How can something as simple as ice cream be impacted by its city? Salt & Straw's Kim Malek (of Portland) and Lofty Pursuits' Gregory Cohen (of Tallahassee) dish on demographics, local flavors and how hot-weather businesses survive rainy days.
Cohen: Let me start by saying I've never been to Portland.
Malek: I've never been to Tallahassee!
Cohen: Well, it's about one-third the size of Portland, and it's also really isolated, with no big cities within two or three hours. The city was a whole bunch of plantations, and some of them still exist, so we have these long, diagonal roads lined with trees that are hundreds of years old. You can drive for an hour without seeing the sky overhead, just sunlight dappling down through these old oak trees.
Malek: Sounds dreamy. Portland is small, with a very entrepreneurial spirit, but we're also in one of the most incredible agricultural areas in the United States. Of course we were going to work with local dairies and farmers. But after my cousin, Tyler, and I started Salt & Straw, we realized we could take it one step further, and we started partnering with local artisans to make unique flavors. Now we work with local beer brewers and cheese makers and charcuterie houses and tea makers, and our flavors change every four weeks. Our business model is based on that spirit of collaboration.
Cohen: I noticed on your website that you have dill pickle sorbet. Are you really plating it on top of dill pickle spears?
Malek: No! [laughs]
Cohen: I have a jar of pickle juice in my fridge, and after this call I'm going to have to see exactly what pickle juice does to my churn.
Malek: I love it. It's pretty awesome.
Cohen: We have a salted sundae with olive oil and sea salt, in a rotating menu of about 230 flavors. But we keep 12 to 15 flavors constant. Many of our customers are 10 to 12, so it's also important to maintain blue as a flavor.
Malek: I think a lot of kids in Portland are down for ordering something complex. But we keep a good number of core flavors on the menu, too, because some customers want to count on those. The seasonal menu feels more like sand art -- it's insane to keep up with, and customers have to see them before they're gone forever.
Cohen: Some of the glassware we use in the dining room dates back to the 1940s. We use a five-gallon wooden churn that was used by the Amish. It's part of the history here, and I like the texture it gives the ice cream, because it's a vertical churn. What kind of churn do you use?
Malek: I'm slipping on the name -- brain freeze! Oh, Emery Thompson.
Cohen: That electric churn is probably the best in the country, and the company is based here in Florida.
Malek: I envy your sunshine in Florida. It rains nine months of the year in Portland.
Cohen: My sales drop by almost 30 percent when it rains. So I have a rainy day special -- 20 percent off. That would bankrupt someone in your location.
Malek: It's definitely busier when it's sunny here. But people still eat ice cream in the rain, too. If you didn't go out and live your life in the rain in Portland, you wouldn't see much.