As a child, Melanie Moss spent afternoons in the kitchen of her Long Island home with her grandmother. Together, they would bake the time away and try on jewelry while their treats warmed in the oven. Little did Moss know that those sweet afternoons with “Oma” would ignite a passion to last a lifetime.
Now 29, she is the owner of Mini Melanie, a confectionery she launched in the fall of 2014 whose jewel-shaped truffles — cake dough centers wrapped in intricate chocolate shells — are making an impression on the culinary world. Mini Melanie snagged a spot in the New York City 2016 Michelin Guide, and has been featured on NBC’s “New York Live” and in Cosmopolitan, among other publications.
But Moss’ rise as a professional baker came well after her childhood culinary adventures. Though her passion for cooking always simmered just beneath the surface, it would take Moss several years working in the professional world to realize and embrace her true calling.
According to the findings of our 3-year 1,000 Stories project, in which Moss took part, she’s not alone in letting passion lead her business direction — though other, more practical reasons tend to influence women business owners more frequently. In all, about 13 percent of the women who participated in the project cited passion as a key motivator in starting up.
Moss has shown that the gamble can pay off. Her growing business now takes orders for about 4,000 of her colorful, individually hand-painted truffles per week.
A Constant Interest, Long Denied
Early on, pragmatism — both hers and her parents’ — stopped Moss from pursuing the culinary arts professionally. Instead, she attended Northwestern University and studied English Literature and French, earning her degree in 2008.
But throughout college, she found ways to keep cooking in her life — for example, by seeking out a respected French chef during her year abroad in Paris and whipping up treats between classes. Even when she began working at Hachette Book Group after graduation, she wondered if she could collaborate with authors of cookbooks.
In her spare time, she started a solo venture as an event chef. Ultimately, that sideline set Moss on the path she had always wanted to walk, by demonstrating that her passion could become her livelihood.
Ever the serious student, Moss put together a PowerPoint presentation detailing how and why she should cook professionally, in a bid to convince both herself and her parents that this was a reasonable path to follow. Soon after successfully making her “case,” she began attending the Institute of Culinary Education(ICE) in New York City on the weekends.
Once she landed internships at Pat LaFrieda Wholesale Meats and Saveur magazine in June of 2010, she kissed corporate life goodbye, and cooking became her full-time focus. “It definitely felt like the right fit,” she says.
Later that year, Moss moved into restaurant world, ultimately dedicating three intense years to working in the upscale kitchens of Babbo in New York City and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. — both with Michelin stars.
Serving as a pastry chef at both restaurants, she honed her skills, until the day she knew she could — and should — start out on her own. “I have talent. I’m very capable and a hard worker,” she says, “I would rather just apply all of those skills to my own business than be in a restaurant 24-7.”
The Rise of Mini Melanie
From the beginning, Moss has been dedicated to her vision for Mini Melanie. She even bootstrapped the startup funds she needed, to ensure final say on how the business launched and scaled. “I wanted to have the control to grow quickly, but in the direction that I’m choosing. And I know that would be less possible if we had investors.”
She was also determined from the get-go to focus on dessert. While truffles are the star of her show, Mini Melanie also designs and makes cakes. “When it comes down to it, I’m definitely a baker. That’s what I’ve been doing my whole life,” she says.
Yet, she also drew on skills from her time at Hachette to navigate the startup process, tapping into the public-relations savvy she acquired there to find a marketing hook for Mini Melanie. “This is an age of photography — everything is about photos,” she says. “So I wanted to make something really eye-catching.” Voilà: jewel-shaped truffles.
Less than two years in, Moss is already on the path to expansion. She is about to hire a second full-time staffer and manages a small collective of interns and part-time pastry chefs. While Moss declined to disclose revenue figures, she says the business is meeting its financial goals and continuing to grow.
Recently, she moved Mini Melanie into Hill & Dale, a bar with kitchen space for rent located in the bustling Bowery neighborhood of Manhattan, known for its kitchen-supply stores. She made the transition after working out of an incubator space run by Hot Bread Kitchen in Harlem for several months.
From this hot new spot, she’s poised to continue growing — and always in her own way. After all, Moss’ time in the restaurant world was formative beyond honing cooking skills and inspiring her to start her own venture. It also informs how she runs Mini Melanie.
“Respect is first and foremost. You can get your message across without screaming at someone,” she says, recalling times when rough treatment in high-end kitchens reduced her to tears and left her feeling apprehensive about returning to work some days. (Other female chefs we’ve interviewed lived through similar ordeals.)
Moss wants to ensure that her employees never feel that way. “Why would I want that kind of environment? I understand that chefs are under a lot of pressure, and I definitely run a tight ship. But everyone should be treated with respect.”
A Recipe for a Bright Future
Moss has a clear vision of what’s ahead for Mini Melanie. “I want to have a larger production space for wholesale and larger retail product and shipping,” she says. “I want to grow the brand and our customer base more.”
Moss also wants to secure catalog placement and forge partnerships with high-end stores. Within the year, she hopes to add a philanthropic component to the business by partnering with charitable organizations that help underprivileged couples have the weddings of their dreams.
In a moment of reflection, Moss describes her startup story as a journey in both finding herself, and creating her identity as a business owner. But ultimately, her drive and sense of accomplishment come from a place as simple as the cookies she used to bake with Oma years ago: “Our desserts make people feel happy every day, and I feel really lucky.”