Interview with Nathaniel “Nate” Mell – CEO of Felt+Fat

Interview with Nathaniel

Nathaniel Mell, or Nate as his colleagues and friends know him, is the acting CEO and founder of Felt+Fat, an innovative ceramic design, and manufacturing studio in Philadelphia. Mell studied at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University as well as the world-renowned Philadelphia Clay Studio, which caught the eye of American chef Eli Kulp. In 2013, Mell designed a stunning set of plates for Kulp’s award-winning restaurant ‘High Street on Market.’ In doing so, Mell developed the concept for a ceramic design studio catering to the Hospitality industry, which ultimately became the widely recognized Felt+Fat.

Under Nate’s leadership, Felt and Fat has gained notoriety for its timeless design, ethical manufacturing, and innovation. The company has been featured in the New York Times, the Forbes 30 under 30 list, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and many more publications.

Today, the Felt and Fat team operates out of Kensington, a Philadelphia neighborhood known for its profusion of hip bars, craft breweries, and galleries. Though Nate Mell still sees relationships with restaurants as a vital part of Felt+Fat’s business model, the studio has since seen great success in direct-to-consumer sales, resulting in the production of 30,000 hand-made tableware pieces annually.

Nathaniel or “Nate,” I feel like we’re friends here. Did anything prepare you for starting your own business?

Being a server for eight years was preparation for being a small business owner: you learn how to juggle priorities on the fly, how to talk with anyone, how to work as a part of a larger team, so many things! I’d recommend it to anyone.

How has your leadership style changed or grown since you first started Felt+Fat?

I learned to take myself more seriously. I had never been in a management position before starting a business, so having employees was uncomfortable since I just wanted to be one of them! I learned that I need to take my authority seriously and that trying to be buddies with everyone is ultimately a disservice to them and the business. Direct communication has been the biggest but most important learning curve.

As CEO of Felt+Fat, what do you see as your biggest responsibility?

Giving my staff the tools they need to succeed!

How does Felt and Fat stand out from the competition?

While we have a great range of sleek, durable, standard products, we maintain a deep focus on experimentation which allows us to make some pretty cutting-edge designs.

How would you describe Felt and Fat’s work culture?

We cross-train all of our team members on a wide variety of skills so that they can be autonomous in their work but able to jump in and help someone out when they are in a crunch. We are all about direct communication giving one another the benefit of the doubt.

What challenges does the company face in the short and long term? How is the Felt and Fat team rising to the occasion?

Scaling is a big challenge. We are on the cusp of big-time growth but keeping quality of product and studio culture is no small task. Thankfully everyone on our team takes both of these things very seriously, and we discuss them often!

Companies around the U.S. are struggling to hire and grow their teams to meet their business demands. How does Felt+Fat attract, develop and retain talent?

We are fortunate in that the bulk of our jobs require little to no experience and can be trained in-house. Pairing that with a generous starting wage, medical benefits, and a good deal of PTO allows us to offer great jobs to people who might otherwise be working for minimum wage. So far (knock on wood), we have had no problem finding and retaining candidates.

What have been your biggest takeaways from steering Felt and Fat through the COVID-19 pandemic and economic fallout that ultimately hit Philadelphia and the rest of the United States?

We were very fortunate to be in a category of products that did quite well in the pandemic (home goods), but we had to do a lot of work to pivot our model towards DTC when we had been focused on hospitality in the past. I think the biggest takeaway has been to constantly keep your ear to the ground and be ready to shift focus at the drop of a hat!