Kalene McElveen was born and raised in Detroit, MI in a vegetarian household during a time when vegetarianism and veganism were much less popular than today. After moving away from home for college, she found that there were few food options to accommodate her dietary restrictions and had to get acclimated to cooking for herself. Through a series of small business ventures during college – a meal prep service called Healthy Portion and a small cookbook titled The Daniel Feast –Kalene started to experiment with ice cream, a tasty treat she has enjoyed since childhood.
Tell me the story behind Tastefull Vegan Frozen Desserts. Where did you get inspiration for the business?
The cookbook is what evolved into ice cream. I have always loved ice cream but sometimes I couldn’t have ice cream because it had eggs in it. We couldn’t eat eggs growing up, so I began playing around with ice cream. I knew I did not want artificial sugars—I wanted it to be natural. Then, I went a step further and removed all the stuff that was an allergen for most people. Most vegan ice creams have a cashew or soy base, and soy is horrible for people. I eat tofu so I am not completely against soy, but in a product that I am making for everyone I did not want to include soy. The intention all along was to have a dessert that was allergen-free, naturally sweetened, good for my kids and okay for anyone to eat.
Have you always dreamed of being an entrepreneur? What did you want to be when you grew up?
I went to school for education—I wanted to be an elementary school teacher. I started teaching for Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) and taught for them for a few years, so I did what I said I wanted to do. After a few years with GRPS, I worked full-time as an administrative assistant and then I started full-time homeschooling. I love the opportunity to teach and that’s still a passion, so I take every advantage to do so.
You’ve made a lot of moves over the last couple of years while facing a global pandemic. How did COVID affect your business?
The start of 2020 was supposed to be the start of my business and testing out vegan ice cream but with COVID my start date was pushed back to July. I got my food license and started working in the Downtown Market Incubator Kitchen, and then participated in a Black business expo at Woodland Mall which was my first time putting my product together and selling it in front of people. It sold out.
Then I started working with other vendors and later on got into Fulton Street Farmer’s Market in 2021. As I did that, I also partnered with Harvest Health, who allowed me to do a health seminar. At that point, Harvest Health said to me whenever your product launches, let us know. From there, I worked with Michigan State University and the Michigan Small Business Development Center (MiSBDC) to find out how to do UPCs and packaging. Harvest Health was my first store and then throughout the summer, I was at Fulton Street Farmer’s Market building the brand and client base, finding out what customers like.
I was trying to learn how to do all these things as a new business owner and trying to keep myself and my customers safe. Every part of it has been a learning experience for me. So whenever there’s an opportunity to be able to share and help other entrepreneurs, I’d rather be able to share and help other entrepreneurs so that they don’t have to face the same hurdles I did and know that if I can do all of this amid a pandemic, post-pandemic anything is possible!
What role has the MI-SBDC played in your small business journey?
Where I really worked with the SBDC was on financials. I wanted to focus on how my projections look and how am I sourcing things. There were so many opportunities for grants and pitch competitions, so I wanted my business to look good on paper. The MI-SBDC came in when I started to grow because I didn’t know how to scale. Jamaal [MI-SBDC Economic Inclusion Business Consultant] started working with me in 2020, and some of the resources and advice he shared I didn’t know I needed. He would send me information and I would respond back, “Okay, now what do I do with this?” All of that is what helped me this year as I went from selling in one store to six, from winning 5 x5 Night to first place in Michigan Women Forward’s Woman Up and Pitch, and having everything in order to purchase my own ice cream shop which I use as production and retail space.
What was the most challenging thing your business faced since starting?
Funding. I have a meeting with my MI-SBDC consultant next week to discuss this very topic. With each growing pain comes a bill so I know what I want to do but it costs money and without money, it is difficult to get to the next stage.
In just two years, you’ve acquired a food license, a brick-and-mortar store and you’re selling your product in several stores throughout the state. What do you see happening within the next two years?
I would like to expand Tastefull in all the locations of the chains. I have a meeting coming up with Meijer where we’re having a conversation about improving the packaging so I can go from Bridge St. Market to Rivertown Market (in Detroit) and they’re looking at 100 other stores. Years down the line, I see the ice cream shop expanding into a franchise.
Aside from that, we just did a collaboration with Last Mile Café where we made a flurry that is their coffee mixed in with our soft serve. We love being able to collaborate with other local businesses for some of our products and within the next year or so would like to source our fruit from local Michigan farmers.
Tell me about your team. Who comes up with the different flavors and menu items?
We are a small team of six—mostly teens. I allow them to have a creative license when it comes to creating different recipes. Some of the recipes that are the most popular on the menu are ones that they created playing around with things like mixing chocolate and caramel and throwing in a cookie. We didn’t even know how popular it was until we took inventory looking at May 31st until now and realized we’ve sold about 800 flurries… and we’re only open three days each week— Friday, Saturday, and Sunday!
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs after hearing your story?
I’ve found that there is a wealth of wisdom in asking. Sometimes when you think that you don’t know the answer, in this particular community, there are more than enough places to go to get the resources, but we don’t ask. There are so many different obstacles you face being an entrepreneur and I’m glad that there are resources like the MI-SBDC to turn to when there’s something I don’t know.
Published August 2022