Ithaca is People: Sweet Melissa
The #IthacaisPeople Files
Week 8: Serving Up Happiness One Cone at a Time
She's not just Melissa anymore. This week's @VisitIthaca Instagrammer is now referred to as "Sweet Melissa", after the infamous Ithaca ice cream shop she and her husband opened years ago. In our most recent interview, we discovered just how fitting the name is. Full of laughter, smiles, and gratitude, we think she just might be one of the secret ingredients that make those addictive frozen treats what Ithacans of all ages line up for in droves.!
(Whispers) Off the record.
No, nothing’s off the record.
No one’s being saved today. Ok, so you are “Sweet Melissa”
Hi! So we already discussed earlier that you really love food.
I LOVE food. Maybe it’s my Italian roots.
We’ve always…yeah, food’s been a big part of my life.
That sounds awesome. So what made you head in the direction of ice cream, specifically?
Honestly, I am the luckiest human being alive, because I wasn’t even a person obsessed with ice cream before. But my husband Matt, his family has an ice cream shop up in Syracuse. His parents just retired do they sold it, but they had it for like 40 years, and so his family has been in the ice cream business his whole life, and I married into the greatest family business of all time. Ice cream has been the most fun, and I’ve been having such a blast, but had I not met Matt, I would have never thought to myself to open an ice cream shop. So I feel very lucky. Very, very lucky.
What is your favorite part about owning this shop?
There’s a lot of really great parts about it, obviously. Um, I think my favorite part personally, is that I love making things. I’m a fairly creative person- I studied art in college, and so it’s kind of my way of getting my creativity out. We’re just constantly making new flavors… so it’s kind of like, my edible art… in my head – (laughs) I don’t know if other people think of it that way. But I just love to create things, even if it doesn’t seem as elegant or extravagant as a beautiful painting or something. But it’s my way of being creative. That’s my favorite part.
Do you ever have any “flavor failures”?
Honestly, I cannot make a really good peach flavor to save my life. Peach has been driving me insane. I don’t know, the whole like, cream and sugary sweetness of the base of ice cream in general just masks peach! So I;ve been able to make a nice peach sorbet, which is just peaches, sugar, and water, but I have not been able to make like, real peaches, and cream flavor. I get a little bit frustrated with caramel, because I make the caramel from scratch so there’s like a lot of sugar and butter, so to get the consistency right with that’s a little bit tricky. But the flavor’s so good that I keep going with it because it’s a big, big hit. I love to eat it, but again the consistency of it is making it a little harder.
You mentioned earlier, before we started recording, that you really enjoy seeing people experience your ice cream. Can you describe a little bit about that again?
Well, ok, so the other great, wonderful part of the shop and having the retail side of it, and my husband and I being there is… I’ve kind of stepped back a little bit because of the hard ice cream production and I’ve been spending a lot of my time on that part, so I don’t get to be at the window as much, but the other part that I love is serving customers who are just so happy. Like, I sometimes describe our business as a service of happiness. We’re serving Ithaca happiness. Because of how people react! Like I said before, my favorite was when this little kid came up and just squealed with delight when I handed them their cone, (laughter). And then maybe a couple days ago, or a couple weeks ago… I don’t know my time. Time is a blur in the summer! I was outside talking to someone and this little girl comes up to me and she goes, (little girl voice) “Sweet Melissa, I just want to thank you for all the yummy flavors you make.” And I like, melted into a puddle!
That is so adorable!
I was like “Oh my god…” (laughs) So that – it’s for the children!
(In unison, laughing) "We do it for the kids!"
But they are so sweet and they’re so grateful and it’s been really cute and it’s really lovely to see happy faces.
So when you walked in the door this morning I walked by and there was a little crowd huddled around you. So it seems like you're sort of a mini-celebrity around town.
It’s so crazy.
How do you feel about that?
I think it’s so funny. It’s hilarious! But I think it all revolves around how people react to ice cream. Honestly. I mean, going back to feeling so lucky that this is the business we’re in. Not everyone’s an ice cream person, and I totally get that. But the vast majority of people are just like in love with it – or at least appreciate how it is tasty, or whatever. But… ok, now I lost my train of thought!
That’s ok. We were at mini celebrity.
Oh god, (laughs) yeah that’s right. So I think that that’s like, the core of it, and I think that since there’s a face to it – I mean we’re called “Sweet Melissa’s” and there’s actually a person named Melissa, and so I think more of it is just our product, and so people get excited that there’s a face to it, I guess.
I asked [my coworker] this morning, “So is this THE Sweet Melissa?” (laughter)
(Laughing) I love how I have become “Sweet Melissa”. Like, I’m not just Melissa anymore. It always reminds me of the movie “Free Willy”, and how little kids say “The whale’s name isn’t Willy, his name is Free Willy.” So I just crack up over that!
We didn’t know your last name before this, because - you’re right - it was just “Sweet Melissa”.
I love it. I mean, it’s so cute.
So you are located on the same property as one of our most famous yet at the same time understated gems, Short Stop Deli.
Short Stop Deli. An Ithaca icon.
Yes, an Ithaca icon. What is your favorite sandwich from Short Stop?
Ok. (Gets very serious here.) This is for real.
Alright, hit me. We’re ready. This sounds big.
Toasted ciabatta. It might sound simple, but it blew my mind. I started them like two years ago, and this is our eighth season, so I felt cheated that I didn’t have six years of toasted ciabatta. But they have such a variety of pieces of bread, and the French bread is great – they bake everything there – and so I was always getting that, but my manager Sarafina brought in a sandwich and I tried it… I eat other people’s food (laughs)… I’m a scavenger!
I’m the same way!
Yeah, so it blew my mind! It was so good, so I think that 75% of my sandwiches are with toasted ciabatta.
I’ve never tried it! I have to try it now!
But you’ve gotta get it toasted. That’s key. But anything that they serve… there’s like endless… I want to do the math to see how many actual different combinations you could actually get at Shortstop.
I think they actually have that somewhere on a sign in the store, how many combinations of sandwiches can be made.
Yeah, I mean, they’re amazing. I would be embarrassed to say how much I eat there in the summertime.
OK. So this could be a for real flavor, or something made up. But if there were an ice cream that existed that summed up the “Spirit of Ithaca”, what would it be?
Whew. (Sinks back in chair and sighs). Well, fortunately, I already made one for our mayor, and that one’s like a spicy but sweet flavor.
But Ithaca itself… I think there would have to be some sort of like health benefit to it. I think with all of the local ingredients and how Ithacans have so much local food to choose from, and there’s so much outdoor activity, there is a huge health aspect, which is amazing. So I don’t know! Um… something with granola?
(All around bursts of laughter.)
So we have a lot of really, really great customers. So one of our customers who has been coming since we opened suggested that I make one called the “Cayuga Waterfront Trail Mix”.
So that one I thought was so great for Ithaca. So yeah, something like that. Maybe something… it has to do with something that I local to represent Ithaca because I think that that’s kind of at the heart of Ithaca – the local community.
Yeah, that’s true. Good call. So finally here is the question that we ask everybody.
Oh no! I didn’t even think to do my homework and come up with something for this!
Well, I don’t know, maybe something from what you just said could be it… if you could describe Ithaca in one word what would it be?
Um… I think “Local”. Yeah, it’s very… “Community?” Is that…
Yeah, ok. Um… “Community”. (Laughs) I don’t know!
Obviously, that’s not an adjective.
That’s ok, doesn’t need to be.
That final “Yaaaaaaaaaay!” from the absolute sweetest Sweet Melissa pretty much sums her up in a nutshell. In our humble opinion, if there were am ice cream flavor that represented the “Spirit of Sweet Melissa”, it would have to be Sunshine and Rainbows, just like her personality. We hated to see this interview end! Thank you, Melissa and Matt, for serving up happiness in Ithaca every day!
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