Abundant Kitchen Owner is Living the Dream
Becki Melvie has all the ingredients for an upcoming cooking class and for a successful business, The Abundant Kitchen in Buffalo, Minnesota.
Buffalo, Minnesota, is no longer just “shabby chic” antique stores with unpredictable hours, surrounded by farmland, Becki Melvie enthuses. Thanks to its lake and proximity to other weekend getaway spots, it’s attracting Twin Cities weekend refugees. With that comes “a craftsman furniture shop, an art gallery, a cute movie theater, a farmers market … community theater, an orchestra” and her Abundant Kitchen, a charming retail shop painted a dark charcoal gray with a black dome awning over the front door and black second-story shutters. On the front brick patio overlooking the lake are pots of herbs and flowering plants.
The Abundant Kitchen is Melvie’s second career, even though at 37 she’s barely old enough to burn out from her first ones. Her fate was decided on a typical day when she returned home from her retail job to cook dinner.
“I was looking over at a sink full of dirty dishes and thought to myself, ‘I want to go to culinary school,’” she says.
The charming building entices visitors inside to buy gourmet supplies to take home or a single-serving gelato or drink to take advantage of The Abundant Kitchen’s courtyard’s view.
Only her mother may not have seen this as a strange reaction to a sink full of dirty dishes, because Melvie says when she was 7—or maybe it was 11, she corrects herself—her mother used to take her to the library so she could check out the cookbook section.
After Melvie put her two young sons to bed that fateful night, she Googled culinary schools. Here’s where her story deviates a bit from the norm. She didn’t go to St. Paul College or the Arts Institute’s culinary program or even Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. She chose Ballymaloe Cookery School & Gardens in County Cork, Ireland, an internationally renowned school run by Darina Allen, who promotes old-world life skills as well as cooking. Allen, an Irish chef, food writer and cookbook author, has been dubbed the Irish Julia Child.
Melvie and her husband, Travis, packed up their two small sons and moved to Ireland. Her husband, who is also her business partner, was in IT at the time and the two had built up a nest egg. “He was all in,” she says about the lifestyle move.
It’s no wonder it caught her imagination. Ballymaloe is a 100-acre organic, working farm. She learned to cook with the ingredients they had a hand in: picking lettuce and herbs in the garden, foraging, milking cows and chicken duty (which she describes as gross, but helps develop a strong backbone). It was a 12-week immersion course, rooted in both the past and present. She learned to butcher animals, but skipped the hunting lessons. “I could have gone hunting, but I already knew how,” she says.
When they returned home, Melvie worked at Whole Foods and then at a bone broth company, before the couple decided in April of last year to open a foodcentric business. They had been living in Buffalo for almost a decade by then, she says, because “I wanted a small town feel with amenities.” She has a degree in international business, but wanted to stay home with her kids.
Because retail can be fickle, Melvie added cooking classes to her business plan. The classes, some taught by outside instructors, have proven to be popular, especially the kids’ camps. “The kid classes are huge,” she says, referring to the demand. “Kids grew up on the Food Network,” which is why it’s not unusual for her to have several boys in class, as well as men. Are they the future home cooks of America?
Although she considered opening a restaurant—the building had housed one many iterations ago—the equipment, including an alluring old gas stove, would have had to be replaced. Adding cooking classes didn’t require a commercial kitchen.
But Melvie didn’t stop with classes. In addition to kitchen supplies and a pantry of hard-to-find-in-a-small-town-grocery-store items, she stocks single-serving
The shop provides both an array of cookware and accessories, as well as hard-to-find (at least in Buffalo, Minnesota) spices and gourmet food items.
gelatos and interesting drinks like kombucha that can be enjoyed sitting in lounge chairs in the front patio, staring at the lake. “The sunsets are awesome,” she comments.
She admits candidly that much of the kitschy items that are popular with tourists aren’t her taste, but she’s learned that people like to buy them as gifts. The number of people who like dishtowels also pleasantly surprised her.
Because they’re the only specialty grocer in a 30-mile radius, her husband drives into the Cities once a week and makes the rounds for supplies, she says, adding they’ve learned through trial and error what customers want. It helps that she describes herself as a social butterfly and a connector.
Her husband’s aunt is Mary Levinski, an award-winning ProStart instructor in the Twin Cities who says she didn’t know her niece shared her love of cooking “until she got married and was registered for a sushi mat” and other cooking paraphernalia. The other clue was when she went to school in Ireland. “That was my dream,” Levinski says. “She’s living my dream.”
Melvie may be living a lot of people’s dream. Opening the store was a huge risk for the couple because they self-financed it. But that’s where the multiple profit centers come into play. The couple runs a consistently booked Airbnb out of their home, and twice a month she makes and sells crepes in her store’s courtyard. The first weekend was pouring down rain and she still had a line of customers outside her tent, waiting for crepe topped with berries. (She also teaches a crepe class.)
The Buffalo community is tightknit, she says, and people are appreciative of what the couple is adding to the mix. People will stop them in the supermarket to thank them for what we’re doing, she says. They also want her expertise. “They’ll say, ‘hey, Becki, is this a ripe avocado,” she says, laughing.
It’s hard not to get caught up in Melvie’s vision. And before you can blink, she’s off on another way to earn money—write a cookbook, produce a radio program similar to the Splendid Table (she’s already in talks with the local AM radio station), take culinary tours to Ballymaloe...
She also believes Buffalo can support a really good restaurant using local produce. While that’s not on her to-do list currently, one never knows.