Today we’d like to introduce you to Melanie Dunn.
Melanie, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
Ten years ago, I was teaching high school English. I felt really stagnant in my work. I started making lists of things I would most like to do if I weren’t teaching. Working with food and baking (especially French pastries) always popped up at the top of the list. Around the same time, a former student returned for a visit and shared her experiences training in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu.
It sounded amazing. I told this student how I would love to do something like that, but couldn’t take a year off to complete the three-stage program. She said the school offered each stage concurrently, so I could do the stages during my summer months off. I applied to the school, got in, and went to Paris the following year. It was a crazy three years. I would turn in my classroom keys, attend my students’ graduation ceremony, the next day be on a plane to Paris, and the day after be in the kitchens at LCB from 8 am until 8 pm.
It was definitely not vacation. It was work. Hard work. But interesting and fun, even the times when the chefs yelled at us in French! On my rare days off, my husband (also a high school English teacher) and I sought out croissants and pastries and chocolate in a quest to find the city’s absolute best. Amazingly we did not gain 100 pounds! We’d return to San Diego just in time to start a new school year. But the whole school year long, we’d be dreaming of Paris and its croissants and pastries! San Diego did not offer anything close to what we had in Paris.
It took me three long years (2012-2014) to complete the patisserie program. But the whole time, I held onto the vision of life as a pastry chef. I’d share what I was doing with my students and sometimes even bake for them. When I completed the program in 2014, I finished teaching one more school year and then walked away from teaching in the summer of 2015 (after 15 years of teaching for the same high school).
It was time to be a pastry chef. But where would I work? We weighed me working at a bakery for long hours and minimum wage against digging into our savings for me to open my own small-batch bakery to bring our neighborhood the kinds of high-quality viennoiseries and pastries you could only find in Paris. My husband and I craved them. Surely others who had been to France and eaten a great croissant were searching for that too in San Diego!? It was an easy decision to make, coupled with the fact that we already owned a commercial space (on the first floor of our condo building).
We turned our live-work space into a small retail boutique, created a website and social media presence, decided on logos and packaging—built a brand—all without much professional guidance. Permitted under San Diego County’s Cottage Food Operator law, I began baking out of my home kitchen. We opened on February 14, 2018, with a limited menu of French viennoiseries and pastries.
The response was immediate and promising. I received a fabulous, full-page review by Michele Parente (food and wine writer for the Union-Tribune) and a Best of San Diego award from San Diego Magazine (both within five months of opening). But most importantly, we received and continue to enjoy the support of the neighborhood.
We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Design and time were the biggest challenges in opening Patisserie Melanie. In our retail space, I wanted to emulate the sleek and modern boutiques of Paris. We had a decent-sized budget to work within, so in the fall of 2015, I began contacting interior and restaurant designers. Unfortunately, all of them had very cliched ideas of what a French bakery should look like. So I began drawing up the plans and sourcing materials myself. But soon after I began this process, I got pregnant.
My projected due date was just after our intended opening date for the bakery (spring of 2016). We decided to pause the project. (Mostly I couldn’t imagine rolling out dough at a counter with a big, pregnant belly.) Our daughter was born. I embraced and enjoyed motherhood and the early months of her babyhood.
When it felt like she was transitioning to being (and wanting to be) a little more independent, I picked up my plans where I had left off. But now I had a much smaller budget (babies and kids sure have a way of whittling away at ‘ideal budgets’). With a less-than-ideal budget for the build-out, I had to do a lot of the work myself. This was a real challenge for me, as my talent and passion lies with baking and not interior design or general contracting. But I’m very happy with the final design of the boutique.
The biggest obstacle was time. With so much time lapsing between the idea and the implementation, it would have been easy to lose focus. There were days during my daughter’s early life that I honestly considered focusing on motherhood, and having another child, instead of being an entrepreneur. But I held onto the vision of what I wanted my professional life and Patisserie Melanie to be.
Through three years of working and training in Paris and three additional years of pregnancy and child-rearing, I practiced my craft, incubated ideas, and chose materials and suppliers. Like a well-proofed croissant, the end result of patience and perseverance was a carefully considered menu and experience for customers.
We’d love to hear more about your business.
When I opened Patisserie Melanie, I had two goals in mind: I wanted to be a go-to neighborhood bakery, and I wanted to make the best croissant anyone in the community had ever eaten (except in France). I believe I have achieved those goals.
Patisserie Melanie provides an experience that sets us apart from other bakeries in San Diego. We offer a taste of France with our Paris-quality viennoiseries and pastries that are handmade daily in small batches. Our ethos includes a commitment to pre-industrial, French methods, which our customers can taste in all our products.
For example, our croissants are made from dough that has been laminated by hand in a three-day process. We also offer regional specialties not found at any other bakery in San Diego. Kouign-amanns from Bretagne and canneles from Bordeaux are two examples of our unique offerings.
A visit to Patisserie Melanie transports customers to a chic Parisian boutique. From the décor to the music and displays, to the packaging and carrier bags, everything contributes to a feeling of specialness and French “joie de vivre”! It’s a sensory experience that doesn’t exist anywhere else in San Diego.
What were you like growing up?
At a very young age, I was a picky eater. If it weren’t for rice and corn, I wouldn’t have eaten anything. In my house, you weren’t allowed to have dessert if you didn’t eat your dinner. My mom would tell me, “If you’re not hungry for dinner, you’re not hungry for dessert.” So I didn’t eat a lot of dessert as a child. This is probably what fed my obsession with desserts.
Even though I rarely ate desserts, other than birthday cake, my mom encouraged me to help with the baking she did. I learned to make banana bread, “monster” cookies, apple crisp, lemon bars, and to frost a cake. At my mother’s elbow, I developed a passion for baking and showed an aptitude for it.
By the time I was a teenager, my lemon bars were better than my mom’s! Baking for others, seeing them enjoy something I made for them with my own two hands, was an empowering and gratifying experience as a young child. The baking I do for Patisserie Melanie’s customers continues to be a satisfying endeavor, in a large part due to the positive feedback from customers. I get to make people happy each day with food I’ve made! Not bad for someone so picky about food as a kid. (Note: I eat a lot more than rice and corn now.)
- Croissant au beurre $4
- Kouign-Amann $4.50
- Canneles (box of 3) $9
- Address: 3788 Park Blvd Suite 4
San Diego, CA 92103
- Website: patisseriemelanie.com
- Phone: 619-677-2132
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: @patisseriemelanie
- Facebook: @patisseriemelaniesd
- Twitter: @chefmelaniedunn