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Self-Proclaimed 'Hustler' Down 100 Pounds Rolls Food Truck Into Tenafly

Mel Landano, of Mel's Butcher Box in Tenafly.
Mel Landano, of Mel's Butcher Box in Tenafly. Photo Credit: COURTESY Mel Landano

Being busy is the norm for Tenafly's Melanie Landano.

For the last six years, she's been managing all operations for popular meat purveyor and longtime friend Pat LaFrieda.

She worked the company's food stand at the U.S. Open -- a high-profile job, selling 2,000 steak sandwiches a day. She hired and supervised 60 employees at all LaFrieda stores across New York City.

Landano loved her boss, she loved her employees and she loved her job.

"Then March 14 came," Landano said. "Everyone knows what happened on March 14."

Like hundreds of thousands of other Americans, Landano had no choice but to give it all up.

That was until late October, when she met someone who had a food truck and was looking for someone to run it.

Landano jumped at the opportunity and, last weekend, rolled "Mel's Butcher Box" into 18 Franklin St., in Tenafly. The menu's signature item is named after Landano herself: "Mel’s Double Burger."

She says she never could have imagined she'd be running a food truck in Northern New Jersey, but is having fun tackling the challenge -- and isn't so shocked that things happened this way.

"I'm a hustler," said Landano, 47. "I love to do stuff like this -- being out there cooking, saying hello to people, it's very social for me."

Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Landano says her dream was to work at Walt Disney World.

She started locally at Nellie Bly Amusement Park in New York, and in 1998, landed her dream job at Walt Disney World as an Epcot fellowship ambassador.

Landano eventually became a special events manager for all of Disney's signature events and loved every minute of it. Especially the food.

"Working in the amusement park industry your whole life, you're eating everything in sight," she said. "I was working so many hours and on my days off, I'd eat and drink around 'the world' at Epcot."

In just four years, Landano had packed on nearly 100 pounds.

The weight wouldn't come off until Summer 2000, when Landano left Disney and joined Bally's Total Fitness as a marketing director.

Landano maintains her 100-pound weightloss

Mel Landano

"It was a culture change," Landano said. "I started workout out using all their equipment and nutritional tools."

The weight started to come off. In 18 months, she shed 100 pounds -- and became the face of Bally's.

"They used me as their spokesperson," Landano said. "I was on all of their commercials, 'Oprah,' 'Fox and 'Good Day New York' talking about weight loss."

But in 2010, Bally's went bankrupt, and Landano was let go. She had to find new work.

With a new set of fitness tools under her belt, Landano became a personal trainer and spinning instructor, landing classes at gyms in North Jersey.

The days were long and tiring, though, and Landano wanted more financial security.

In 2014, she reached out to Pat LaFrieda, a longtime friend and CEO of one of the largest meat providers in America, who hired her as his new project director.

Landano's was put in charge of running the high-profile U.S. Open Concession Stand, visited by 2,000 customers a day.

She opened the company's first brick and mortar eatery, organized food tastings and hired new employees.

In just six years, Landano was doing it all. She was the backbone of the business. She was running the show.

But in Spring 2020, it all came crashing down.

"We all know what happened March 14," Landano said. "It was horrible."

Landano and LaFrieda closed all of their eateries with no reopening date in sight. She had to let go 60 workers go, many who she'd hired herself.

LaFrieda had Landano stay and work for him, though things were different.

"It was horrible," Landano said. "No more Citi Field. No more concerts at Madison Square Garden. No more March Madness.

"It was slow. I wasn't doing my daily job for him, which was very challenging for me."

She missed the way things were, knew she had no other choice but to keep working, and keep hopeful.

On Halloween weekend, Landano was doing a Pat LaFrieda food tasting at Axia Taverna in Tenafly. There, she was approached by Marc Celli, who builds furniture for high-end restaurants.

The two had dozens of mutual friends and connections from years spent in the same industry.

As it turns out, Celli had gotten a food truck in June, but couldn't find anyone to get it up and running.

"Not knowing how much work it was, I said I could probably do it," Landano said.

"I can put a menu together in a second."

And she did. Burgers, cheese steaks, paninis, sweet potato fries and more, all Pat LaFrieda meats.

Landano prepared a tasting for Celli. He loved it all, she said.

Three days later, Nov. 28, "Mel's Butcher Box" rolled into Tenafly. Hundreds of people turned out.

"I'm treating it like a brick and mortar," Landano told Daily Voice. "Like a small little store, where people will come to 'Go see Mel,' rather than driving it around.

The menu was curated with something for everyone, Landano said. Burgers, steak sandwiches, paninis, homemade meatballs and more.

"The cheesesteak is Pat Lafrieda sliced ribeye, and the burgers are a special LaFrieda blend of short rib brisket and sirloin," Landano said. "We make our own homemade mozzarella sticks as well, and everything is made fresh to order."

Menu as of Dec. 2 at Mel's Butcher Box.

Mel Landano

Homemade mozzarella sticks from Mel's Butcher Box.

Mel Landano

Homemade meatballs from Mel's Butcher Box.

Mel Landano

"In the winter, food trucks never close. So I'm keeping it open as a store."

Landano doesn't usually eat the food, though. If she's the one cooking, she knows how it tastes, she says.

All the bread is freshly-baked from Balthazar in Englewood. She is also offering pre-made patties and other meats that customers make at home.

One of the best parts about the truck for Landano? Job security. Not just for herself, but some of the LaFrieda employees she let go.

"I had so much anxiety about not working and now I haven’t stopped," Landano said.

"Everyone has an opportunity again. I'm slowly bringing them back."

Mel's Butcher Box, 18 Franklin St., Tenafly, open 12 p.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday. Follow MBB on Instagram for pop-up times and locations.

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