****Warning: This article contains only words.
As I branch out and explore other areas of food/beverage than cheese, I have come to realize how vast the field really is. After visiting Oxbow Cheese Merchant and Oakville Ranch Winery (those posts are coming!), a visit with the Melissa Teaff Catering Company was wonderfully refreshing, and it felt like coming home. Melissa’s operation is tucked away in a complex occupied by artisans and martial artists, facing the Napa River. It’s a remarkably calm space in a busy little town.
The kitchen looks just straight from a “Rustic Kitchens” magazine. Enormous cabinets line the walls on either side was you enter, and a large, solid farmhouse table flanked by solid, metal chairs invite you to sit down and stay a while. A narrower passage houses the walk-in refrigerator, and then opens up to the commercial kitchen. I am always amazed to see the workspaces of kitchen creatives like Melissa because I always imagine them to be much bigger. It’s like how movie stars look enormous on screen, but just human in person. Looking up, not only did I see a wrought iron chandelier, I saw a series of white serving dishes, one for every year from 2001 until now. Melissa’s company has consistently been recognized as part of the “Best Of” Napa since 2001, although she has many more years of experience before that. I think that’s what the white plates commemorate.
We stepped over to the office, where metal stars adorned the crimson back wall, and piles of paper spilled over heavy marble-topped tables with curling wrought iron legs. Melissa appeared from behind a computer, and greeted me with a hug. I didn’t know that she is known for her generosity, but I snooped around a bit and learned that generosity is her signature trait. Nice guys do finish first!
Melissa is no stranger to food or excellence. A plaque with the phrase “Never trust a skinny chef,” hangs in her kitchen. She knows the ins and outs of the catering market in Napa, and has catered corporate events, private events, weddings, harvest lunches, and everything in between. She also knows all about table linens, fine china and silverware, lighting, flowers, and anything else you might see around the table. Lately, though, there have been some new kids on the block—food trucks. They’re fun, they’re mobile, and to cater an event, you can rent out as many as you’d like. It’s an exciting experience for event attendees, but it has impacted Melissa’s business. Even though these trucks are considered competitors to most caterers, Melissa has embraced the trend, and has opened her kitchen to food truck cooks, who must still be affiliated with a certified commercial kitchen.
The past two years have been particularly interesting for Melissa. She decided to take one of her catering items, the wine snap, made with real premium wine, and produce them on a commercial level. Right now, that commercial level of production is still confined to her catering company’s kitchen, but that may change very soon. She’s been gaining ground in high-end specialty food shops around Napa, San Francisco (The Ferry Building!), Connecticut, Texas, and other states.
Melissa’s decision to pursue the wine snaps marked the beginning of a long, ongoing process. Future food business owners, take note! First, she needed to create and protect a distinctive, consistent, scalable recipe. She needed to work with a graphic designer to come up with a logo and packaging design. Melissa showed me a box full of failed packages. One box was too large (it held too much product), and would most likely be too expensive for most people. One box had too many moving parts, and could not be shipped flattened. One container was too heavy; another was too fragile. Several containers were not appropriate for shelving because they weren’t stackable, or were too wide on the shelf. Choosing the most appropriate packaging alone took her about a year of testing! With all of these boxes, graphic designs were tried and discarded. Many people ask me what kind of intellectual property food companies can protect, because they equate IP with tech companies only. This is the perfect example of IP in a non-technical setting. If a company has specific packaging it has worked months to perfect, or it has a particular design scheme, it may want to protect all of that time and effort invested!
Meeting interested retailers and stepping up production to meet increasing demand is the next practical matter. The company is weighing its options as it grows, but I think that’s a great “problem” to have. I do wish them luck.
Melissa, supported by her son Burt, has done a tremendous service as an influential member of the food industry in Napa. She’s driven by her passion for her craft, the people she works with, and the strong culinary culture of the area. With that comes an extremely high level of refinement in her execution. Hopefully, those of you who can find her wine snaps can sense that. Thank you both for the warm welcome in your kitchen!