Nathaniel Mell is the founder and CEO of Felt+Fat, a ceramic design, and manufacturing studio serving both professional and at-home chefs. Nate Mell started the Philadelphia-based company in 2014 after graduating from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University and working at the world-renown Philadelphia Clay Studio.
Before his foray into ceramic design, Nate gained experience that included working in a variety of media, including glass, metal, wood, and mold-making. The opportunity to design a beautiful line of plates for Eli Kulp’s award-winning restaurant ‘High Street on Market’ oriented Mell towards exploring ceramic design in-depth. In doing so, he came up with the concept for a ceramic design studio catering to the Hospitality industry. The company name, Felt+Fat, came as a nod to the material explorations and theories of midcentury artist Joseph Beuys, one of Mell’s favorite artists.
Today, Nate Mell’s Felt and Fat has a track record of working with over 100 restaurants worldwide, producing more than 30,000 pieces annually, and being featured in the NY Times, the Forbes 30 under 30 list, and many other publications. Timeless design, ethical manufacturing, and intentionality toward relationships are the core values of the ever-growing team at Felt+Fat.
When he is not immersed in creative work as an artisanal dinnerware producer, Nathaniel enjoys gardening, cooking, and hiking with his partner Katherine and their dog Potato.
How did you get started in this business?
I began my work in tableware very organically. After attending the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, I split my time between art-making and paying the bills as a server in fine dining restaurants. One day a chef I worked under asked if I could make him some custom plates for a new restaurant. That first job took me down the road that got me to where I am today, running a large studio with ten employees producing tens of thousands of pieces per year for restaurants and at-home chefs all over the country!
How do you make money?
While designing custom products is the most fun, the bulk of our revenue comes from the standard designs that we sell directly to home consumers and restaurants, both large and small.
How long did it take for you to become profitable?
We were profitable right away, but then we had very few expenses and paid ourselves very little. That being said, we have been re-investing and growing in the last couple of years and just breaking even most of the time but see a great increase in profitability in the coming years!
When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?
I had doubts all the time and still do! That being said, you just do what’s in front of you and trust your instincts when it comes to the long term. There’s no magic bullet, but hard work goes a long way.
How did you get your first customer?
Our first customer was my boss, a chef who I worked for at the time. His order created the business!
What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?
Paid social media advertising has done wonders to increase our DTC sales.
What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?
With the pandemic, we had to decide whether or not to play it safe and hunker down / cut spending or to change the business model from wholesale to DTC, which required a lot of spending. We decided to take the risk, and it has proved out to be the right choice, with DTC sales up nearly 600% YoY since the shift.
What do you think it is that makes you successful?
I have painted myself into a corner with this business and given myself no other options for a career. When you’ve got everything to lose, you’ll make it work or die trying.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
There are so many satisfying moments as a business owner, but one of the big ones recently was fulfilling the dream of providing health insurance for my employees. It’s a great thing to be able to do.
What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?
We see a lot of growth down the line, including purchasing our own building and expanding our production capabilities! I am excited to see improved products and for more creative collaborations down the line.
What business books have inspired you?
I don’t read much in the way of business books, but I recently read the biography of Alexander Hamilton – talk about an inspired and hard-working guy!
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Take it slow, build the infrastructure and get 8 hours of sleep.
Are you willing to be a mentor? If so, how should someone contact you?
Sure! Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org