After losing his wife to cancer in 2016, founder Rich Elwell combined his expertise in the luxury packaging industry with a love of chocolate to create a confection manufacturer that’s keeping her memory alive.
In its brief existence, MAE Fine Foods has seen a series of trials and triumphs. The three-letter acronym in the company’s name is in honor of Melinda Ann Elwell, who aspired to one day open her own sweet shop.
In its current iteration, MAE Fine Foods serves more than 100 specific high-end confectionary products under one of three umbrella categories: chocolate bonbons, French macrons and, more recently, maelos. The latter is a mousse plated dessert that is prepared in advance at MAE’s kitchen and sent frozen through the company’s distribution channels.
While sweet treats are at the heart of MAE Fine Foods, Elwell says another hallmark of Melinda’s life — her devotion to health and wellness — has been a key ingredient in the company’s strategy.
“Mindy was very health conscious,” Elwell says. “Yes, this product is an indulgence, but it’s a small indulgence. When we started making this, we had Mindy in mind and worked to ensure that all of the ingredients are top quality. The ingredients are very minimal, and they’re clean. There’s no preservatives or stabilizers. Everything is real simple.”
Speaking to the end product, Elwell says, “With that simple manufacturing, the quality and the flavor really stands out.”
Elwell says he created a business model for the company out of the gate but had to swiftly course correct as the expense side of the ledger outpaced the revenue side for the burgeoning business.
“We set this up to be a corporate gifting company,” Elwell says of the initial plan that was drawn up with his company partners. “Since I’ve been in the packaging industry, I understand how businesses work. But $50,000 had been spent on e-commerce advertising, and we only got $10,000 worth of ordering.”
In the years leading up to the pandemic, MAE Fine Foods was gaining momentum with a swift shift in focus. The company entered the food service space and struck deals with assorted distributors to service restaurants, hotels, and resorts.
“Right before the pandemic hit, we picked up a couple of distributors, and those orders were getting bigger and bigger, We’d have someone wanting 5,000 bonbons and then 10,000 bonbons,” Elwell says. “The pandemic hit, and then we went to zero since all of those establishments closed down.”
As was the case with many businesses, Elwell says there were efforts to stay afloat amid the pandemic’s onset. The company sought another revenue stream through traditional retailers — an effort that is ongoing, as evidenced by MAE’s talks with a major chain that has a national footprint.
“We almost went out of business, but as the pandemic started to open back up again, we started to get some business again, and since then, it’s been very busy,” Elwell says.
The introduction of maelos into the company’s product line came as a result of requests from some of MAE’s customers. Pastry chefs were among some of the first workers to leave kitchens within high-end restaurants, hotels, and resorts, and they have been among the last to return.
Demand for the company’s core products, as well as the new line of maelos, has been strong, Elwell says. Current manufacturing is 10 times what it was shortly before the pandemic, and there are no signs of business slowing down.
Challenges: The increase in manufacturing output means MAE Fine Foods needs more workers — a process that Elwell says has been top of mind as the company strives to offer competitive wages within its Arizona home base.
“We’re coming into our own, and we’re having huge growing pains,” Elwell says. “It’s super hard getting employees. We’re looking to hire, and we’re offering competitive wages.”
Because of the company’s continuous growth, Elwell says he anticipates recruiting efforts remaining strong within MAE Fine Foods as 2023 gets underway.
Opportunities: In its earliest iteration, many of the company’s processes were done by hand, which meant 300 to 400 bonbons could be created per day. MAE’s investment in automated equipment has streamlined some of the processes, which means upward of 30,000 bonbons can be manufactured during a production cycle.
But Elwell says MAE Fine Foods will need further investments before the company can comfortably and realistically segue into the retail space, which is still viewed as a largely untapped possibility.
Speaking to the short-term, Elwell says, “I think it’s going to entail sticking with maturing in food service and then gradually getting into retail sales.”
Needs: While staffing remains a critical component to MAE’s success, there are other logistical matters to consider as well, including a top-down review of where business is being conducted.
“We need more space,” Elwell says. “When we first got this space here, it was more than adequate. It’s 10,000 square feet with an over 2,000-square-foot kitchen. Back then, it was way overkill, and now we’re out of space.”
The goal, Elwell says, is to double the size of the company’s kitchen to keep pace with the orders that have been coming in.