Chef Mel Turns a Passion For Cooking Into Burgeoning Business
This Manchester woman turned a "great recipe" into a booming business. See how her entrepreneurial spirit shines through.
"Sweeeeeeet" (with roughly six or seven extra e’s) is exactly the way Manchester's Melissa Dodd-Ruesing likes to describe her original red pasta sauce. In fact, she is so confident in its sweetness that she thinks she just might be able to make a living off of selling the stuff. Driven by her self-confidence and the encouragement of her friends, Dodd has spent the last eight years working diligently to build and expand her brand of Chef Mel sauces.
“I didn’t like any red sauce anywhere, so I started making my own. And it just kind of went from there,” she said.
In 2003, Dodd was working as a physical therapy assistant at St. Luke's Hospital. Potlucks were often held at work. It was there that the sauce was first exposed to a wider audience. There were rave reviews were from the start.
“At St. Luke’s, lots of people bought my stuff,” she said. “I would get orders all the time. I had a little tote-type bag on wheels and would fill it up and go to different floors, and they would be like ‘OK she’s here. The sauce lady’s here.’”
Dodd said that St. Luke’s was filled with encouraging people and people who have supported her. “If you get enough encouragement, you’re like ‘OK I guess I’m going to go for it.’ And that’s what I did,” Dodd said.
In 2004, she took her wares to her first trade show, held at Parkway West High School. The positive reviews and encouragement kept pouring in. In 2006, two of Dodd’s close friends, who loved her cooking and believed others would too, said they were willing to risk some of their own money and help take Dodd's brand to the next level. Dodd spent the next year preparing to do just that. However, she said her two friends had to back out due to unexpected obligations.
“I was devastated when it fell through. And I thought, ‘Gosh, I’m not going to be able to do this after all that hard work,’” Dodd said.
But not long after the initial investors collapsed, Dodd received a phone call from someone who has willing and able to give her some start-up capital.
“I got that phone call...and we met and went to the bank," Dodd said. Dodd calls the investor her ‘anonymous angel,’ because though of course Dodd knows who it is, she has been asked not to reveal the name.
Chef Mel became a corporation in 2008, and the red sauce went into mass production. Instead of making a handful of batches in a large pot in her kitchen, Dodd’s sauce was being produced by the 55-gallon drum.
Though Dodd’s sauce has since enjoyed a growing market and customer base, the success hasn’t all come easy to her. Dodd said she was naive early on, thinking that a great recipe was the only thing she would need to build a strong company.
“I was a little too confident in the beginning and was a little blown away when told "No" by Dierbergs and Straub's. It crushed me,” Dodd said. “And we’re in Straub’s now because I intentionally did their market and Tripp Straub came out and said ‘Why aren’t you in our store?’”
For Dodd, persistence has paid off. Her product is now available in all of the Straub's Markets, as well as about 30 other grocery stores. She has also been invited to do live cooking demonstrations with Fox 2’s Tim Ezell and on KMOV’s Great Day St. Louis.
“I’ll be in the store, and people will be like ‘Hey that’s Chef Mel!’ and I just blush,” Dodd said. “I’m not used to that, but it’s fun. It’s great.”
Dodd’s entrepreneurial spirit was present even at the age of 8, when she, along with her best friend, took advantage of living right next door to Riverside Golf Course in Fenton.
“We would take our shoes off and get into the course’s pond--crawdads and all, we’d come out of the pond with crawdads on our legs--but we would squish around and try to find golf balls,” Dodd said. “We’d come home with buckets of golf balls.” Dodd and her friend would then shine up up the golf balls and sell them, as well as lemonade, to golfers the next day alongside the course.
Even as the number of retail outlets buying her sauce increases, the savvy business side of Dodd is thinking of other ways to expand her brand as well. She has created a Chef Mel salsa and said even opening a restaurant one day is definitely in the realm of possibilities.
“I’ve dreamed about that for a long time,” she said. “Having pasta, pizza...I’d love to have it out here (in West County) because of the following that I have. If I put a sign up out here with the Chef Mel logo, I think it would do very well.”
But a Chef Mel restaurant is not the absolute end that Dodd has in mind. She readily admits to thinking about one day being able to take the brand national and even herself becoming a household name like Rachel Ray or Emeril Lagasse.
Even while her business is still in its early stages, Dodd is already thinking of ways she could give back if she did attain national success. Dodd said she would one day like to help another entrepreneur make a go of it. She would love to be someone else’s “anonymous angel,” she said.
For a complete list of where Chef Mel sauces and salsas are sold, click here.