Going out for ice cream is not always a joy. For most people older than 16, and especially for parents, the combination of lines, crowds, and small children with sugar highs transforms a fun Saturday activity into an anxious game of “Don’t‑yell-at-someone-else’s‑shrieking-child!”
When my mom and I arrived at Salt and Straw in the Portland Pearl District to find a line stretching out the door and around the corner, we each took a deep breath and prepared ourselves to endure at least a half hour of shoving, sweating, and whining.
We expected mayhem and misery. We were in the vacation spirit, though, and unlikely to deny ourselves anything, especially sweet and quiescently frozen. So we parked ourselves around the corner at the back of the line, little expecting we were about to share the greatest ice cream experience of our lives.
If you ever get the chance, visit the Salt and Straw.
Don’t go just because of the quirky atmosphere and wacky flavors like Olive Oil and Lavender. Don’t even go because they let you taste literally every flavor they have before you order. Go and observe the management.
First launched as a food cart in 2011 by cousins Kim and Tyler Malek, the local ice cream shop sensationalized the business and has since opened brick-and-mortar locations in Portland, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle.
The company owner Kim shares their mission on their website: “to create the kind of company that’s fun to support, work for, and partner with.”
Their desire to build community shines even in the way their employees run the register. To watch the way those students and teenagers run the operation, managing to make waiting in line an activity and the whole decision-making process a part of the fun, revolutionizes the idea of food service.
This place is foodie-magic.
The line moved more quickly than we expected, but we had time to take in our surroundings. Portland during the first weekend in August meant that the maple trees which line the streets created whispering canopies over our heads, and the golden lights from shop windows illuminated the shady sidewalks with a carnival glow. Teenage couples on dates and grandparents with kids to spoil milled around the corners, stopping to listen to a street performer playing “Brown Eyed Girl.” Here was THE hot-summer-hangout-location for Portlandians.
The sugary smell of homemade waffle cones spilled out the entrance, anointing us as we crossed the threshold. We picked up menus and perused their extensive list of flavors: Freckled Chocolate Zucchini Bread, Pear and Blue Cheese, Honey Lavender, Arbequina Olive Oil, Strawberry Honey with Balsamic.
When I realized the extent of the decisions I had before me, I silently thanked God for the time in line to weigh the pros and cons. My poor little brain already has trouble making decisions.
That’s when a teenager wearing a red head-scarf and a black apron interrupted my thinking to ask,
“Can I bring you a sample? I’ll bring them out to you and then you can just order at the counter. Try as many as you like.”
Unwilling to waste a good sample on something I wouldn’t like, I ordered something fruity. Once she had both mine and my mom’s sample orders, she zipped away and returned, spoons in hand. She then waited while we tasted, asked us what we thought, and suggested a few more options for us to try.
Encouraged by her enthusiasm, we put in a few more orders: Cinnamon Carrot Cake, and Pear and Blue Cheese. Each new flavor surprised and delighted us, and I could see our waitress-friend sharing in our pleasure as she brought spoon after spoon.
This process of tasting and discussing went on until we found ourselves nearing the front of the line. We looked around us, and everyone in the place was smiling and laughing and talking about the various flavors. The employees whisked around, ferrying sugar-laden spoons.
Despite the challenge of remembering their patrons’ various orders, they gladly encouraged guests to be brave and try the Olive Oil, promising to bring something tamer as a chaser if they hated it.
Now that vacation is over and I’m back at school, I hope the memory of that experience will fortify me against the frustration of meal halls, the coffee bars, and the harrowing lines in the lunchroom.
The employees at Salt and Straw made the universality of ice-cream-love a point of connection for people. Deciding on a flavor and waiting in line, usually a contest of who can get through line the fastest, became a communal activity.
Food is a universal necessity, and most often this means we get in one another’s way to get what we need. Meals become a hassle, a burden, an inconvenience interrupting our already busy lives, but this campus and the tables we crowd around in the cafeteria present an opportunity for connection.
The shuffling of the omelette line, the crush of too many bodies in a booth, the awkward dance we dance when we collide in the cafeteria, these moments sprinkle the humor of humanity into the basic activities of our lives. These are experiences that we all share that build community.
I want to slow down enough to appreciate the time spent from the back of the line to the counter and the people around me, sharing the journey.