Mely Ballard spreads holiday cheer with her homemade gingerbread houses.
If you've ever been to the Corinth Square shopping center in Prairie Village, you may have stopped into one particularly unobtrusive, tucked-away shop for ice cream, or frozen yogurt, or locally produced Andre's Swiss chocolate.
Mely Ballard has been operating family-friendly Mely's Yogurt & Ice Cream at the same location since 1985, watching it become a favorite tradition for locals from all over the Kansas City area.
Ballard doesn’t make her ice cream from scratch — she serves Edy’s and Ashby’s ice creams and YoCream frozen yogurt — but she makes many customer favorites such as limeade, old-fashioned peanut brittle and waffle cones in-house. Because her focus is primarily cool treats, summers are the busiest time of the year for her.
Mely’s Yogurt & Ice Creams is more than a favorite place for families to go and share treats together when it’s hot outside. Ballard has started other traditions around custom holiday desserts. Her homemade gingerbread houses, popular during holiday season, have also become a long-standing tradition for a growing local following.
Ballard came to the United States in 1979 from Manila, Philippines, and has since lived in Kansas City. A savvy businesswoman who keeps up with all the latest business and investment trends, Ballard recalls her dream of starting her own company.
"It seemed like something fun to do and a way to connect with my community," she says.
A couple years after she opened the shop in Prairie Village, Ballard accepted an invite from a friend — more out of politeness than curiosity — to attend a Wilton holiday cake class.
"The class focused on gingerbread houses, and at the time, I'd never even heard of such a thing," she admits with a laugh. "I also learned they are a lot of work!”
The Wilton class taught her to mix and bake the gingerbread, how to mix and prepare the icing, and how to assemble and decorate the houses. Ballard put her first completed project on display in the ice cream parlor to see if anyone might be interested in ordering one. She was thrilled when it resulted in 25 orders. Ballard has since started offering custom desserts for other holidays, including haunted gingerbread houses for Halloween and lamb cakes for Easter, but none of them have caught on quite like the gingerbread houses she sells during the winter holidays.
"Winter is a slow season for the ice cream business," she says. "I was excited at the prospect of having a big seller during the offseason.”
Since she began making her gingerbread creations, custom orders have grown each year; in 2014, she hand-produced more than 400 orders.
Originally, Ballard filled orders for fully assembled and decorated (edible) houses, complete with molded frosting and “conifer trees,” but as orders increased, she could see it would be a challenge to keep up. Five years after selling her first few houses, a friend suggested she sell them as undecorated gingerbread house kits, featuring her home-baked gingerbread and frosting made from scratch.
“Again, I wasn't sure how the idea would catch on, but it seemed to work," Ballard says. "You can buy gingerbread house kits in many places now. I don't think that I invented the idea of gingerbread kits, but at the time I started this, no one else was selling them.”
The idea did catch on, and Ballard now sells more kits every year than she does completed and decorated houses. The houses come in three sizes: 3 1/2 inches tall (just large enough to display a name inscribed in frosting for a place setting), 4 1/4 inches tall and a full-size 8 to 10 inches tall.
“The homemade kits and the process of decorating them with children during the holidays have become a holiday tradition for many of my regulars,” she says. “Many families with kids who started building them at home but who have since grown up and gone off to college still request them every year. It’s a memorable part of their holiday season.”
Ballard has noticed that many of her regulars place their orders early so they can enjoy the aroma of fresh-baked gingerbread lingering in their homes in the days before they actually decorate the houses with children or grandchildren, and others order extra frosting in order to have plenty left over for tasting.
Serving the Community
For nearly a decade, Ballard has provided gingerbread houses to help raise funds in conjunction with the Prairie Village Municipal Foundation. Funds are used to help provide memberships to the community pool for families who can’t afford them. She also provides gingerbread kits to some local schools at a discount so that kids, particularly Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, can enjoy decorating them as a holiday activity.
“Mely has been instrumental in our community and in this event since its inception,” says Ann Lilak, president of the PVMF and coordinator of the gingerbread house fundraiser. “She’s supportive of Prairie Village and is always willing to help. There’s nothing like smelling her fresh gingerbread every year as we arrive for the event. It’s a great holiday get-together, and her hard work has helped make it a success.”
The holiday season is hectic for Ballard as she prepares orders, but it’s something she looks forward to each year.
“I’m expecting a lot of orders this year, and a lot of work,” she says. “But it’s something I’ve always liked doing, especially for the kids.”
The Prairie Village Municipal Foundation’s eighth annual holiday fundraiser is on Dec. 4. To sign up, call the Prairie Village City Hall at (913) 381-6464, or register online at prairievillagefoundation.com/gingerbread-house-parties.html.