As the sun sets over Muskegon’s Lakeside neighborhood last week, a light comes on at 1925 Lakeshore Drive. Inside, there’s a flurry of movement, a whirlwind of two women painting and laughing. Drivers pause, temporarily, craning their necks to see what’s happening in this space that’s about to debut as The Only Cannoli’s first storefront.
Brittany Meloche and Bethany Bauer walk outside—or, not really walk, but something more energetic, something more like a vault—and the enthusiasm that follows them is contagious. The two gush about Lakeside, exuberantly point to Muskegon Lake that’s just across the street from them, and brush paint from the hands that for weeks have been preparing The Only Cannoli for its grand opening on Saturday, April 13.
“Isn’t it great?” Meloche asks, her eyes traveling to this new commercial home of theirs: a cozy spot tucked into the heart of Lakeside, just across the street from the Lake Express ferry.
Bauer nods and laughs—laughter truly seems to follow these two wherever they go, and for good reason. The two Muskegon residents and entrepreneurs, both in their 20s, are opening The Only Cannoli’s storefront less than a year after they launched their business and began selling their Italian-inspired pastries at the Muskegon Farmers Market.
It is, they explain, a dream come true.
“We want this to be something where someone comes and loves it so much that, years from now, they’re going to bring their kids,” Meloche says. “That’s the expectation of how long we want this to be around.”
As a friendship begins, the seeds for a business are planted
Bauer, who grew up in Detroit and Ravenna, and Meloche, who’s originally from Grand Haven, met while working at the same job in Grand Haven.
“We’d always sit together at lunch, and we’d always talk about food,” Meloche says. “We found out we’re both Italian, so that took our friendship to the next level.”
Bonding over stories of family—of gigantic Italian meals on Sundays, of ancestors who traveled some 5,000 miles from their home country of Italy to the Midwest, of grandparents who heaped food on your plate and would, as Bauer says, give you “the Spanish inquisition if you didn’t want to eat”—the two quickly became close friends. And they began to dream about opening a business together.
“We were at the lunch table, and, simultaneously, we were both like, why don’t we make cannoli?” Meloche says. “There’s nowhere around you can get a real one. That’s when we kicked it into gear.”
(Quick side note: for those who haven’t tried cannoli, imagine a flaky fried shell piped with everything from the traditional ricotta filling to, as The Only Cannoli offers, cookie dough, cranberry orange, and peppermint hot cocoa. Originally created in Palermo, Sicily, the dessert has gone on to find its place in the American pantheon of pastries after Italian immigrants began making them in bakeries a little over a century ago.)
Around the end of 2017, the two decided they’d go into business together and offer the handmade pastries that reminded them of their favorite things in life: family, friends and food.
“We were both raised in primarily Italian households, and when you have family over, it’s an event,” Bauer says. “There’s food in every single room; you’re talking and laughing and dancing. You don’t want that night to end. We said, ‘We want to do that; we want to make that feeling.’”
“Today’s environment is so fast, and dessert is part of staying together at the dinner table and talking,” Meloche adds. “That’s what we want.”
With the help of Meloche’s mother, the two chose their name—The Only Cannoli—last spring, and they went on to come up with a plan for their business using resources in Muskegon, including classes at the Muskegon Innovation Hub and SCORE, which offers free business mentoring services.
“There’s so much support for people who want to start a business here,” Meloche says. “Muskegon makes it really easy for people like us to do these things.”
In July 2018, they began selling at the Muskegon Farmers’ Market.
“It’s been a really great whirlwind,” Meloche says.
“In the timeframe between coming up with the name and selling at the farmers’ market, we were hitting the ground running,” Bauer adds.
Their fan base quickly grew, from individuals who’d never heard the word ‘cannoli’ before to Italian-Americans who were used to traveling to Chicago or Detroit for Italian food.
“When we started to sell at the farmers’ market, there was a surfacing of this Italian community that came out who would say, ‘We’d go to Chicago to get our cannoli before,’” Bauer says.
Now, in their Lakeside storefront, Meloche and Bauer will offer cannoli [you can see their menu here] and plan to sell biscotti and pizzella in the future. All of their goods are made from scratch.
Finding a home in an evolving Muskegon
As Muskegon grows, and as tourists increasingly come to the city, Meloche and Bauer are looking forward to expanding the city’s culinary landscape. When they open in April, they’ll be joining a roster of debuting businesses in Muskegon this year, including a fellow Italian venue, Nipote’s Italian Kitchen; NorthTown 794—a building that will feature three levels of dining, drinking and office space; a Ghanaian food truck, and more.
The two are thrilled to see increasingly diverse cuisines offered in the area.
“When you bring variety, you bring curiosity and different people,” Bauer says. “You’ll get different people coming here. We have so much going on in Muskegon; why not treat them to a good time while they’re in this city. They’ll say, ‘I got a decent cannoli’ in this city. It changes the way people see Muskegon.”
“That’s why Taste of Muskegon is amazing; it’s events like that that will keep people coming back here,” Bauer adds, referring to the annual summer food festival that showcases area restaurants, food trucks and other culinary businesses.
And, The Only Cannoli owners emphasized, they’re hoping others will fall in love with Muskegon the way they have.
“When I moved to Muskegon from Grand Haven, I loved living here way more than Grand Haven,” Meloche says. “I told my husband, ‘There’s so much more to do and look at.’ And Pere Marquette is such an underrated beach.”
“Before I moved here, I associated Muskegon with a negative,” Meloche continues. “It was a shock when I moved here to realize how beautiful it was.”
“There’s so much to experience here: Hoffmaster, Pere Marquette, all the restaurants,” she says. “Muskegon can have a bad rap, but it’s time that changes.”
A future rooted in history
As the two set their sights on their opening date and growing their business, they know their coming days, ones filled with community and food and the kind of laughter that makes your stomach hurt, are, in many ways, happening because of people and places they haven’t met or seen. This little pocket in Muskegon is a continuation of a story born in Italy, of family who left this world long ago—but who they’ve heard stories about, who filled their homes with baking and dancing and singing and life. And, the two explain, it’s an embrace of the role food has played throughout their lives.
“One of the biggest things I remember about my great-grandma, who’s from Naples and is like a grandmother to me, is the food and being together all the time,” Meloche says. “Walking into her house, I specifically remember the smell: this thick smell of beef and fennel and oils. She was always cooking. I don’t think I ever saw her not cooking. That was how she loved her family.”
Bauer, whose grandmother came from Malta and great-grandmother hailed from Sicily, too had a childhood brimming with Italian food.
“For my grandma, something was wrong with you if you didn’t want to eat,” Bauer laughs. “Any time we were over at her house, we were eating.”
Just like their relatives, Bauer and Meloche will fill their world with the scents and tastes that have followed their families for generations. And they will raise their cannoli to Lakeside, to Muskegon and to all those who came before them, those who made their way across the ocean to a place where their great-granddaughters would open a shop called The Only Cannoli.