Gillian Fitzgerald | Staff Writer
Just about everyone has that one thing they are passionate about and instantly makes them feel better. For some, it might be sports or meditation. For others, maybe it’s painting or playing an instrument. For Melissa “Mel” Montalvo of Mel’s Magnolia Boutique Bakery, it’s baking.
Montalvo bakes anything and everything one could come up with — she loves trying new things. She is always hoping customers will randomly ask her to make something she’s never done before so she can try it out. Whether it be cakes, cookies, biscotti, brownies, macarons or muffins, Montalvo will do research on anything a person wants because she knows she can do it.
“I’m the type of person that doesn’t give up until I master it,” Montalvo said.
Montalvo began baking when she was just 8 years old as a way to not only get out her emotions, but to also pass the time when she couldn’t sleep. Her insomnia kept her up when she was young, so she would go into the kitchen at 1 or 2 a.m. and find new recipes to make for her mom and dad.
Now 29, Montalvo has turned her passion into a small, Black-owned business with her online and social media-run store based in Pittsburgh that officially began on Instagram last year. Just as baking was a way for Montalvo to take how she felt and put it into something she loved when she was a kid, it remains a means of transforming her emotions today.
Montalvo was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder three years ago, and she decided not to take traditional medication because of the way it made her feel. Instead, with the help of her husband, she tried different means to cheer herself up, and baking was the way for her to get her out of her down state.
“Whenever I say baking saved me, baking has literally been my savior. I bake whenever I’m down, I bake whenever I’m happy,” Montalvo said. “And I don’t do it because I want to make money; I genuinely like to do it and I like to make people happy with the things that I bake.”
It’s her journey as a changed person that inspired the perfect name for her business.
Google offers various different meanings for the magnolia flower, but for Montalvo it signifies what she’s gone through to get to who she is now.
“I’m all about love, and I’m actually a very changed person. If you knew me in my past, I was always really rowdy, I was angry and I couldn’t figure out why,” Montalvo said. “Now that I know more about myself, I’m all about peace and love, and the reason why I chose ‘Mel’s Magnolia’ is because of the meaning of the ‘magnolia’ flower. From my understanding, it’s about strength, rebirth, and renewal — and that’s what I’m about. I’m such a changed person and I wanted to include that into my bakery.”
However, her business’ unique name isn’t the only reason it stands out from other bakeries.
Montalvo rarely ever makes the same thing twice — and when she does, she makes sure to tweak it and make it more interesting. Not only is she always looking to make her items better and unique, but she also asks her customers about themselves first so she can tailor goods specifically for them.
And since Montalvo does everything herself — the shopping, baking, decorating and packaging — every cake, pastry and cookie contains a personal touch from Montalvo herself until she’s able to open a Mel’s Magnolia Boutique Bakery storefront.
Her friendliness and the exposure from customers both in and out of state has allowed Mel’s Magnolia to grow, just as her understanding of supporting small and Black-owned businesses has grown.
After becoming a business owner, Montalvo realized the importance of giving support in any way possible to local and community businesses.
“I noticed that I should have been supporting more friends and more family, because a lot of the time Black-owned businesses get put to the side because a lot of people think that they’re maybe not as professional or that their standards aren’t as high,” Montalvo said. “But more often than not, their standards are much, much higher because they have a lot to prove — we all do. We have so much more to prove.”
Black-owned businesses often have to step up 10 times more because of the judgment that people have, according to Montalvo. And when living or being in a predominantly white area, that biased view causes false and ignorant perceptions for businesses and their owners who have to work harder to prove themselves, their products or services.
“It really shouldn’t be that way but unfortunately, it is,” Montalvo said. “I have to present myself a certain way so they don’t think that I’m a different type of way … I don’t want anyone to think that I’m ghetto, I don’t want anyone to think that Black businesses are ghetto, or that they’re using the cheapest means possible to make their products, because it’s just not the case.”
Researching and going out to support small and Black-owned businesses puts purpose behind every cent, especially during Covid-19. However, support doesn’t just mean spending money, especially if one doesn’t have the means to do so.
For Montalvo, support also means sharing business cards and social media posts, and also attending events in the community to shop at Black-owned businesses. Supporters can use hashtags to find out about certain businesses, or when looking for a specific product, and word of mouth still proves its effectiveness.
“I encourage everyone — no matter who you are — looking to support Black-owned businesses to do their research and try to find events to go out and support,” Montalvo said. “There are families right now really struggling in this pandemic, so if you have the means, please support these people … they need it. We all need it.”
As a new baker and a small business owner, she’s experienced the challenges of first starting out, especially managing everything herself during a pandemic. But she prides herself on the customer service she provides, having worked in that area her whole life. Montalvo has learned from the bad experiences she’s had with other businesses to know what she doesn’t want to have in her own.
It’s things like the detail she puts into her cakes, owning up to infrequent mistakes and being willing to fix them that allows her to show customers the kind of person she is.
“I want people to know that when they buy from me, that is what you’re getting. I’m someone that was raised in the south, very nice, respectful of culture and beliefs … and that is what they’re gonna get,” Montalvo said. “They’re gonna receive something that is tailored towards them and that is tasty, and if I ever mess anything up you can call to let me know and I will fix it as soon as I can.”
Montalvo’s individual style and the twists she puts on all of her sweets reflects the hard work and detail she puts into her business. Although she is only in the first year of Mel’s Magnolia Boutique Bakery, the Pittsburgh community will be seeing many more of Montalvo’s signature cakes and hearing her trademark salutation — “peace, love, and magnolias” — online and soon in her own storefront.