Passion and determination- Do you eat, sleep, breathe your product? Is it all you can think about? Melly’s Meatball Mix is a part of me and so it oozes out in everything I do. I am constantly looking at YouTube to see how I can grow my business and always looking for ways I can learn.
As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Castner.
Melissa Castner is an FDN-Practitioner, wife, and mother of 3. She monetized her love for cooking and her own food sensitivities to go back to school, learn how gluten affects the gut and brain, and created a delicious Meatball Mix, which makes 18 authentic meatballs in half the time! Having ADHD and learning disabilities of her own, she realized the importance going gluten free had on her health.
Learning from the best, she used her family’s recipes to create the perfect Sunday Dinner Experience. Melly’s Meatball Mix offers gluten free and regular mixes (now on Amazon!) bringing everyone to the table, no matter what their food sensitivities are.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
Sure! I grew up in Union, NJ where I was the oldest of 3. I took dancing from 3 years old and continued through my high school years. Tap was my favorite but honestly, anytime there was music playing, I was on the dance floor!
Growing up in the 80’s, I had big hair and loved Bon Jovi! But who didn’t! 🙂
I got diagnosed with Crohn’s disease as a teen and that started a journey I had no idea what was in store for me.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
Imagine growing up with abdominal pain, bloating, brain fog, cramping, and extreme fatigue but not knowing the source of it! As I got married and had kids I thought I would have grown out of it. The truth is, I noticed it the most after our Italian Sunday Dinner.
I was watching The View one day when Elisabeth Hasselbeck recommended a book she wrote called, “The G Free Diet”. I felt like she was speaking to me! Could this “gluten” be the source of my problem?
At this point in time, going gluten free was becoming more streamline. It was getting easier to find Gluten Free bread, Gluten Free pasta, and Gluten Free desserts (some tasted like cardboard but it was my only choice) but I still wasn’t able to find meatballs. What was I going to do without meatballs!?!
I knew if I was having this problem, I’m sure there were many experiencing the same.
I crafted gluten free meatballs using Nana’s recipe and boy were they good! They didn’t taste like cardboard! Nobody in my family knew the difference!
Thus, Melly’s Meatball Mix was birthed! Melly’s Meatball Mix is a meatball mix pre-measured using our family recipe to make 18 meatballs in half the time. Starting with Gluten Free and then launching Regular, because honestly, nobody could resist the authentic taste of Nana’s meatballs. It’s an easy and convenient way to make authentic meatballs that come perfect every time.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Honestly, I felt like this whole journey I made so many mistakes. The most important lesson I learned from it is it’s ok to make mistakes. That is how you are going to learn and grow. I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t put myself out there. So many people would say, “What is Melissa doing now!?” Although it was said with a negative connotation, I didn’t care. Entrepreneurs don’t care. They keep trying different things… eventually the spaghetti is going to stick to the wall!
What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?
I would say the most common mistakes people make is they are not willing to pivot. They think their idea is the best (which it may be) but they are not willing to tweak an ingredient to make it shelf stable. They need to ask themselves, “am I willing to change my packaging or position in the market?”
The business I had before was “The Necessary Blend” which was premade blends helping those with food sensitivities. My meatball mix was in that line-up but it was in a little mason jar since all my other products were in mason jars.
I read a book called Cooking Up Business by Rachel Hofstetter (which is a must, in my opinion, if you are thinking about starting a food business) . There are lessons in this book from many successful food entrepreneurs, who turned their passion into a career . In order to make it successful, they had to be willing to pivot. They are willing to put the time into it.
I realized the mix was not only simple and less time consuming to prepare but also had a great story behind it. I had to reevaluate my packaging and ditch the mason jars.. (Which I was sad about but once I pivoted, I realized this was the best decision I made for my business)
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
The first question is, WHY are you making it? Is there a need that is being met?
If the answer is yes, do your homework! See what brands out there are similar to yours and identify why yours is different.
Map out who your audience is. That was a hard one for me because I could really sell my mix in many markets. However, over time, you’ll understand who your audience is. You are going to attract your tribe, one that has the same passions and are like-minded as you.
Next, I would hire a food scientist and a packaging developer who can guide you through all of the necessary steps to avoid making mistakes. For instance, I had no idea I should do a water analysis on the mix, which was an important step to make sure no mold or bacteria grew in it.
Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?
That is a hard one. I think many ideas can be good but the first step is to identify if this is going to be more of a hobby or an actual business? Are you willing to put hours into tweaking, changing, adding, subtracting, filling, packaging, selling, and doing whatever it takes to be successful? And if it’s a hobby, that’s ok, too! Just have expectations from the beginning.
I didn’t have a clue where to start since I didn’t know anyone around me who actually started a food business. I went to our community school where they offered free classes for small businesses. One of the mentors introduced me to a food scientist and a packaging developer, who not only helped me with design but also became my Project Manager. I also consulted with a consultant who really helped navigate my thoughts.
Surround yourself with knowledge. It’s the best tool you can have!
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
If you don’t know where to start, then YES, absolutely! It was the best decision I made. I wouldn’t be here without their knowledge and guidance. They suggested some ideas that made me pivot at times but make sure you always stick to your gut. Although there are many ideas that can be a benefit to your business, it’s your business and it has to bear witness with your soul.
I also believe it is important to link with a PR group that is like-minded. I tried to do it myself but knew I needed experts to help me promote my business. They have the connections that I didn’t have and let’s be honest, I don’t have the time or energy to find them. Allison from ChicExecs has been a lifesaver for me! She connected with my vision and ran with it. Know what your strengths are and delegate out the rest!
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
I don’t think there’s one that is necessarily the best option. The question is, “What is the best option for your business or your family?” My husband has been so supportive and we used our money as a loan to grow my business. I am thankful for that. Now the business is growing I did try to find other ways of investments, like Shark Tank so I will keep you posted on what I come up with.
Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?
Patents are hard for food products. I tried to get a patent but if someone changes one ingredient, the patent becomes null and void, unless there is something proprietary about the product or ingredients.
Ask your manufacturer/ co-packer if they have restrictions. Are they gluten free? Vegan? Kosher? Are any of those certifications important to you?
It is hard to get into retail if you don’t have connections or pay money to be on RangeMe. Start with hitting as many boutiques, specialty stores as you can. SELL, SELL, SELL. You will see if you get repeat business- that’s a good thing! You will have success stories to offer instead of just going by a ‘wing and a prayer.’
Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Passion and determination- Do you eat, sleep, breathe your product? Is it all you can think about? Melly’s Meatball Mix is a part of me and so it oozes out in everything I do. I am constantly looking at YouTube to see how I can grow my business and always looking for ways I can learn.
- Be able to Pivot- As I mentioned before, this is huge! I promise you, your initial idea won’t be the same as the end result.
- Surround yourself with those who know the food industry- if it weren’t for Esther from Raritan Valley Community School, Sherri from Wellness Cooking Academy, Ernie (food scientist) and Frank (packaging developer from FBI) I wouldn’t be where I am today.
- Be ok with “NO”- Most of the time when you introduce a product to the market, especially if it’s a new concept, the first things someone will say is ‘no’ and ‘are you sure’. No doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea, it means they don’t necessarily understand why it is a good idea or maybe it’s just not for them.
- Be willing to put the time into it- Bringing a food product to market is more than just an idea. You have to be ok with putting the time in to not only create and sell the product but find resources to learn. What is the best way to advertise? When is the best way to advertise? Who is the audience you advertise to? I follow some social media influencer Youtubers and I said to my husband one day, “ I am doing this all wrong!” Thank God for DIY learning. You need to have that hunger to learn and be the best you can be!
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
They will LOVE your product if they connect to it. Honestly, my Meatball Mix is absolutely the best (of course, I am biased) but what people connect to is the story: why I created it, why it’s different and WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) If they can identify with why they need it, AND it’s delicious, you will have a home run!
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I have ADHD, comprehension issues, and slight dyslexia.. Going gluten free has helped calm those symptoms and there were many resources that were helpful for me understanding how I think.
With every purchase, I wanted to give a percentage of the proceeds to Learning Disability Organizations, like the National Center for Learning Disabilities, Understood.org and ADDitude Magazine. I have also used my studies (becoming an FDN-P) to help educate others on the effects of gluten on the brain and body. I want those with disabilities to ‘Go Beyond the Label”, Know their worth and know anything is possible if you put your mind (and time) to it..
I want this to be more than a product. I want it to be an experience. Sunday Dinners are important in our family. It is a time to gather together, share stories, eat and laugh. My mission is to bring Sunday Dinner back into the homes of everyone. Sunday Dinner doesn’t just have to be Sunday. It’s coming together through the experience of food and forgetting everything you have going on while making time to connect. Connecting to family/ friends has proved, especially during this pandemic, how important it is to our mental health.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Five months of being in business, I wasn’t satisfied. I knew this product was a huge hit but I wanted it to be more than that. I wanted it to be a movement- bringing Sunday Dinner back to every home. In this time of COVD, I added Virtual and In-Home classes (NJ residents) to teach them how to create the perfect Sunday Dinner, using our family recipes.
If I could somehow influence people in a fun way to connect and understand both family and friends are everything, then I have done my job. We, as a society, are so busy running here and there with so many errands and activities that we sometimes push aside what is really important.
I have struggled in life with people not taking me seriously (because I think differently). I don’t necessarily fit the ‘mold’ but I am thankful for that. I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
RACHAEL RAY!! Oh how I would LOVE to pick her brain!
First off, Rachael lives in NY and I am in NJ. She is basically in my backyard! She is part Italian (like me!) and developed her 30 minute meal classes which were picked up by TV.
Rachel isn’t a trained chef (like me!) yet used her hard work, passion and determination to become who she is today.
Melly’s Meatball Mix is an easy and convenient way to make meatballs in ½ the time (see the correlation!) . My love for cooking and my Italian background has used this mix to make many delicious meals, including the Sunday Dinner Experience.
Rachael Ray is an inspiration and she is ‘real’. I hope one day to be an inspiration just like Rachel and who knows.. Maybe one day I will be a guest on The Rachael Ray Show! (one could dream, right?!?)
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.