Sweet Melissa’s Goes from Startup to Expansion

BOARDMAN, Ohio – With a baccalaureate in health sciences from Ohio University, Melissa Poland thought after she reared her children, she would re-enter the workforce as an activities director for a nursing home or hospital.

But a part-time job changed all that.

At a friend’s  suggestion, she went to work at Ghossain’s Gourmet Mediterranean Foods, 3990 South Ave., prepping ingredients in the kitchen.

“All I did for the first seven months was clean and chop parsley, tomatoes and onions and make tabouli,” Poland says.

After the head chef left the café, Poland became chef by default, she says. With no background in running a kitchen, the company taught her everything she needed to know.

It was through that opportunity that Poland found her passion.

“I had no idea I had such a love. It came easy for me because it was about mixing textures and flavors,” she says. “And then I was able to convey that love onto the audience of my customers. I knew I could never leave it after that.”

Flash forward to 2017: Poland wanted to take what she had learned and apply it to her own business, a salads and wraps café that became Sweet Melissa’s Good Eats at 6810 Market St. in Boardman. With an idea, knowledge of how to run a kitchen and about $25,000 in startup capital, she faced a new learning curve – how to be a business owner.

Poland shared her story and answered questions from students about entrepreneurship during a Brain Gain Navigators webinar Nov. 8.

The site on Market Street was a former Chinese restaurant. So it had a kitchen. Renovations were needed to fulfill Poland’s vision, however, and she needed to buy equipment.

“I was completely blown away by my budgets,” she recalls. “I was completely off. But it was OK because it started gradually.”

It took about six months from concept to opening the doors of Sweet Melissa’s, Poland says. In addition to advice from PNC Bank, she found resources on how to run a business from the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County.

Working with PNC Bank helped Poland to fully realize her vision. After helping to solidify an entrepreneur’s business plan, PNC pairs an entrepreneur with an accounting firm and law firm to look everything over, says Ted Schmidt, PNC Bank regional president, Youngstown.

Bringing money to the table showed that Poland had some skin in the game, Schmidt says, which allowed PNC “to leverage that investment Melissa made and help her grow throughout her expansion efforts as she’s doing today.”

If entrepreneurs need more assistance, PNC can help facilitate that, Schmidt says. The bank works with more than 1,000 small businesses in the Mahoning Valley, he notes.

“We work with [Valley Economic Development Partners] here locally. They have some programs through the [Small Business Administration], whether they’re guarantees for the loans,” he says. “You can also explore some of the capital funds through the state. That’s our job, to really bring that advice and ideas to the borrower for additional resources.”

For entrepreneurs who don’t have a business partner, Schmidt recommends they reach out to their local branch manager to get started. Having someone to guide an entrepreneur through the various processes is key to developing a trusted relationship, he says.

It’s also important to ensure the idea for the business is solid. For many entrepreneurs, any idea is “the best thing since sliced bread” according to their friends and family, he says.

“We’re going to ask you the tough questions and we’re going to dig into the project,” Schmidt says. “It’s not that we’re going to offend them. But we’re going to be objective and explain to them why it’s important to put together a really good business plan and work with your partners.”

Jennifer Dice, banking relationship manager at PNC, recently started to work with Poland. In that time, she’s helped Poland to “maximize her receivables in the most efficient and effective way possible,” she says. That includes how Poland makes her payments for utilities, payroll and  delivery of ingredients.

Dice works side-by-side with her clients to streamline their revenue cycles and take advantage of any ways to make cash come in quicker. One way PNC helps with the process is through automation.

“For a lot of small-business owners, they feel that everything needs to be cut by checks still,” Dice says. “There’s so many ways to leverage technology to protect yourself and to make things more efficient.”

Efficiency is key at Sweet Melissa’s. The staff at the café prepares and serves 450 to 600 salads daily and goes through 12 to 15 cases of lettuce, 400 pounds of chicken and anywhere from five to 10 gallons of vinaigrette every day, Poland says.

Everything is chopped, prepared and served fresh daily, she says. From 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., there are as many as 16 people in the kitchen.

“It’s an engine and it has to run smoothly,” Poland says. “I have three ladies that all they do is clean and chop lettuce five hours a day.”

The company employs 24, up from six when Sweet Melissa’s opened. And everyone is paid more than minimum wage, “which is something that I’m really, really thankful for that we’re able to do,” Poland says.

In the first year alone, business increased 20%. It has been growing 20% to 30% every year since, she says.

Consistently maintaining a quality product is key, she says. “When you start sub-standardizing, that’s when you’re going to start seeing a decrease in your foot traffic,” she says.

“I feel like I have arrived in Youngstown, Ohio,” she continues. “We have 65% of our business that’s return traffic. It’s those repeat customers. And it’s so nice to know that they’ve embraced Sweet Melissa’s and that they support us too.”

In the four years she’s operated the café, Poland has sought business advice from customers who have become friends. Many of her customers are business people, she says.

“I’ve asked them, ‘You’re successful. Tell me your plan.’ And I’ve gotten some of the greatest feedback just from picking the brains of some of my people because I know what they do,” she says.

“It’s been so rewarding, because they come in at different times and I will step out of the kitchen and make time for them and sit with them and talk with them for a little bit.”

It’s advice she leverages as she prepares to open her second location in the TownCentre at Firestone Farms in Columbiana. She hopes to be open for December.

When a company is ready to expand, PNC’s Dice helps adjust its original business plans to its new markets, she says. She recommends business owners consult with their accountants and attorneys as well.

Being able to help local businesses like Sweet Melissa’s expand and grow is “extremely rewarding” work, she says. “They’ve achieved something and you were a part of that.”

And Schmidt sees more people taking that step, he says. As individuals changed their workstyles and lifestyles because of the pandemic, some are deciding to make a change and start their own businesses.

While the journey has been challenging for Poland, one of the most rewarding parts has been proving the doubters wrong, she says.

“I had a lot of people say, ‘Wraps and salads – are you crazy? This is meat-and-potatoes country, Melissa. You’re never going to succeed at this.’ And I have proven them wrong,” Poland says. “This is such an exciting time to watch this business because we continue to grow.”

Pictured: Jennifer Dice, banking relationship manager at PNC, recently started working with Melissa Poland, owner and operator of Sweet Melissa’s. Dice and Ted Schmidt, PNC regional president, Youngstown, make it a priority to support local businesses.