On a wintry Wednesday afternoon in Newtown, Conn., Melanie Allen Mattegat counters the chilly New England air with a warm enthusiasm and even warmer recollections of her life’s last 50 years.
    A second-generation retailer, the now 62-year-old Mattegat’s enthusiasm for the bridal trade was cultivated as a teenager when she worked at Julie Allen Bridals, her parents’ home-based boutique. Mattegat sold her first bridal gown at age 13, joined the business full-time at age 21 and purchased the operation at age 33 alongside her husband, Jay Mattegat.
    In the subsequent three decades, Mattegat has put her fingerprints all over Julie Allen Bridals – moving the store into commercial quarters, pushing it into new categories and integrating a third generation into the business – while mimicking the passionate pace set by her mother, the Julie Allen.
“When you hit 50 years, you can have a sigh of relief that you’ve made it,” Mattegat says. “We know it’s no small accomplishment.”
A serendipitous start
    Julie and Frank Allen never entertained visions of owning a bridal retail business. In fact, the 1970 founding of Julie Allen Bridals resulted from a fortunate mix of serendipity and entrepreneurial fire.
    While living in Wycoff, N.J., in the early 1960s, the Allens befriended a neighboring couple, Mildred and Neil Mulcock. The Mulcocks owned Mildred’s House of Brides in Hawthorne, N.J., one of the largest bridal stores on the East Coast. Notably, Frank Allen’s sister and niece worked at Mildred’s.
    When the Allens moved to Connecticut in 1964, Frank Allen remained in the manufacturing industry while Julie Allen continued her retail career, including opening up a pair of Lane Bryant stores in Connecticut before taking a management position at a small ready-to-wear shop in Newtown called Jaymar Fashions.
    The couple retained their relationship with the Mulcocks, though, and that led to an intriguing opportunity.
   The Mulcocks had earlier set up Mildred’s sister in Massachusetts as a home-based bridal business, supplying her samples as a de facto satellite store of sorts. The Mulcocks wondered if the Allens, especially given Julie Allen’s retail background, might be interested in a similar venture.
    “My parents drove to Massachusetts to see what it was like and immediately thought they could replicate the business in their home,” Mattegat says.
    In their raised ranch home at 57 Head of Meadow Road in Newtown, the Allens set up shop. The coupled devoted three rooms in the home’s lower level to servicing customers and stocking bridal, bridesmaids and mothers’ gown samples supplied by the Mulcocks. Mattegat, however, recalls the lines between home and business often blurring.
    “On busy Saturdays, it wasn’t unusual for girls to have fittings in our living room,” Mattegat says.
    In a clever marketing ploy, the Allens scoured the engagement announcements in local newspapers, later contacting the newly engaged women and inviting them to visit the Allen home for “a unique and personal bridal experience,” Mattegat says.
    The couple’s grassroots marketing combined with Julie Allen’s savvy retail mind sparked immediate results. Within six months, the Allens began flying solo branding their operation Julie Allen Bridals.
    As the home-based business didn’t sell off-the-rack products, city officials viewed Julie Allen Bridals as an operation akin to Mary Kay Cosmetics or Avon, thereby allowing the Allens to skirt local zoning ordinances. When sample dresses piled up, the Allens would rent out a local hotel’s ballroom to offload product.
    “My parents were clever in making it all work,” Mattegat says. Clever and diligent.
    Julie Allen Bridals, Mattegat recalls, was carefully and strategically tied to a series of checks and balances the store continues to employ today – the digital revolution be damned. The Allens logged all dresses into an inventory book, recording key information such as invoice numbers, wholesale and retail costs and descriptions, while staff entered all dress orders into an order book, documenting customer names, manufacturer and style numbers among other pertinent notes.
    “My parents found a system that worked and we’ve maintained that,” says Mattegat, who did hire a bookkeeper in 2008 to bring accounting information into QuickBooks after years of daily accounting reconciliation by hand as well.
A long-term plan
    Mattegat, one of the Allens’ three children and the couple’s lone daughter, says she was groomed for the bridal industry. After working in the business as a teen, she attended college for fashion merchandising and design as well as retail management.
    “My parents thought I could be one of their best assets,” says Mattegat, who also took courses in accounting and economics to bolster her business knowledge.
    Mattegat joined her parents in running Julie Allen Bridals in 1978. She tended to customers, ordered and received product, pulled alterations and often accompanied her parents on their weekly trips into New York City to pick up dresses, check orders and solidify relationships with suppliers. It was an intimate, no-holds-barred education into bridal retail, Mattegat says, and one that prepared her for a career as a store owner.
    In 1990, with Julie and Frank Allen contemplating retirement, Mattegat and her husband purchased the business, one that demanded an immediate relocation.
    “Remember that we were still operating out of the raised ranch home,” Mattegat says. “We needed to find our own spot.”
    The Mattegats moved into a 3,600-square-foot commercial property in Newtown, combining four retail spaces into one bridal retail emporium highlighted by eight fitting rooms, two alterations rooms and the addition of new inventory, including jewelry, headpieces and menswear. Julie Allen Bridals also began hosting trunk shows featuring designers and company reps, a commonplace occurrence today yet far less frequent in the early 1990s.
    “After we moved into the commercial property, everything accelerated for us,” Mattegat says. “We had the room to spread out and being in a commercial property gave us added credibility. People started to pop in because we were no longer in a home down a dirt road.”
    (Interestingly, even years after the move, Mattegat says customers would continue to visit her parents’ home seeking Julie Allen Bridals only to be redirected to the store’s commercial location.)
    Following the sale to the Mattegats, Julie Allen remained involved in the business, mentoring her daughter into her new role as business owner and relinquishing the reins of a business she had guided for two decades. Allen would officially retire from the business in 1997.
    “Overall it wasn’t much of a difficult move for me because my parents had allowed me to be so actively involved in the business for all those years,” Mattegat says. “The biggest difference was that it was their checkbook before and then it became mine.”
Bridges to the future
    As it turns out, the Mattegats had even bigger plans to stabilize Julie Allen Bridals for the future.
    With the lease expiring on their Newtown property in 1993, the Mattegats purchased a 4.5-acre parcel in Newtown. That December, they unveiled a new, two-story retail store on the property, outfitting the 7,200-square-foot space with 10 fitting rooms. Eight front windows not only flooded the store with natural light, but also provided passers-by a glimpse into Julie Allen Bridals’ energetic world.
    In a touching nod to her parents, the first thing Mattegat hung on the walls of her new shop was a plaque dedicating the building to her father, Frank, who passed away in September 1993 three weeks after celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary with Julie.
    Buying the property not only strengthened Julie Allen Bridals’ presence – its visible spot on a state highway has long pulled traffic into the store – but further positioned the business for long-term stability and success.
    “We own the property and that’s a good thing for the business,” Mattegat says, noting that she and Jay Mattegat have only developed about half of the 4.5-acre plot.
    Another key piece to the future of Julie Allen Bridals: Lauren Morehouse, the Mattegats’ 32-year-old daughter. Like her mother, Morehouse grew up in the bridal retail business.
    “She was jumping on bridal bags as a three-year-old,” Mattegat says of Morehouse.
    Morehouse began working at Julie Allen Bridals at age 15 before earning a marketing degree and joining the business full-time in 2009. She now handles ordering, shipping schedules and social media among other duties.
    “Including heading the complaints department,” Morehouse jokes, though her official title is marketing director.
    Enthusiastic about representing a third generation at Julie Allen Bridals, Morehouse shares a passion for the business like those before her. She recalls her grandmother, who passed away in 2009 at the age of 86, visiting the store regularly during her final years, chatting with brides as she enjoyed jelly doughnuts from her wheelchair. That’s the legacy Morehouse has willingly pledged to uphold.
    “My grandmother loved this business until the day she died and my mom has a deep love for what she does, too,” Morehouse says. “As for me, I can’t imagine myself working in any other industry.”
    In fact, ask Mattegat or Morehouse how Julie Allen Bridals has endured for 50 years and the answer arrives swift and confident: passion.
    “My life is my store,” Mattegat says.
Carrying on
    Still, passion alone isn’t enough to bring a business to 50 years. It’s a healthy, even necessary start, of course, but not enough. Julie Allen Bridals has reached this half-century milestone with a mix of active ownership and an unrelenting focus on customer service.
    “I’m in the trenches with our customers,” Mattegat reminds.
    In serving brides, Mattegat says every effort is tied to a single question: if this was my daughter, how would I want her to be treated?
    “That guides my decision making,” she says.
    Morehouse tells the story of a bride who found a dress she loved at Julie Allen Bridals. Later, the store learned that the bride’s father had gotten critically ill. Mattegat directed the bride to take the sample home, put it on and snap photos with her father.
    “My mom is trusting and loving like that and has a real gift for making people feel at ease,” Morehouse says.
    Mattegat interjects: “I do try to think ahead. I want to make sure things go okay because life doesn’t always go okay.”
    Mattegat’s customer-centric mindset flows to a veteran staff. Save a local high school girl who serves as a dress runner and the store’s “color chart girl,” the boutique’s youngest employee is in her late 20s. Most staff, in fact, have grown children themselves and many have been with Julie Allen Bridals for more than a decade, including a seamstress, Kassi Karakostas, now in her 35th year with the store. The stylists, meanwhile, work on an hourly rate, not commission, a compensation strategy that ensures the bride’s needs and not the stylist’s earnings guide every appointment.
    “We’re not financially driven,” Morehouse says. “We’re doing this because we want to help people.”
    Morehouse describes Julie Allen Bridals as a “very peopley kind of store.” A team of four on-site seamstresses ensure the store has a start-to-finish relationship with brides, while Saturday coffee and donuts rid the store of any stuffy or pretentious vibe. When a bride finds her dress, she rings a bell and those in the store cheer, a treasured tradition that keeps the store’s mood light, happy and festive.
    “This feels more like a home,” Morehouse says, “and old friends trying to help a bride find her wedding dress.”
    While brides and trends shift and competition mounts, it’s that honest-to-goodness feeling that continues to distinguish Julie Allen Bridals.
    “We’re making sure we’re delivering an experience,” Morehouse says. “We’re not just a place to buy a gown, but a bridal store that delivers the moment of finding that perfect dress and celebrating with others. That’s something you can’t get on the Internet.”
    Looking into the future, Morehouse says her mother has “another 10 years in her” before bowing out of the business. Thereafter, Morehouse will assume ownership. That stability along with a hearty bridal retail recipe concocted over five decades positions Julie Allen Bridals for sustained success.
    “We all want to keep the business moving forward,” Mattegat says, confessing that she has one lingering goal that continues to motivate and inspire. “We’ve never been the number-one store in Connecticut, so that gives us something to aspire to.”
    Reflecting on Julie Allen Bridals’ 50-year run, Mattegat can’t help but become wistful and energized. She remembers her father jumping up and down in the family home’s hallway the first time Julie Allen Bridals topped $100,000 in sales. It was a moment of triumph and relief, enthusiasm and satisfaction.
    “You don’t forget moments like that,” she says. “It’s a legacy you want to make sure endures.”