Melissa Ferriman—co-founder, CFO, entrepreneur, pizza enthusiast—landed in the food world nearly by accident. But over the past 20 years, she’s left her mark on the industry—and learned a lot along the way.
She now lives in Waltham with her husband and co-founder Doug and their three boys. She recently sat down with us and answered a few questions about how she got started in the restaurant industry, what it’s like to be a powerful woman in a male-dominated field, and why she always carries a book with her.
*Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell us about your background and your career path. How did you get to be where you are?
I studied Spanish in college and didn’t really know what I was going to do when I got out, like a lot of people. I originally thought I wanted to be a teacher or a nurse. If you told me in college I was going to be in the restaurant industry, I would have been like, you’re crazy! I had never even worked in a restaurant before. I just never would have thought that this is what I would be doing.
At the end of college I met Doug. He was looking to open his own restaurant and trying to figure out what kind of restaurant he wanted to open. We started this journey together to figure out what kind of business we were going to get into, and it ended up being pizza.
We opened Crazy Dough’s 20 years ago. As an entrepreneur you’re struggling, right away, so I needed to get what I called a “real job” that paid every week. I ended up interested in the financial world, managing 401k plans for a couple years. When we opened our second store I was able to finally come in full time.
An opportunity came up to open a food hall in Lowell and we jumped right in, not knowing how to run a food hall—but that’s never scared us.
We have been in the pizza world so long, and I thought we always would be, and then this whole other world of food halls opened up. We were looking to do something different, and then an opportunity came up to open a food hall in Lowell and we jumped right in, not knowing how to run a food hall—but that didn’t scare us. Doug has no fear and I’ve learned over the years to become pretty fearless. And now here we are, with three more under construction.
How did you overcome that initial fear?
It just came over time. I’ve had so many sleepless nights being scared to death—I still have sleepless nights!—about so many things. The odds of failing in a restaurant are tremendous, but I knew, deep inside I believed in what we were doing. I could almost see the future, knowing we were going to get somewhere unbelievable but just having to have faith that we were going to get there.
It was almost like a burning desire—I don’t know how long it’s going to take, I don’t know what we’re going to go through, but I know we’re going to get there someday, and it’s going to be [amazing].
What has it been like to be a woman not only in the restaurant industry, but also in finance and entrepreneurship—all male-dominated fields?
It’s been eye-opening. It is hard. It’s very male-dominated; I think even though [Doug and I] are very much partners and have been forever, I think people still have the perception that, since we have three kids, I’m the mom, I’m at home, when I’m very much involved in the business.
I want to help women entrepreneurs. I don’t have anyone I can lean on for advice. I would love to be able to help inspire other people.
Even to this day, 20 years in, it’s changed but it is still hard, for sure. It’s actually kind of interesting because it’s made me think about my purpose—what is my role other than what I’m doing right now, and it has very much made me think that I want to help women entrepreneurs.
I don’t have a woman entrepreneur that I can lean on for advice. I have role models, out there in the world, that I listen to and read about, but I don’t have someone to lean on. I would love to be able to help inspire other women.
What advice do you have for other women in male-dominated fields?
I guess I was naive and didn’t realize how hard it was. I thought that [I would] get to a point where it changed, but it doesn’t change, you know, that’s just society. I would say be prepared for that; stand up for yourself and feel confident in what you’re doing, and don’t let anyone knock you down.
What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career so far?
I think in my role, the challenge has always been money. I didn’t realize how hard it is, when you’re running a business, to keep it afloat. There have been a million challenges, but that is probably the biggest one that I’ve had to shoulder the most of. [I have to think], “Okay, how are we going to get through this,” and I’ve got to figure something out and do whatever it takes to keep everything going.
What’s it like working with your husband every day?
That is probably the number one question people ask, because people are like, I could never work with my husband, and I totally agree, most people probably can’t do it. I think the only reason why it works so well for us is because we’re so different and we have totally different roles in the business; we always have.
If I cared about food as much as Doug did, we would be butting heads constantly. And if he cared about numbers or any of the stuff I do, if he cared what payroll company we used—we probably would have a lot of challenges. We have such a defined line in the sand. We balance each other out.
I am super organized, he needs help organizing. I don’t have this crazy food palate, and he does.
How do you find balance with your busy career and your busy family life?
That’s the number one problem every day. I’ve gotten so much better at it. My family is my number one priority. I want to be there for those [important] moments, but I have a lot of work to do.
I am a very organized person so I’m really good at scheduling. And I just work when I need to work, when I can fit it in. I work at home a lot which makes it really convenient.
But I also have to have me-time. I have to work out. That is a really high priority, because if I can do that, then I have more to give to both my work and my family. It is always a struggle to just keep it all in balance.
What career accomplishment are you most proud of and why?
I think I’m just proud that we made it this far after so long because we’ve been knocked down so many times, and so many times could have given up. I’m proud that we are where we are right now, and have such an exciting future ahead of us.
What drove you to create Craft Food Hall Project and its brands [Project X, Sousviderie, and Vessel]?
Well, we live in Waltham, and we have three young boys that don’t like to sit still in a restaurant. The opportunity came along to open up [the Cross Point location in] Lowell and that was amazing. It was an amenity to the building; we were, as we called it, “hacking the cafeteria,” [turning it into a food hall], and really elevating the food experience in general.
It was eye-opening—we could do this for the public, not just in a building setting. That made us really start thinking: We love going out to eat. We like to eat good food. But our kids don’t want to go to a restaurant and sit there for an hour and a half while we enjoy good food. That’s not fun for them. It’s not like we can sit and have a nice conversation while our three boys just sit there quietly, it just doesn’t happen.
There are so many amazing restaurants in Waltham and the surrounding towns, but we couldn’t find anything like what we wanted to create. Why can’t you put an element in a restaurant where the kids can run around and have fun playing games, and the parents can enjoy good food? That’s where the idea for Craft Food Hall Project was born.
We are almost building an extension of our home here.
Even this past year when this was being built, we would get out of the hockey rink after numerous hockey games and want to go celebrate. Where can we go? Nobody has an idea. We would end up going home and inviting friends over because the kids want to run around and play and Doug wants to experiment and cook a phenomenal meal. I feel like we are almost building an extension of our home here. This is what we like to do.
[We also wanted a place where] there’s no pressure to leave. You can hang out. You can get another glass of wine, or you can go play ping-pong. And there’s no waitstaff that’s looking at you like, “All right, we want to turn the table over.” It’s casual like that.
What’s been your favorite part of the planning process?
Eating the food, of course! I’m not the person that’s cooking the food, but I love eating the food.
What’s been the hardest part of the process of getting Craft Food Hall Project up and running?
Time. How to get it all done and fast. Time is always a problem. There is never enough of it.
What would you say to other people starting food businesses in the current landscape?
You have to really define your audience. Rents are incredibly high in this particular part of the country . . . so figuring out your location and your purpose: where your restaurant is going to be, what you’re going to be serving, who’s your clientele—it’s really important to figure that out. You could have the best concept but if you open up in a tough area, you’re just going to struggle.
What is your long-term vision for Craft Food Hall Project? Where do you see the company and the brands going?
I am incredibly excited about where it’s going. Already, with what’s happened the past 18 months—I’m blown away. I definitely see us growing, and I can see the brands expanding into their own locations.
Obviously you don’t ever know where you’re going . . . sometimes I enjoy just sitting back and wanting to be surprised about where we go, because I’ve learned that you can plan, but you just don’t know what’s about to happen. Hence, this whole thing.
I know it’s going to grow, and we have an unbelievable team that has a real desire to grow it. Times are changing—building owners, they want to have these amenities for their tenants, and I think we’re hacking that whole world where [office cafeterias] have just been status quo for so long, and we’re saying, well, it doesn’t have to be that way.
What’s important to you in the people who work for you and with you?
That they’re happy and they enjoy what they’re doing, that’s the number one thing. If you come work for us, I want you to come work for us because you enjoy being a part of our company, a part of our culture, and you look forward to coming to work every day. I’ve always said that to anyone I’ve ever hired. And the guests feel that.
I’m so into customer service. It drives me crazy when I go somewhere and the person helping me is [unhappy] ... go find something that inspires you and makes you happy and [want to] get out of bed in the morning. Life is just too short.
[I also think]—being a working mom—I have unbelievable freedom [here]. . . . Now when I have parents working for us, I love giving them that flexibility. You can’t miss your kid’s school concert, you need to bring them for the first day of school. I think it’s really important that everyone on our team should be able to do that.
What do you when you’re not working?
Obviously my three kids keep me busy, but I’m a runner, I work out, and I also love reading. It’s important for me to spend time every day reading. I am always reading other entrepreneurs’ books. I’m just obsessed. I actually have a list of 100 books to read that every entrepreneur should read. So I am plowing my way through that.
If I get stuck somewhere and I have 10 minutes, I’m going to pull my book out.
Right now I’m reading Brendon Burchard. He’s unbelievable. I listen to his podcast, I’m reading his book. I always carry my book because if I get stuck somewhere and I have 10 minutes, I’m going to pull my book out.
Do you ever go out to eat?
There are so many good restaurants, but I have to say, we eat at home a lot because we’re always testing. But part of our job is to go out and see what else is out there. I guess I’ve become a little bit of a food snob in a sense. You can’t help it! You can’t help critiquing. People are terrified to [cook for us]. So we eat at home a lot.
What is your favorite food?
Italian food—pizza, pasta—I can’t say no to it!