With attorneys putting the final touches on an agreement to make her a partner at the Orange County civil engineering firm where she worked, Melanie Hohman decided to walk away and never look back.
That was more than a decade ago, and Hohman said while her decision was made to save one of her two boys, it put her on an unlikely path to a life filled with passion, purpose, and pastry.
Hohman, who made her home in the Seal Beach area during her college days, returned this week to speak to an oceanside meeting of the Seal Beach Chamber, meeting outdoors in an open-air meeting at the edge of the Pacific.
The former engineer began slowly, telling the Chamber what changed her life and how she walked away from a corporate job in 2010 into a fate of uncertainty, only to find happiness and tremendous fulfillment in her unlikely odyssey.
“I know this sounds crazy,” Hohman began, but she recalled her last meeting with her boss before a partnering agreement was signed. “I told my boss that I am going to quit engineering and I don’t want to be a partner,” she said.
With 15 years’ experience at this well-known OC engineering firm, Hohman told the group that the new status would have immediately resulted in a “massive increase in my pay.”
“My boss thought I was crazy, my mother thought I was crazy. My husband thought I was crazy, everyone thought I was crazy,” she said.
Yet deep down, Hohman said she knew her baby boy desperately needed her more than she needed a job.
When her second son Bradley was born, Hohman said “he was incredibly ill, and the little guy had a lot of respiratory issues. He would get little blue lips and I would take him to the hospital,” she said.
Hohman said Bradley would suddenly lose oxygen throughout his body, prompting emergency trips to urgent care.
Thus, Hohman said she began to use her skills to find answers for her son.
After digging around, Hohman said they were finally referred to a pediatric allergist in Costa Mesa who figured out it was something she was eating that was making her baby Bradley very ill.
“It took them a while to realize that it wasn’t environmental, it was actually what I was eating that was making him incredibly ill,” she said.
“I was excited because I had been to seven doctors and nobody knew what they were prescribing for Bradley were the worst things for him,” she said, noting medications only made it worse.
Hohman said that until then, Bradley’s body “was riddled with eczema” and he would scratch his face so much during the night that “he would have little drops of blood on his blanket.”
So, said Hohman, she sewed tiny gloves out of socks to soften the scratching.
Through additional testing, Bradley was eventually diagnosed with severe food allergies, Hohman said. His doctor determined that Bradley could not eat anything that contained wheat, eggs, dairy, soy, and several fruits and vegetables.
Since she was still nursing, Hohman said her doctor told her to immediately change her diet. “No dairy, no eggs, no peanuts, no soy, no gluten, no coconuts, no tomatoes, no pineapple,” she said.
“I basically ate chicken and rice,” she told the group.
Occasionally, she said, “I had a bit of beef,” because “I needed to provide protein to my body.”
Within two weeks, however, as she continued to nurse him with her radical diet, Hohman said Bradley “went from having a body riddled with eczema to a healthy baby,” just that quick, she said, “and I am not exaggerating.”
The discovery of how radically what she alone ate affected her baby had caused a mindshift in Hohman.
“I realized how much food matters,” she said. From then on, the family developed a limited, yet protective diet for baby Bradley as he soon found the path to a healthy childhood.
“The saddest day came on his first birthday,” she said. According to Hohman, Bradley obviously could not have a birthday cake because, at best, he would have a severe reaction that could again threaten his life.”
Instead of a cake, Hohman said she decorated a cantaloupe to resemble, a cake knowing that he would have only a mild reaction to it and one “that we could treat with medication.”
In that moment, she apparently discovered why she left engineering, or at least, knew in that her engineering skills were needed elsewhere.
Bradley, and kids like him, should have real birthday cakes and she was determined to make it happen.
“I really began to get serious about trying to develop a recipe that would not only taste good, but most importantly, look and taste like a birthday cake.”
“I know I am not the only one in the world to have a son with severe food allergies,” said Hohman, “and so I wanted to start this business to share what I have learned and provide something for those kids and adults who have limited options in their diet.”
The Hohman family gave birth again, this time to an entrepreneurial idea. Hohman said she surmised that there were so many kids just like Bradley that needed her help, “and I was determined to make a difference.”
“Sensitive Sweets,” the business, was born.
“I wanted to start this business to share what I have learned and provide something for those kids and adults who have limited options in their diet. “I work hard to provide the most basic element of a birthday party,” she said, “the cake.”
“I couldn’t sleep, I literally couldn’t sleep,” she said. Once the idea took hold her mind, Hohman said the idea of helping others affected with allergies “fueled my passion.” “I am passionate about this business,” she told the Chamber, “and if you have the passion, you can do anything.”
“it wasn’t easy,” she said. In fact, Hohman said her sweets business was not an instant success; it took a year of bad recipes before she made any progress at all.
“My poor husband,” she said. “I used him as a guinea pig.”
For almost a year, she said, her husband sampled her “awful” recipes. In fact, Hohman described them as “hideous and horrific,” even if she did so with a smile.
Even while facing more defeats than success in her business, Hohman said he absolutely fell in love with entrepreneurship and thanks her lucky stars she walked away from an exceptionally good job.
Her loving husband Gregory dutifully tried every single recipe. But then, after a year, she said, they began to taste better. And better.
Then came her “Eureka” moment. Without using dairy, soy, nuts or any of the foods that cause allergies, Hohman said she eventually developed a finger-licking “delicious” recipe for birthday cakes.
Goal achieved, but she did not stop there. Being an engineer, Hohman has been able to leverage her self-gained knowledge of allergy-free sweets into a growing line of safe, allergy-free pastries.
Later, she learned her oldest son Luke was on the autism spectrum and also later diagnosed with ADHD.
“How I ended up with two kids that have special needs, I have no idea,” said Hohman, but I do feel it added once again another element to how important our diet is and how important this business is for me.”
Hohman said she continues to study food allergies, autism and now ADHD (Attention Deficit, Hyperactivity Disorder), learning how foods affect them. “Diet is so connected to the brain,” Hohman told the Chamber.
Her bakery “Sensitive Sweets,” now sells safe (gluten free, nut free) pastries throughout the country from its location in nearby Fountain Valley. As busy as she is, Hohman said she offers an open ear to listen to any parent, or any adult, anywhere who wants or needs her help.
“I just want to let you know that if someone calls or emails me, I will spend 45 minutes on the phone with them because I want there to be awareness that diet is directly connected to the brain… 100%,” she said.
“We found out that 33 percent of autistic kids can’t digest gluten. Who would have thought that” she asked? “I’ll tell you, if you have an elderly family member who is sick or if you have a child or a neighbor or a nephew or friend with some kind of autoimmune disorder, tell them to research it,” Hohman advised her audience.
After more than a decade in business, Hohman’s “Sensitive Sweets” continues to expand. She remembers fondly her days in Seal Beach and does business here too.
Ron Jahncke, President of the Chamber, said during his introduction of Hohman, that she supplies pastry products to his coffee shop in Seal Beach.
Hohman said her youngest son Bradley is “doing amazing” and her oldest son Luke is now at the top of his class, on no medication (though his doctor suggested Ritalin) and is a standout pitcher on the Newport Harbor baseball team.
Despite her success, the raw emotion Hohman must have felt throughout her ordeal seems never far from the surface as she was nearly overcome near the end of her story.
“I think things happen for a reason,” she said, fighting back tears, but “I think I was blessed greatly by what happened with my kids.”
“I wouldn’t change any of it,” said Hohman. “I went from working in a corporate situation to opening up my own business and we are happy and successful,” she said.
“I deal with the people that nobody wants to deal with, and I love it,” she said. “I absolutely love it.”
(Editor’s Note: Anyone with child or parent that may need help can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org)