Small Spaces: Mood to Order
By Heidi Staseson
Generally, when a doctor labels you with a mood disorder, your first instinct isn’t to shrug your shoulders and turn it into a sprawling small business—especially an upstart with a title bearing the precise medical condition of which you’ve been diagnosed.
Not so for Melodi Brooke Donahue and her OCD (Obsessive Confection Disorder) sweets business that’s working up salivary glands coast-to-coast in the U.S. and attracting numerous customers around the globe who are snapping up her product by the dozens.
Now, just two years since launching, the only labels Donahue goes near are the ones she slaps on her caramel confections, by hand, every other weekend from the commercial kitchen she rents in Napa, California. Unlike the blingy boudoirs showcased by rap artists on MTV’s Cribs, this 20-hour, culinary marathon, says Donahue, is where “the real magic happens.”
Despite her product’s supernatural-like surge in popularity, there’s not an ounce of voodoo in her recipes—just a few home-grown ingredients, an instinct for flavour pairings and the discerning taste buds of her nearest and dearest. Not to mention a whack of pay-it-forward passion that would make Ellen DeGeneres blush and declare a dance-off.
Myth no more
Donahue’s caramels are based upon a variety of natural ingredients, often found within her own lush backyard, or farms within a few miles from her home. The fact they contain no extracts, derivatives, dairy or gluten not only makes them a healthier delectable, but also attracts a healthy niche of namely vegan customers.
But Donahue stresses not to confuse the term vegan with hippy-dippy, frugal, boring or angry eaters. Her customers, she explains, don’t launch flour bombs at fur-wearing reality TV stars.
“People believe vegans eat nothing but wheatgrass and nuts off the ground. But it’s so much more than that,” she says.
“The vegan market is certainly not small,” she adds, owing its growth in part to the increasing availability of plant-based foods that aren’t just healthier for you but actually have a tantalizing taste to boot (and definitely not a leather one).
In fact, she notes, “vegans are more inclined to understand quality and to go out of their way to find it.”
That beaten path leads straight to OCD. One vegan co-operative in San Francisco, Other Avenues—the store that can take credit for helping Donahue cement her niche (she initially worked with dairy too)—might well have told her that discovering OCD treats was akin to winning a Wonka Golden Ticket (if the sugary teacups and saucers were made from agave syrup and hibiscus leaves).
“Do you understand that no one really makes quality vegan caramel?” asked the gobsmacked clerk.
And it was off to the races—not with horses of course (Donahue would firmly disapprove)—but her OCD customer online orders went straight through the roof and in the last year she’s amassed an average of 200 orders monthly, not including from among her 17 retail accounts across the country.
Last winter, she presented sweet swag to celebrities visiting her booth at the 2012 Academy Awards including The Champ himself, Sugar Ray Leonard, whose family was smitten with Donahue’s coconut German chocolate caramels.
Oscar-winning “The Descendants” co-writer Nat Faxon and his wife have also since became regular customers. “They’ve ordered a tonne of stuff and have spread my name around to other people in L.A. It was a good feeling,” says Donahue.
Her orders span the globe including Ireland, Australia and Canada. One regular affluent customer in San Francisco, whom she affectionately calls her B.F.C (Best Friend Customer), routinely spends upwards of $800 and $900 a month.
“I’m happy to do it,” Donahue acknowledges. “It tickles me that someone is so enamoured of my product that they’re willing to pay what I consider to be ridiculous amounts of money to get it!”
Just this month, VegNews magazine listed OCD in its Top-12 products that have changed vegan lives.
In the past, vegans haven’t had the choicest of confection. As a result, they’ve had to “sacrifice decadence and flavour for ethics,” explains Donahue.
“That shouldn’t happen,” she says, “I’ll put OCD up against any dairy-based confection; if you don’t think it’s the best you’ve ever had then I’ll give you your money back.”
Such confidence can only come from knowing her product surpasses muster among vegans and omnivores alike. “I’ve figured out a way how to make something so wonderful that it doesn’t matter if you’re vegan or not—it’s what you’re going to want.”
That “want” comes in many scrumptious caramel forms—from spinning “old chestnuts” into modern-day health twists such as her famous Caramel Not-Corn to concocting her own brand of candied jewels such as those infused with rose-petal-and-tangerine flavour bursts. She likens her agave nectar, lime and tequila caramel to a “margarita in your mouth.”
So how did this 30-year school administrator at Vallejo Unified School District only recently tack on culinary ingénue to her resumé?
“At first I was making just caramel—a vanilla bean, then a chocolate…then a coconut. I started to figure different things out. The world is nothing but a palette for confection for me,” says Donahue.
That’s where she concedes her “mood” factors in. Although, what she calls “obsessive,” others might proffer the words “resourceful,” or “innovative.”
“I drive myself insane because I am obsessive and compulsive about things,” she jokes. “I look all around me and the fact that I have 96 rose bushes—and I know that roses are very fragrant, they’re very edible…my friend has tangerine trees…tangerines paired together with roses?”
“Why not?” should be Donahue’s other trademark; the Rose-Tangerine Caramel has since become one of her biggest sellers.
Donahue used $5,000 of savings to start up. In October 2010 she was tinkering in the kitchen and by January she nabbed her first wholesale account. For now, it’s a sideline business that takes up all her spare time but she’s been able to organize so that she’s only in her kitchen every other week.
“I make a surplus which I keep in my commercial refrigerator. I’m able to pull from there if I have an order,” she adds.
Eventually, she’d like to take OCD full-time but acknowledges the challenges that lie in the juggling act. “If I had more time and resources I know that I could go a lot of places,” she notes.
As it stands, she turns away as much business as she’s able to accept—“just because of the fact I don’t have a staff or full-time people to be able to help me do it. I can only do so much on the weekends on my own.”
And while her innate business sense includes being highly resourceful, intuitive and organized, she is a fan of the barter, so while friends help her pull 3 a.m. labeling and wrapping shifts, she in turn indulges them with candy.
She’s leery about taking on investors because she doesn’t want to rescind control. “I’m worried they would want to tell me how to do things and I can’t handle that. It’s my house, my way, my rules. That’s how I operate things.”
Donahue is equally firm about not taking out a business loan so nothing’s hanging over her head and she can still find joy in her work. “If I had this giant loan there would be more pressure for me to produce and that would make it more stressful…I would need to make sure that I sold a certain amount and really had to hustle.”
But this “non-hustler” will accept advice willingly. She credits the Northern California Small Business Development Center in her community for excellent start-up counsel, advising her on different marketing and funding ideas and essentially telling her: ‘your company can be as big as you want it to be.’
Donahue’s profile-raising motto is to choose philanthropy over marketing dollars–although donating in-kind and other do-gooding—of which she does a hearty amount—is marketing in itself, particularly when she aligns herself with organizations she’s passionate about, such as Farm Sanctuary, a “kinder, gentler PETA.”
It’s a group that rallies against factory farming but with a very “soft-spoken-actions-speak-louder-than-words” mentality. And one in which the audience is her demographic.
She says her continued donations lead to constant calls and orders and exposure, “beyond reason.”
Her business philosophy ? “If there’s something that you really love to do and you really want to do—you’re going to be good at it. I believe anything that you truly, in your heart, want to do and you’re determined to do—you’re going to be an expert at.”
But she acknowledges her bleeding heart mentality might make the money-making process a tad sprawled out. “I might become famous but I’ll never become rich—because I share a lot of things.”
“I’m not going to sit in my counting house and look at all my coins; if I’m not sharing and if I’m not passionate about all the creatures that I’m striving to save, then what’s the point?”
Make no mistake; this animal crusader is raking in the dough, so to speak. As soon as she took OCD to the streets there were immediate orders. The rest was word of mouth.
From the beginning it was just a few hundred a month and then, depending on the month, it can be anywhere from $1,500 to $12,000.
“I’m clearing a profit. But it does all go back into the business,” she asserts.
Next up for Donahue is an Indiegogo fundraising campaign that she hopes will kick start her drive to raise $15,000 for various moulds and other equipment including a hot cooker that will allow her to be more efficient in the kitchen.
Using her Old-School stove-top method yields her 36 pounds of caramel in 20 hours.
“It’s gratifying,” she explains. “But with a hot cooker, in the same amount of time, I can make 250 pounds of caramel.”
Another challenge, says Donahue, is sticking to only that which she knows she’s capable of. “People are always saying ‘why don’t you do this and this?’ And I have to tune it out because I would do nothing but research and development, 24 hours a day, if I could.”
When Donahue makes something, if people taste it, they want it. And that poses another “happy” challenge.
“I have to be careful how I pass it out. If I make something wonderful and I’m not sure if I want to make it in grand quantities, I can’t let people taste it because the first thing they’re going to say is ‘where can I buy it and when can I have more?’
“I have to be judicious in how I reveal my secrets of what I’m able to do; I have to be able to fulfill; I have to be able to sleep once in a while!”
Call it obsessive, call it compulsive; call it a combination of Irish-Russian-German blood, sweat and stealth—whatever it is that’s got this 53-year-old tree-hugging food hound by the apron strings—it’s certainly working for her.