“I spent the first few days in shock as all our corporate business, catering events, retail and wholesale business went away in the span of 48 hours,” says Mmelo Boutique Confections founder Michelle Allen.
Editor's note: This article is from the May 2020 issue of Columbus CEO. After the May issue was published, Mmelo owner Michelle Allen announced her plans to close the Vine Street location and move operations to a new production space in the Mettler Toledo building. You can read the full announcement on Mmelo's Instagram.
Back in March, which seems like another lifetime rather than a mere two months ago, Michelle Allen was looking ahead for her business, Mmelo Boutique Confections.
The previous year had been a learning process for the small business, which makes beautiful, tasty artisanal treats. Allen had figured out wholesale, cultivated a great staff and was in the process of moving to a new kitchen after four years spent at the Economic and Community Development Institute’s Food Fort. Then coronavirus hit.
“I spent the first few days in shock as all our corporate business, catering events, retail and wholesale business went away in the span of 48 hours,” Allen says via email. “Once I stopped hyperventilating, we started to plan. Our days are spent trying to figure out what’s going to get us through this with our business and our amazing team intact.”We're here to help you stay in touch with what's going on out there. Read our latest reporting on the coronavirus response here.
For Easter, Mmelo offered delivery within a 20-mile radius of its Downtown store. It was a first, and while Allen says it was a success, it also forced her to think about the brand’s business model.
“We now have to figure out how to do that outside of the holidays and what a menu of that nature would look and taste like,” Allen says. “We want to make sure that whatever service we invest in now continues to support our business when this thing is over.”
Trying to run a small business in the midst of a global pandemic is one of many interesting moments in Allen’s career. Born and raised in Columbus, she started working in film production after graduating from Ohio State University. That led her to New York, where she ran a production company for a decade. There, she met her husband Paul, who serves as the brand director for Mmelo.
After a vacation in Barcelona, Spain, the couple decided to move there. They ended up staying 13 years. It was there that the food bug bit Allen.
“There was a real kind of food revolution going on there. All the gastronomy that you hear about now, that all really started there,” Allen says. “I started studying food science in Barcelona. I think probably because I have a child’s palette, I gravitated toward sweet food and started doing confectionery work.”
Allen decided she wanted to move home to Columbus to open a shop. She jokes that after two years of negotiations, her husband agreed. After moving home in the fall of 2015, Allen held a pop-up at Easton during the holiday season, and a year later opened Mmelo’s Downtown storefront. ECDI has been an invaluable resource during the startup phase, she says.
“I had a hair products business before … I was a producer for 13 years … but I had never run a food business, which I can say is entirely different,” Allen says. “I’m still actually honing my understanding of how to run a food business.”
Another support for Allen has been Neil Collins, co-leader of Innovate New Albany, a business incubator. Collins says he invested in Mmelo because of the product and the people behind the company.
“The Mmelo products are superior. They’re remarkable products—the kind of product that people remark about, they talk to other people about. And when they see it, they don’t forget it,” Collins says. “Michelle was somebody I felt like I could really work with because she was trying to create something [that] would be … treasured by the customer she wanted to serve.”
One of Allen’s chief challenges has been staffing. This year she finally found the best team for Mmelo, only to have to furlough many of them due to coronavirus. “We’ll do everything we can not to lose them at this point,” she says.Stay up to date with the region’s business scene. Subscribe to Columbus CEO’s weekly newsletter.
Last year wasn’t exactly a breeze for the business owner, either. “We had anticipated growing 20 percent, 30 percent. We ended up growing 67 percent,” she says. “The accommodation of that additional 37 percent … was huge. We limped to the finish line.”
As difficult as the pandemic is on Allen and other business owners, she sees a small blessing in the middle of these tough times.
“As bone-crushingly painful as it is, I do think it’s an opportunity to course correct for Mmelo,” she says. “We grew too fast last year, and it was extraordinarily hard and painful managing that. This forced pause is giving us the rare opportunity to really look at our business and make some productive choices about what comes next.”