.

Our leadership team reviews all reviews that come in every morning at 8:45 and just talks about who’s going to follow up on what and what we can do to share the feedback internally and there’s three sides to every story, so we’re always really careful about how we handle it with our team and with our guests.

I know this sounds cliche, but I really take it as a gift, and I personally am highly attuned,  if you look at our feedback to guests – you’ll see that it will come from me personally from time to time. Because any information or time that our guests take to share their experiences, I take that really seriously, personally, and I want to be part of the communication back to them and it helps me understand what trends are going on with our shops and customers and competitors.  It’s bittersweet, but it’s great to have. So I’m all in on reviews.

EMILY: As a Yelp employee, writing reviews is second nature to Diandra, but not everyone is comfortable leaving their opinion on the internet for everyone to read. Some would-be reviewers might not want to leave anything negative online, but if they’re well thought out and constructive, they can be really helpful to business owners.

And giving constructive feedback doesn’t have to mean a critical review. It can be full of great things as well! I think you’ll be hard pressed to find a business owner who doesn’t appreciate some positive feedback.

DIANDRA: There’s so many motivators behind writing reviews, but I think the biggest thing for me is that, it’s just a show of support.  At Yelp we call them love letters to local, like a thank you to your local business. And in this role, I have had the good fortune of getting to know so many business owners who are looking at Yelp for both all of the positive and the constructive feedback that they’re getting.

And they really read it and they apply what they’re seeing there. So I think it’s just really important to support local businesses, of course, with your money, but then also with your feedback.

Personally, words of affirmation are my love language, so for me to give it to businesses in the form of a thoughtful, positive review – it brings me joy! Because if I got an email from a colleague that was shouting me out for doing something good, it would make my day. So a business owner or even a team member or a general manager, they read that about their location and they’re excited.

The other thing is in this day and age, when people are just so conscious of what am I spending, where am I spending my money, all these things, writing a review is free. And it’s support and it also has a huge impact. A lot of times people say oh, I don’t write reviews because who’s gonna read them? Nobody cares what I think. But truly, people find out about businesses from the content that you are putting on Yelp. You are helping somebody, if they’re craving ice cream, and search and your review might be the reason that they try Salt and Straw over another place or vice versa.

And then when I think about it on the other end too, when people come to visit my city – reviews are so important because I want them to have an authentic Miami experience. And so how would they be able to figure out what’s the best X, Y, Z restaurant without doing that research?

The other thing about reviews is I believe, and this was something that I became really passionate about, especially in COVID, you might think that you are just one person, which I guess in theory is true, right? But you do not know how much of the trickle of impact that you have, that one review could have made a server’s day, could have helped get them a promotion. Could have just helped that business go from three stars to four, or could celebrate a dish that somebody was trying out new and  you gave it kudos. I don’t know, could help someone find the place for their anniversary, their birthday, whatever. You might think that no one’s reading it, but they really are. And it just makes this huge impact. And it’s a way to help your community, help them support each other and help them find places to go.

So I guess for people who are like, I’ve never written a review, I don’t know why I would write a review.  My tip would be, if you had a good time, the same thing that you would tell your best friend, ‘Oh my god, I just went to Jaguar Sun and had the best martini of my life, and the bartender Jose is amazing, and you have to go.’

You can literally write that in a review. It takes two seconds. You know! And I’m sure you snapped a pic because if it’s not on the gram, did it not happen? You can put that picture on Yelp. It doesn’t need to be these novels. Of course, those are fun to read sometimes, but just any feedback is really helpful. And on the flip side, I’m talking about positive things because I tend to use Yelp all the time so I tend to have great experiences where I go because I did my research. But if you have a bad time, imagine back in the day, businesses would never have the opportunity to know that something may or may not have been an issue at their business.

I’ve definitely been on the receiving end of several business owner phone calls that are not pleasant because of reviews that they have received because I’ve gotten reviews of my events before. It hurts when you get constructive criticism because you put so much work into something. But at the end of the day if you look on someone’s page and you can’t please everyone all the time. But if the last five reviews mention, I don’t know the burger is salty. It is probably salty.

Would you have been able to spot that and correct it if that’s not the case and then it also gives you the platform to like we can get into a whole other side of the ways that they can engage with people. But anyways, it’s just a way to share your feedback and feedback is always important, and it shows support.

EMILY: Similar to Diandra, most Yelp reviewers are sharing places they love. A majority of Yelp reviews are neutral to positive. Infact – Yelp has more 5 star reviews than 1, 2 and 3 star reviews combined. But of course even places with great star ratings can’t keep everyone happy all the time!

EMILY: Diandra and Kim both talked with me about the unique flavor profiles at Salt & Straw, and a quick glance at the Miami location’s reviews on Yelp show that most, if not all, of the negative reviews are about available flavors. The workaround to avoid customer dissatisfaction is the tasting policies that both Diandra and Kim mentioned. You can try everything before making your selection.

And even though it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, Kim is firm behind the decision to keep the choices at Salt & Straw interesting.

KIM: Steve Jobs was quoted once saying, ‘If you want to make everyone happy, don’t be a leader, sell ice cream.’ So we’re changing that. We’re changing the way people think about ice cream.  And that’s okay, you stand for something and it doesn’t make everybody happy.

I was with a family member recently and he was trying our strawberry honey balsamic with black pepper and he was like, that’s just too salad like, I don’t like, I don’t like this. I don’t want to have it. And I said, that’s okay. Let’s have this gooey brownie here and a little side scoop of the best vanilla in the world, which Salt & Straw does make.

And he had a big smile on his face and he loved it. If you stand in line at Salt & Straw and you go through the whole tasting process, which you can taste every single flavor, you’ll see it’s people they’re not on their phones, they’re talking to each other. They’re meeting in line, like people have gotten job offers and wedding proposals in our line. And I just share that because this idea of trying new things that you haven’t had before it gets you talking to each other, It gets people meeting, it gets people excited.

It’s like a little something to do. It’s almost beyond having ice cream. I remember standing outside of our store when we were like two years old and we had a fish caramel sauce mixed in, which was a collaboration with a local ramen shop. And this guy was like, fish caramel, come on, they can’t put that in ice cream.

He got so mad and he had no idea who I was and I was standing right there and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you have to try this.’ And he and I talked and I got him a sample and he was laughing because he couldn’t believe that he got so mad right when I was standing right there, but it was just a great example of opening your mind and trying something new and it’s okay. I don’t mind if people are like, no way, no way. I’m going  to steer clear of that. I just think you got to stand for something in life. And gosh, darn it I’m standing for interesting ice cream. Put it on my tombstone when I die.

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