Leadership at Portland’s most famous ice cream shop is considering moving its headquarters out of town. Kim Malek, the co-founder of ice cream company Salt & Straw, says the brand’s production arm “can’t stay here” if the city’s issues with crime and violence continue, citing recent incidents at the main kitchen in Southeast Portland.
Last week, Malek told the Oregonian that a fire in an RV parked near Salt & Straw’s headquarters shut down power to the location, just a few days after someone pointed a gun at an employee while he was walking to work. Those events — compounded by years of frustrations with crime and trash in the headquarters’ neighborhood — instigated her decision to speak to city officials about the potential move, which the press picked up. “Seeing it get worse and worse, I don’t know what option I have,” Malek told KEZI last week.
In conversation with Eater Portland, Malek specifies that her issues have been specific to the area around Salt & Straw’s main kitchen in inner Southeast Portland. “We have 50 people who show up at all hours to make ice cream,” Malek says. “We’ve been working to make sure they’re safe for several years now. But in the past couple of weeks, when things have flared up, it was kind of a breaking point for me.”
It seems Malek is also getting some backup: musician Thomas Lauderdale wrote a letter to city officials about the fire and the company’s plans, attributing the issue to the unfettered access to drugs within the city.
“This is less a homeless issue; it is a health and public safety and drug issue,” Lauderdale wrote in his letter to city leaders. “This is drug-fueled and it needs to be addressed immediately.”
In 2020, Oregon voters passed Measure 110, which decriminalized the possession of small amounts of controlled substances like meth and heroin. The measure also established a grant program to increase the number of addiction recovery centers and services within the state. The measure has been heavily critiqued for the delayed distribution of grant funding, and local law enforcement has attributed the measure to an increase in crimes like car theft and break-ins. However, independent research firm RTI International found no correlated increase in calls for police service following the establishment of Measure 110.
That being said, anyone following Portland restaurants on Instagram know that break-ins and crime have become a major issue for many local food businesses. Sushi spot Fish & Rice attributed their recent closure, in part, to “repeated break-ins,” one of many businesses to post images of shattered windows and broken locks on Instagram. Portland police records indicate that burglaries rose around 17 percent from 2019 to 2021; incidents of vandalism more than doubled in August 2022 compared to August 2019.
Malek says that she doesn’t have a specific city in mind when it comes to moving manufacturing. Salt & Straw operates locations in several major cities along the West Coast, as well as Miami. Despite locals’ documented negative feelings toward the city in recent years, Portland is far from alone when it comes to an increase in crime. It doesn’t appear on the lists of most dangerous or safest cities in the United States, based on the cost of crime.
“I can’t say we haven’t been thinking about doing this, but there aren’t specific plans in place,” she says. “Every municipality around us has been reaching out since this news broke.”
Malek has emphasized that she would prefer to work with city and county officials to improve conditions in the area; she has already met with Mingus Mapps’s communications director and policy advisor, Adam Lyons, about a public-private collaboration to come up with solutions. Malek told Eater Portland that they’re specifically working on developing a 90-day plan to address crime in the neighborhood, one that would theoretically go into effect before the end of the year. The specifics of that plan are still in development.
“I’ve done nothing but work on this issue for the past week, all day long, all night long, ever since the explosion happened,” she says. “There’s a big opportunity for the city and county especially to work with our local Central Eastside Industrial Council to come up with a plan to keep our streets safe. I’m really hopeful.”
For now, the ice cream giant will stay in Portland — assuming things get better.
“I moved back to Portland to open Salt & Straw; I do not want to leave,” she says. “This is my home. I want to be part of the solution.”
Updated Tuesday, November 29, 2022 at 4:30 p.m.: This story has been updated to include comment from Kim Malek.
Correction: This story has been corrected to show that Portland does not have a lower rate of homicides than Seattle.