The Sweet Life: Chef Melissa Merino on the Trial-And-Error of Starting Her Own Business
Growing up in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood of Chicago, Melissa Merino has been surrounded by diversity her whole life. As a daughter in a blended family (her mother is from Puerto Rico and her stepfather is of German and Dutch ancestry), Merino knows firsthand what it’s like to face adversity as a child and come out as a success story. Her story—which involves graduating from the Institute of Culinary Arts at Robert Morris University, attending business management classes at Triton College and taking on jobs from Dunkin Donuts to a gelato shop—is one that both impresses and inspires.
Walking past her Rogers Park bakery Life’s Sweet Inc., located at 6621 N. Clark St., it’s pretty hard to miss the white-and-rainbow themed decor and elaborate custom cakes lined up at the window. She’s had a love of baking since the age of six and credits her mother and grandmothers as her inspiration, and by the age of eight she was already cooking on her own. Merino attended culinary school on a lacrosse scholarship after graduating from Lane Tech High School in Chicago in 2008, where she began her journey as an artist and met her husband, Freddy. They married in 2014 and now have a three-and-a-half year old son, Steven, who graciously donated his red play kitchen that can be seen in the “kid’s corner” of the bakery.
Inside the bakery, it’s clear that Life’s Sweet Inc. is family-centered, culturally diverse, and deliciously tempting. The cafe menu offers breakfast staples like pancakes, croissants, skillets, waffles, and French toast, along with her exquisitely unique hot cocoas like the Unicorn, S’mores, and Salted Caramel. Custom desserts range upon availability but include churros, cheesecakes, muffins, pies, cake jars and more, while the website’s menu gives several options for custom designed cakes, cake pops, cookies, and cupcakes for all occasions.
Merino sat down with Modern Brown Girl to chat about her experiences, struggles, edible art, and breakthrough moments as a Latina entrepreneur, mom and wife.
You started baking cakes, cake pops and cupcakes from home. What pushed you to finally expand and open up a bakery?
It started in my mom’s back porch. She and my dad turned it into my little lab and they allowed me to bake from there. And then I moved, and each place that I lived at I was fortunate to bake out of there. I was baking from home for about five years [but I was] constantly having to tell customers no. We outgrew our apartment kitchen, my business materials were falling into the common areas of our house, and my husband Freddy said “OK, it’s time [to expand]!” I saved up, and the Women’s Business Development Center helped me get a loan to get some of my equipment, legal help and getting a business license.
What made you choose Rogers Park?
When you talk about what Chicago is, I think Rogers Park is a really underrated neighborhood. You have people who are at the lowest of earnings to people who are multimillionaires and they all blend perfectly together. My sister Susan has been living here for about six years now and she encouraged me to put my son into the preschool that he now attends. One day I dropped him off and started driving around, and I saw that this location was for lease. So, I called the broker and got some information on it. It was kind of by luck, actually.
Everything just fell into place.
It really did! After doing some research on the area, I thought it was really a great fit for us. We had a grand opening on Valentines Day, which was amazing. We had everyone from existing clients to locals and reporters, even the alderman came by. Business has been pretty steady; a lot of our clients are new clients—people who either saw an article or the Univision television segment, and a lot are from word of mouth.
Your cakes are incredibly creative and original. What skills that you learned as an artist help you in your career now?
I was always one to draw and paint, but I never thought that would go into my other love of cooking and being in the kitchen. When I started out as a chef I didn’t make things look pretty or cared what they looked like—I just wanted them to taste good. But sculpting and taking ceramics class at Lane Tech definitely opened the door to create these 3D figures and how to work with materials. Kneading the clay in ceramics actually [taught] me to knead fondant, how to take all the air bubbles out, and how to make sure it’s elastic enough for me to mold out. A lot of my business growing is because of Lane and the people who I was close with. I’ve gotten to do catering for their weddings, baby showers and birthdays for six years now.
How do the children’s classes work?
We do two different kinds of classes, or what I like to call social engagements. One of them involves sensory and music with Dawn Marie, who’s a local children’s musician, [and the other is with] Little Parade. They come, sing songs, play the guitar, dance, and those events are either free or ticketed. Our cake classes are once every month, if not more, and that’s when they come and learn how to decorate cakes.
Let’s talk about the food. I love how you tempt customers with a cafe menu that’s split into sweet and savory! What’s an item from each that you suggest fist-timers try?
For the sweets, I would definitely say the cannoli pancakes; it’s traditional fluffy pancakes but with my cannoli filling and some toppings. On the savory side is the chorizo skillet. I am big on flavor, so people who come for the first time get it, and then they come back and get it again.
You mentioned chorizo, which can be Mexican or Spanish, and cannoli, which is Italian. What other parts of your blended culture make it onto your menu?
In my mind I had always envisioned having my menu represent not only my childhood, but my adulthood and people who are in my family. I have a very distinct menu item, avena, which is oatmeal. Growing up, my mother’s mom’s homemade avena was amazing, so I brought that here. We have mangonada, a blended drink that can also be a smoothie. We also have a really awesome guava filling—which in Puerto Rico is really popular—and we have Café Bustelo, a Colombian roast.
What’s it like running Life’s Sweet Inc. while balancing your life as a mom and wife?
That’s the stuff they do not teach you! It’s hard. It has been a sacrifice running the business because I don’t get to make it to all of our family functions. If I do, I am incredibly late, which bothers me because I’m always on time! But I will say that being able to grow from this experience is definitely all the worthwhile for sure. And [you need] coffee. Lots of coffee.
Were there any other struggles that you faced opening up your first bakery?
The challenges that I have faced here were small, but added up like plumbing issues, electrical issues, things in our lease that needed to be worked out, and the hiring process. Freddy does a lot of the fishing, so he’ll make the posts and go through the applications. But at the moment we have two amazing employees—our sous chef who caters Puerto Rican food, and an intern who’s going through her pastry art degree.
Do you feel like being a Latina has helped you create connections with customers?
Absolutely. I am incredibly proud to be Latina, and I love that I come from this very culture-rich family. I’m a little embarrassed that I don’t speak a lot of Spanish, but I do find that me letting people know that also breaks down that shyness for the both us, and they will try to speak English while I try to speak the Spanish that I know. And to me, that’s connecting on a whole other level [when you go] out of your way to be able to communicate to someone. Or sometimes when people come in here, they make the assumption that we’re Caucasian owners because this is such a modern place and it doesn’t say “panadería” [in front], and then they see me, a brown girl, and go “What?!”. (laughs) But it’s been great sharing my story when people find out my son is a huge part of it; they connect with us especially if they’re parents.
What advice would you give to your younger self, or to women wanting to start out their own business?
Put yourself out there. I was really concerned about selling myself and I didn’t think I was worth other people paying me their money, but once I started to grow and learn, I wasn’t as afraid of trying to market myself. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, whether it’s financially, physically or mentally. I have a huge problem with letting people help me—I want to do everything by myself. I’m still working on it, but I’m learning how to let go and let other people help. The outcomes do turn out great and it’s less stress for me. As a child, I suffered domestic abuse, so I was very shut off, didn’t share, and I wasn’t creative; but thanks to counseling and having supportive parents I was able to overcome that. I want to share my story, because a lot of girls go through the same things and they don’t have [creative] outlets or get to find their identity. I [used to] think that I need to find who I really am, but I honestly think this is who I was meant to be. I hope to be a role model for people.