Winning Women – Melissa van Hoogstraten: Making the cake and taking it too

2013-08-11 14:00

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Melissa van Hoogstraten’s mum couldn’t boil an egg, so her little girl stepped into the kitchen. Today, Melissa is selling home-made goods in nine stores and countless supermarkets, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

Seventeen years ago, newly married Melissa van Hoogstraten, who loved cooking and baking for her family and friends, opened a little store where she could sell some of the goodies that were the products of her busy fingers.

She had been making festive food and gifts since she was a child in her family’s Camps Bay home, so selling them from a store seemed a natural way to go.

As people flowed into the shop on Kloof Street and her crunchies, rusks and pâtés flowed out of it, she realised she needed to label her produce, and so Melissa’s was born.

She cooked on the spot and customers soon made it clear they wanted more than coffee and cake. So Melissa started serving food – fish, salads, boboties and breads – the way she did at home, by putting it on the kitchen table for people to help themselves.

Soon, others who loved cooking began to offer Melissa their services and, encouraged by her entrepreneurial husband Mark, she began to outsource the baking she was doing in the store to others who shared her passion for food.

Almost before she knew it, Melissa’s had turned into a restaurant along with being a sort of culinary general store.

The demand for her products was such that she opened more stores, until there were eight of them in the Cape Peninsula, offering a variety of produce ranging from beverages to biscuits, condiments, dressings, vinegars, reductions, rubs, dukkas, jams, marmalades and her famous sourdough bread.

“By last year, we had 300 Melissa’s branded products, made to our own specification and under our guidance,” she says in her rapid-fire, enthusiastic manner.

“And we sell 1 200 different products in all,” she adds.

Following this, she cast her eyes northwards to Joburg, a place she didn’t know well but which seemed the logical place in which to expand further.

When Melissa’s opened on Parkhurst’s 4th Avenue nine months ago, “it was the biggest surprise of my life. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would be as popular as it was.”

Produce flew out of the store faster than they could replace it, selling four times the amount it did in their Cape Town stores.

Staff struggled to serve patrons and people queued for seats.

Melissa has plans to open in other Joburg spots, “but I can’t see us experiencing that extraordinary level of demand again”, she chuckles.

One of the reasons Melissa’s has flourished is her and Mark’s firm approach to bedding down each store before moving on to another one.

“So many businesses take new opportunities too quickly and expand before they have consolidated,” she says.

They had three stores before they created a head office, “because many a business struggles at this head office stage. We had to find a food director, a buyer, a systems person and set up an accounts department – it’s quite a list.”

Melissa’s approach contradicts the conventional wisdom, as it sells home-made produce, all of it generated from scratch, but it does so with nine stores in big volumes. No muffin-mix packets are allowed here.

“That’s why we are so hands-on and always will be, as we need to ensure that new suppliers understand our philosophy of simple but high quality food.”

And Melissa adds forthrightly: “People complain that we are expensive. But home-made food is far more costly to produce than factory-generated goods – and of course good ingredients do cost more.”

She has a set of values on which she refuses to compromise. This means that her suppliers have to use the same ingredients she does.

Helping people grow at Melissa’s and then down the line into their own businesses gives her a huge sense of satisfaction.

“There’s a whole tier of businesses behind us, hundreds of them out there. Over the years, we have given many women the self-confidence they need to launch themselves using us as their base, as they know there will be a demand for their goods and a supportive structure behind them.”

Melissa’s will continue to grow, “as opportunities present themselves. We take things as they come.”

She has no plans to expand anywhere else out of South Africa at this stage, although she is aware that, “our brand is well-regarded internationally”.

Melissa’s has grown organically, like its products. The little girl, who now has three children of her own, and who used to make crunchies to sell at school to support the netball team, still has the bright-eyed passion that fuelled her fire back then.

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