Melissa Santell: Executing Her Own Vision and Being Open to Inspiration

Melissa Santell_Business in Tampa

Melissa Santell is a food photographer, author, and founder of FoodxFeels. She’s a native New Yorker who now lives in Tampa and is bringing ideas to life not only in the kitchen but in the office as well. 

Now, as the founder of FoodxFeels, she’s created a photography and branding studio that gives food brands the recognition they deserve. 

In addition to starting her own business, Melissa has been named to Tampa Bay Business Journal’s 30 under 30, touts impressive marketing experience, wrote her own cookbook Hi, I’m Hungry, and much more.

It’s for these reasons, among many, we were excited to learn more about Melissa Santell and her career thus far. 


Did you always know one day you’d start your own business?

When you’re a kid, you’re often asked the age-old question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” To which, I typically cycled through three replies. First, a food writer for Bon Appetit Magazine, then a marine biologist (a popular choice amongst friends), and lastly, I aspired to move to Australia and open a two-story orphanage on a horse farm. I talked about my wish for every child to have parents ad nauseam, but what kind of monster would ever stop a tiny voice from amplifying such a big dream? The horses were an added bonus. 

Bringing the focus back to your original question, I didn’t always know that I’d be a business owner, but I was always confident in my desire to be immersed in food and help people in the process. My insatiable thirst for knowledge paired with drive and a fierce love for being independent were the perfect ingredients for my entrepreneurial journey. As I worked my way through college and several 9-5 careers, it became more and more clear that I was designed to execute my own vision, instead of someone else’s.  

Where did the name FoodxFeels come from?

The name FoodxFeels celebrates the intersection of food and emotion-provoking lifestyle experiences. When I founded the company, my goal was to create a concept that could scale and serve brands across industries, yet maintain boutique and personable 1-1 client interactions. What mattered most to me then, and remains true now, was to invest my time and energy in brands I truly believe add a little sparkle in our day-to-day lives. Communicating through the written word and the culinary space are two of my greatest passions. What better than to merge them into a creative studio that helps brands express their personalities through photography and storytelling? Yeah, I’m totally ‘in my feels’ about my business. 

How do you gain inspiration for your photoshoots?

Inspiration is an ironically beautiful thing. It’s all around you – you just need to be open to it. As a creative, I’m constantly finding inspiration in the form of small moments. When the sunlight hits a certain way, colors that effortlessly harmonize together on a plate, the bubbles that playfully pop and tickle your nose when you sip a glass of champagne. And then, of course, there’s Instagram, Pinterest, and admiring elements of iconic artists, like Andy Warhol. Because hey, we live in a digital world with digital trends  — and while I’d prefer to be a trendsetter over a follower, people generally respond best to what feels familiar to them. When I’m in a creative slump, traveling to another city is the perfect reset button. A change of scenery is immensely powerful.   

What’s your best piece of advice for someone who’s getting into photography?

The best way to hone your craft is to practice as much as you can! There’s no secret trick to being a sought-after photographer. If you’re just starting out, it’s a great idea to reach out to your target market and ask if you can photograph their product, faces, menus, etc. (depending on your niche) for free. This is a winning strategy for two reasons: number one, it allows you the opportunity to sharpen your skills while building relationships with potential clients, and number two, the person or brand will likely be grateful for the experience, and hopefully, it’ll lead to your name popping into their mind the next time someone mentions photography.

Can you share your favorite food picture you’ve taken so far? What do you love most about it? 

Ah! This is truly the hardest question of all. I try not to play favorites with my photo children! One photo I always come back to is an image from my cookbook, Hi, I’m Hungry, starring my Pear + Rosemary Cupcake recipe.  

Pear + Rosemary Cupcake - Melissa Santell

I love it because it captures my visual style and personality in a simple, cheeky way. It’s very pop art meets food meets Melissa Santell. To me, if an image can inspire or evoke emotion in those that admire it, it’s an image worth savoring.


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