Melissa “Mei Mei” Abdouch had worked for 20+ years in investment finance when her department was outsourced. She began seeking a new job, but the right fit was elusive. “Stressed and depressed, I found my true happy place was in the kitchen, making cookies,” Mei Mei said. “I asked myself, why not do this every day?” Several cookie-catering gigs later, she began thinking that, even though she had no prior culinary experience, she might have a business. “Because I’m a quick learner and take feedback very seriously, I felt I could turn that weakness around.” After a year in development, she opened Mei Mei’s Cookies & Creamery, a café offering cookies, ice cream, edible cookie dough, and light lunches, in August 2017.
“If I’m going to do something, I do it right—there is no halfway with me,” said the U.S. Air Force veteran. Mei Mei learned about Wisconsin’s Small Business Development Centers in a workshop for military vets hosted by the SBA and reached out to the SBDC at UW-River Falls.
At consultant Katherine Fossler’s suggestion, Mei Mei enrolled in the Entrepreneur Training Program and began working with Katherine one-to-one. “The connections I made through the SBDC brought me key relationships to opening my business and sustaining it,” Mei Mei said. “And I have a new network of business associates.” It goes both ways. Katherine commented, “She was a real contributor to the cohort. She gives, and gets back.”
Mei Mei studied the business model of Insomnia Cookies, which targets large college campuses with late-night cookie deliveries. She selected River Falls for her business based on the campus and because she found the business community—even shops that sold desserts—very welcoming. She located her café downtown because, she said, “I plan to be open until 2:30 a.m. I knew I needed to be on the main flow from the bars back to campus.”
Crowdsourced and traditional financing
To seek funding, strong pro formas were a must for the inexperienced cookie chef. Katherine required her to do “daily financial projections for my entire first year. I still have nightmares about that!” Mei Mei said, “but it gave me solid support when I talked to bankers.” Mei Mei received a loan from the Regional Business Fund, which she learned of through the SBDC. Crowdfunding suplemented her financing. Katherine said, “Mei Mei had an extremely successful crowdfunding campaign because she drew on the relationships she had developed. The turning point for her was getting the commercial loan [from Lake Elmo Bank] for build-out and operating capital.”
Accomplishments with the SBDC of UW-River Falls:
- Business planning
- Financing through Regional Business Fund
- Developing key reltionships
Living the plan and making adjustments
Katherine counseled Mei Mei to look for more revenue streams and soon, her idea pivoted from late-night cookie delivery to launching a café with a lunch menu. “Katherine used her experience as an entrepreneur to get me to think in different directions,” Mei Mei said. The result is a big hit with the community. Katherine mused, “I don’t know if it’s Mei Mei’s vintage décor, the great smells, or the friendly welcome—everyone who comes through the door seems to smile and relax.”
Employing people with special needs is also part of Mei Mei’s plan. Her daughter, who has autism, works for her now. “Anyone who comes in will be trained on everything we do, just like the rest of the staff,” said Mei Mei. “I’ve seen the need while trying to find employment for my daughter. She loves working here, and she’s able to accomplish every task, with support.”
In 2018 Mei Mei plans to be open seven days a week, including until 2:30 a.m. on the weekends. Creating meaningful jobs around happy people, making others happy through good food and a warm welcome, is her goal. “It makes me feel great to see my regular customers, and my employees even come in on their days off. They love the environment we’ve created.”