ANOTHER STEP FOR MADISON'S FAVORITE SOUL FOOD SPOT
When people in Madison crave tasty soul food and good down-home cooking, they make the trip to Melly Mel’s, located in the basement of the Genesis Center on Madison’s south side. And thanks to a remodeling project last week, Melly Mel’s is now three times its original size.
Melly Mel’s has been a staple of Madison’s south side for about seven years and it’s hard for many people to imagine life without it. It’s worth noting, however, that before the remodeling last week, Carmel "Melly" Jackson, proprietor and cook, was actually contemplating a move to the north side. “I wanted to have a storefront, some windows, and a bigger store and a great opportunity came up for me on the north side of town,” Jackson remembers. “It was a great idea, but the overhead was outrageous. I felt like it would be a real struggle right now, especially at this time of year.”
She didn’t want to go to fast and then get overwhelmed like she’s seen happen to so many young, start-up restaurants. So Jackson started to talk to some people at the Genesis Enterprise Center about knocking down a wall at her current establishment — a tiny one-room restaurant in the corner of the Genesis Center basement — to give her a lot more space. She crunched the numbers of what it would cost and decided to pull the trigger. “We worked it out fast — it really took three days,” Jackson says. “The first day was the thought, the second day we worked the numbers, and the third day I had the space.”
Her husband, DeAngelo Jackson, is a contractor and got one of his sub-contractors to come in and do the work. “It’s good to know somebody who knows somebody,” Jackson smiles.
Within days, Melly Mel’s was three times as big. It now had an elegant private dining room, two more rooms for storage, and a coffee center area.
“I didn’t want a door; I wanted an arch…. so the rooms could flow together,” Jackson says. “I’m very proud of it. People love it now. It’s funny when they don’t even notice it. and they’ll walk in the regular entrance and be focused on me in my back office and then they’ll look over and say, “Wow! Look at that new dining room! I didn’t even see that.’”
For Jackson, the remodeling has been part a business progression she could only dream about a few years ago when she was serving her delicious food from a card table for very limited hours in one of the Genesis Enterprise Center’s tiny break room areas. “I think about when I was at that tiny space and then I remembered I moved down here in just the hallway. And then I got this little room. And now we’ve expanded to three times the size,” she says. “We are catering all over the city and doing all kinds of events and working with the schools and the university. It’s just like a child learning to walk. You think about things but you don’t ever think that you’ll be able to get to that point that soon. The deli has only been open for two years and look where we are already.”
For years it was secret staple of home-cooked deliciousness for just southsiders, but within the past year of two it is starting to get recognized by people from the university and downtown and by eastsiders, westsiders, and well beyond. “I have people coming from Mt. Horeb, people from Verona. I have a regular that comes all the way from Middleton. He just loves the food,” she says. “It’s a diverse crowd that comes into Melly Mel’s — black, white, Asian, we have a lot of Mexican people who come in.
The restaurant and catering services have been in high demand because there are some things that you can only get at Melly Mel’s. “You can’t go anywhere and get greens, macaroni and cheese, candied yams, black-eyed peas from a restaurant — the old southern food,” Jackson says. “I don’t know anybody who makes banana pudding in Madison like we do…. I make it from scratch… peach cobbler, sweet potato pies. [We have] chicken and waffles… fish and grits. Nope. You can’t get them anywhere but here.”
But make no mistake — Melly Mel’s is not just about soul food. Jackson makes Philly cheesesteaks, Mexican food, Italian food — spaghetti and lasagna, hot dogs, nachos, and more. She attributes the success of her young restaurant not only to the great food but because of the great service. “I introduce myself to all the new customers — and the old ones, too,” Jackson says. “I like to talk to everyone who comes in and make sure they are satisfied. I want to know how they found the restaurant.”
And sometimes Jackson literally wants to know who people found the restaurant. Melly Mel’s can be hard to find if you are not from the south side. The Genesis Center is hidden away on the Frontage Road to the West Beltline and Melly Mel’s is hidden away in the basement of the Genesis Center. But if you can make it to the basement you are set, just follow your nose — the great smells from Melly Mel’s are overwhelming and will lead you there.
And within the last year or so, people have started to find it. Within that time, Melly Mel’s has been featured in Isthmus (an article and the Annual Manual), the Wisconsin State Journal, Madison Magazine, the UW-Madison Student handbook, and the Badger Book. Melly Mel’s has become pretty famous in the Madison area in a short time. But who was the first person to do a story on them?
“Haha... that was you... some guy named ‘Dave.’ The Madison Times was way ahead of the curve,” smiles Jackson. “They did three stories on us back before anybody ever knew we existed — when we were doing outside events, appearing at Juneteenth and other events, and when we started in the small break room at Genesis.”
No longer obscure, Jackson is still getting used to the more and more random people in Madison who know her and her food. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘Who are all these people that know me?’ Recently, I was driving up through the drive-thru at Hardee’s [Restaurant] and the girl is like, ‘You got some greens in there?’” Jackson says. “People are starting to recognize me around town and that’s cool. That’s really cool.”
Becoming much more well-known has helped Jackson to do what she really loves — be a part of the community and giving back to others. “ I love to talk to people, and I’m always trying to change something in Madison because I grew up here. I just like what I get out of it,” Jackson says. “I like to be in the community.”
She’s a regular caterer at community events and fundraisers and has just recently forged a partnership with Slow Food-South Madison to bring healthy, sustainable, and local food to the community on South Park Street, which is often considered to have food injustices. She partners with the Boys and Girls Club to host a Family Dinner Night.
“I go shopping with the students, get food, and make up a menu,” Jackson says. “Today, I go and we actually prepare the food and we serve 125 people. I will be speaking about my experiences in cooking and in starting a business. They can learn about new foods and where they come from.”
She’s partnered with the University of Wisconsin-Madison to bring groups of students into the restaurant to try something new. “Some of these kids have never tasted soul food and they are like, ‘Wow!’” Jackson smiles. “They like to try new things and we love feeding them.”
Jackson became involved with the Work & Learn Program this past September. Young people will come in and work 20-30 hours a week and she teaches them the basics and the many aspects of how a restaurant is run.
“Not all kids are college-ready when they graduate and they are in the Work & Learn Program — it gives them a skill so they can go on,” she says. “Some kids are interested in cooking and the culinary schools, so they came to me and asked me if I would have students working here to get credits and teach them some things and help them along. I said, ‘Why not?’”
In October, Jackson was elected to be on the food policy council for the City of Madison. “Now I have some say in the policies that are being made,” she smiles. “But my goal is to bring some fresh foods to some of these neighborhoods. I want to start teaching young mothers how to prepare healthy foods for their family within a budget. I see these kids all over the school district who are coming to school hungry. You need a well-balanced meal and a good night’s sleep in order to be able to learn.”
As Melly Mel’s continue to grow it will continue to do more and more in the community, Jackson says. But it will also continue to do what it does best — make delicious food.
“I have to cook to live because that takes all of my stress away. It’s a stress reliever. If I’m sitting here and I’m not feeling good or I’m feeling tired, I will go in there and cook something,” Jackson says. It’s something that I love. I love to cook for people. I’ve always had people at my house eating whether it be my family or my kids and their friends. I like to think of the people who come to Melly Mel’s as part of my big family. I love it. I love cooking for them.”
Melly Mel’s is located at the Genesis Enterprise Center, 313 W. Beltline Hwy. (next to EZ Pawn and Pitchers Pub)
Hours are 9:30 am-6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday.
For more information, call (608)270-9512. For catering, call (608) 213-3020