‘Sweet’ is the operative word at this Crystal Lake chocolatier, where owner Melanie Hiser makes a priority of friendly customer service and high-quality ingredients.
The first thing visitors notice upon entering Mellie’s Chocolate & Co., 2 N. Williams St., in Crystal Lake, is the aroma. The clean, fresh smell of strawberries and raspberries. The sweet, succulent scent of handmade fudge and caramel. Toasting cashews and pecans. Baking waffle cones.
If visitors still aren’t convinced to make a purchase, the free samples at the cash register and the smiling face of owner Melanie Hiser might help to close the deal. Mellie’s is one sweet place to find a delectable treat.
“Life’s short, be sweet!” is the store’s motto, a sentiment upon which Hiser tries to model her business and her life.
“I’ve been in the restaurant business my whole life, and just love the customer aspect of it,” she says. “I enjoy people coming in. I love happy people, and if they’re in a bad mood, I love making them perk up and be happy. It’s one of my things.”
The handmade chocolate display is the showcase of the store, but Mellie’s is home to more than that. Old-time traditional candies like Bit o’ Honeys, gumballs, jawbreakers and candy sticks fill containers along the walls. Ice cream rests in a freezer counter, ready to be scooped into a freshly made waffle cone. Mellie’s can also provide corporate gifts and unique molded candies.
But the real specialty is Mellie’s Celtic sea salt caramel.
“It’s a fresh-made caramel, and we dip it and sprinkle it with Celtic sea salt from Ireland,” Hiser says. “It melts in your mouth, it’s not sticky and you can tell it’s made fresh.”
Fresh ingredients, often purchased from local growers, is a constant theme with Mellie’s Chocolate. Hiser insists there’s a distinct difference in smell and taste with the authentic ingredients – something that puts her products on a pedestal when compared with big, national competitors.
The hand-dipped, locally grown, chocolate-covered strawberries and raspberries are a favorite as well. Mellie’s even puts a fun, distinctive spin on an old standby: the caramel apple.
“We use a local orchard and have been using Honeycrisp for our caramel apples,” Hiser says. “The main apple used to be a Granny Smith. It’s a little tart, but the Honeycrisp is big now and everyone seems to want it. When the Granny Smith is offered, it’s usually overlooked in favor of Honeycrisp. It makes us different because there are not a lot of places offering locally grown Honeycrisp caramel-dipped apples.
Hiser knows there are plenty of places to find chocolates, ice cream or waffle cones. As a small-business owner, she has to set herself apart in a sea of sweets alternatives. She does that by insisting on using only authentic ingredients. Her waffle cones are a perfect example.
“We make fresh waffle cones from scratch,” she explains. “Most places will use a bag of powdered ingredients, and will probably include 10 ingredients that you don’t even know how to pronounce. Ours is made with powdered sugar, unbleached flour, some heavy cream, cinnamon, nutmeg – and we stir it up and bake it right here. It’s a taste and a smell people aren’t used to. Once they have one of these, they’ll never want to go back.”
Insistence on organic or authentic ingredients can impact the bottom line, but it’s a tradeoff Hiser is happy to make.
“It’s about the integrity behind your business, making it a one-of-a-kind place that, when people walk in, they know you put a lot of hard work into something and made it from scratch, hand molded it, sprinkled the sea salt themselves – instead of it being made through machines,” she says. “It’s a very different experience.”
But Hiser insists the most compelling item she offers is a warm smile.
“The whole idea of this place is just happiness, just coming in and letting go of the things that are tough out there, and there are so many things that are tough right now. We can all relate to the need to forget it all and be happy,” she says. “I want people to say, ‘Hey, I went to that place and it was great.’ That’s what I want people to take home with them. That we’re a fun place to be.”
Creating a warm, happy atmosphere has to come from more than the owner, though. Hiser believes developing the right ambiance comes down to hiring the right people.
“As a business owner, the most important thing you can do is hire great employees,” she says. “It’s very hard to find people who want to work really hard, especially when you leave. But you know what? They are the face of your business. When you’re not around, the wrong employee could talk to somebody – or worse, not talk to somebody, when they come in your business. Or, they could use a tone the customer doesn’t appreciate, and then all of a sudden this visit has become so sour that they choose to never come back. You’re only as good as your employees are.”
For Mellie’s Chocolate & Co., the right employees are typically high school students who are looking for part-time work and don’t mind working at night.
“When people come in this door, your employees should set the tone for this being a great place to be,” Hiser says. “Dealing with my employees should be a natural upper for our customers.”
And that applies to people who just wander in to check out what Mellie’s has to offer.
“Even with people who come in here and don’t buy anything, I want my employees to chat with them, get to know something about them,” she says. “We want to know who our neighbors are, what their story is, why they’re here. There’s some excitement in knowing that maybe they’re from Rhode Island and we can have an influence on their Illinois experience, or they’re from Chicago and just stopped by for some ice cream. It’s good to know and it gives them a good feeling.”
To cultivate the right employees and right atmosphere requires ownership that is on the same page, a business lesson Hiser learned the hard way. When she started the business in 2004 with a partner, the pair melded like sugar and cream. But about two years ago, the partnership soured and Hiser’s partner went another direction.
“Our thoughts of the future were different,” Hiser says.
Looking back, she says the partnership was doomed because the two were not on the same page.
“You need to have two different roles, and have them well written so everyone knows their duties and expectations, and then follow through on that business plan,” Hiser says. “If you start a business with a partner, know their vision of the future. Where do they want to be in five years, 10 years? Because if things get moving in year five, six or seven and then all of a sudden you’re on a different page, it ruins everything you’ve tried to build.”
Without a solid plan to guide the partnership, Hiser says, small-business owners step out on their own. If you’re going to make the leap, she says, go all the way.
“Make it your own, unique, one-of-a-kind,” she says. “Have your own niche and kill it. Make this place something customers will remember. Pour yourself into it, and let your work say, ‘This is who we are and this is what we do,’ but don’t just do it well. If you’re going to do one thing, do it great. If you’re going to do two things, you’d better do them really well.”