Sweet Melissa’s, PNC Help Students Navigate Entrepreneurship

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — With a baccalaureate degree in health sciences, Melissa Poland thought after raising her kids that 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 the suggestion of a friend, she worked part time at Ghossain’s Gourmet Mediterranean Foods at 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 said. “That’s basically all I did.”

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

It was through that opportunity that Poland says she 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 said. “And then I was able to convey that love onto the audience of my customers. So I knew I could never leave it then after that.”

Flash forward to 2017, and Poland decided she 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. With an idea, knowledge of how to run a kitchen and about $25,000 in startup capital, she now 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 Market Street location was a former Chinese food 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,” Poland recalled. “I was completely off. But it was ok, because it started gradually.”

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

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

If entrepreneurs need a little extra, PNC can help facilitate that, he said. PNC works with more than 1,000 small businesses in the Mahoning Valley.

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

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

In the four years she’s operating the café, Poland has enjoyed additional advice from customers who have become friends. Many of her customers are business people, she said.

“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 said. “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 to this day as Sweet Melissa’s prepares to open its second location in the TownCentre at Firestone Farms in Columbiana. The building there is almost completed and she hopes to be open for December, she said.

And while the journey has been challenging, one of the most rewarding parts has been proving the doubters wrong, she said.

“I had a lot of people that came to me and said, ‘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 said. “This is such an exciting time to watch this business because we continue to grow here at Sweet Melissa’s. I can tell you that because of the volume we’re going through.”

Sweet Melissa’s 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, she said.

In the first year alone, business increased 20%, and it has been increasing 20% to 30% every year after that, she said. The company currently employs 24, up from six when Sweet Melissa’s first opened. And everyone is paid more than minimum wage, she said.

“I feel like I have arrived in Youngstown, Ohio with my business,” Poland said. “We have 65% of our business is 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.”

Hear more from Poland and Schmidt in the webinar video posted above. A full-length feature article will also run in a future edition of The Business Journal.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.