Fried or baked chicken, catfish, rib tips, black-eyed pea, greens, mac and cheese, baked beans, cabbage & kale, candied yams, green beans, and cornbread. These are few of the staples that have made Melly Mel’s a Madison favorite well over a decade.
Back in the day, Melly Mel’s Restaurant was a popular destination – for those in the know – because it had some of the tastiest soul food in Madison. But to get to Carmell Jackson’s old Melly Mel’s Restaurant at the Genesis Enterprise Center in the heart of Madison’s south side was no easy task. First off, for many people, finding the Genesis Center was no easy task. Even with step one accomplished, you had to go through a series of Genesis Center doors and make a series of correct turns just to get to the steps to the basement where you’d have to do the same thing.
“A lot of people were trying to find it. I still run into people today who tell me, “I never could find your restaurant!’” laughs Jackson, longtime proprietor and chef of Melly Mel’s. “The location wasn’t the best.”
But the people that found it were very happy. Melly Mell’s Restaurant was actually founded by Jackson’s father, a former Air Force cook, who would always complain that “you can’t get no soul food in Madison.” Tragically, he passed away a month before Jackson opened the restaurant.
There hasn’t been a physical Melly Mel’s sit-down restaurant for about 6 years, but Melly Mel’s food has lived on. Jackson’s bread and butter has been her catering services where over the last decade you could find her everywhere events, weddings, class reunions. The University of Wisconsin is a big customer, for example.
“I keep up with the catering pretty heavy. It has always done pretty well,” she says.
“Till now,” she adds.
Coronavirus has shut down a lot of Madison – especially the restaurant, food and service industry. And Melly Mel’s Catering has felt that impact, too.
“We had a job at the UW that we had already prepared for and was getting ready to deliver when we were called and told that we couldn’t deliver it,” Jackson says. “But we were able to make to-go plates for the kids so they could take it to their dorms and the food wasn’t wasted.
“I have money that was owed to me that is now on hold. It was just Black History Month, so I was really busy!” Jackson adds. “Some of those payments stopped and I’m like, ‘How am I supposed to survive?’ It was scary at one point, but I’m working on innovative ways to get food out to people whether it be curbside. I’m working on something with the FEED kitchen to do that.”
Starting on Monday of this week, Melly Mel’s has been helping to provide meals for families through the FEED Kitchen for the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County.
“This will hopefully be a huge help for those who can’t get out to get food or they don’t have the access or money,” she says. “Money is really tight now. People aren’t going to work. So this makes me feel really good.
“Just some healthy, tasty staples to help these families get through some rough times,” she continues. “This is what I’m about anyway. I like to give back to the community but I do have to survive in the meantime.”
Back in the day, people’s favorite Melly Mel’s dish was mac ‘n’ cheese. Is that still the case today?
“Still mac ‘n’ cheese,” Jackson smiles. “I cannot make enough mac ‘n’ cheese to save the world. We do a lot of mac ‘n’ cheese.”
Reflecting on those old days, Jackson admits that her food has gotten healthier over the years.
“I now do cabbage and kale. I’ve gotten a little healthier for people. I have more options in this menu,” she says. “We have vegan menus, a tofu dish, gluten-free fried chicken, veggie greens. I just created a vegan corn muffin which I really love. It came out just great. We’re giving people a taste of Melly Mel’s nowadays, just in a healthier way. People love our healthy stuff.
Jackson’s food options were not nearly this healthy – but just as tasty – when she first went out on a limb to start the business with the help of her late father. Her first home base was one of the tiny kitchens at the Genesis Enterprise Center back in 2007. Jackson and her crew would take over the area a little before lunchtime and most of the Genesis Center would find their way there just from smelling the food in the halls. The menu was pretty simple back then, mostly offering sandwiches and quick side dishes.
Before long, Jackson graduated to a giant space in the Genesis Center basement where she housed Melly Mel’s Restaurant complete with dine-in tables, decorations, and a TV in the corner in the main room. While you were in her restaurant, Jackson was “everybody’s mother.” You could see her slogan everywhere – written on banners and business cards – “Where’s your mama at?”
“Those were the days. I miss it,” she says. “But its a lot of work. You kind of lose yourself.”
Jackson had surgery to have her thyroid removed and was in recovery, too, but she kept working. “I went back to work too soon,” she remembers, “but I felt I had, too.”
As far as attracting business, the odd location didn’t help either.
“People did have trouble finding it,” Jackson laughs. “The location wasn’t the best. And being in the basement, I always wanted to know what the weather was like outside. You just couldn’t tell down there.
“It was a good incubator to start a business in; it just wasn’t a good incubator to stay in a business,” she adds. “People still ask me about the restaurant. Would I do a sit-down restaurant again? Never again in life!”
Jackson would not even have time to do a sit-down restaurant at this point in her life with all of the catering and the upcoming gig in the Madison Public Market, slated to start in 2021, which she says will be more like a food court feel.
“You’ll come up and order your food and take it and sit wherever you want or take it home,” she says. “I’ll have options where you can take it cold and cook it later for people who just want to grab dinner for later.
Jackson says she is so excited about the Public Market program. The vision of the Madison Public Market will be a year-round, inclusive and welcoming community destination featuring a diverse group of entrepreneurs. The market will also offer fresh produce from local farmers, culturally diverse prepared food, locally-made food products, and handcrafted arts and crafts.
“The Public Market is providing a lot of venues – markets and food tastings where we can sell our food and try to keep our names out there,” she says.
“They’ve helped me build my brand. I’ve got business coaches. I got a new website coming out soon – we’re working that out right now,” Jackson continues. “It will be easier to access Melly Mel’s foods and to get a menu for parties and things. They gave us classes that we can do to help build our brands and money to help buy the equipment that we needed.
“I feel very blessed to be there,” she adds. “The Public Market is going to be a great asset to Madison and I’m just glad to be a part of it.
There’s still some time before the Public Market opens, but in the meantime, if you are craving Melly Mel’s, you can get a hold of Jackson through Facebook, by e-mailing [email protected] or just calling her at (608)213-3020.
“People call me all the time. I love to talk to people so that’s always good,” Jackson says. “I’ve got big catering events and now curbside meals. We will make it and bring it right out to your car.”