Milk Bar Founder Christina Tosi On Her Secrets To Success | Old North State Wealth News
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Milk Bar founder Christina Tosi on her secrets to success



Christina Tosi, the chef and founder of “modern American” bakery Milk Bar, has never shied away from a challenge.

Tosi, 42, has loved all things sugar and baking since she was a kid in Ohio. Her summer job after freshman year of college brought her to a tiny island off the coast of New Hampshire, churning out baked goods in an industrial kitchen with no professional experience. That was her a-ha moment that drew her away from a career in math and into the baking world for good.

But it was working as a pastry chef at Bouley, a scene-y restaurant in downtown New York City,  that introduced her to the actual work of professional baking. After meeting and working under David Chang of Momofuku fame, Tosi honed her craft, made countless experiments, and with his support, spun her dessert menu into a standalone business: Milk Bar. And she did it without a graphic designer; that curly neon pink logo you may be familiar with? She made it herself on Microsoft Word.

In an interview with Fortune, Tosi revealed her secrets to success and walked through all of Milk Bar’s biggest failures—and why she “drinks them up for breakfast.” 

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity. 

What’s your background?

I was born in Ohio and raised between Ohio and Virginia. My mom is the most passionate accountant you’ve ever met, and my dad is an agricultural economist—get this—setting dairy prices, protecting local dairy farmers everywhere. You would think I was born to do what I did, but I didn’t realize that until much later in life.

When was it that you realized?

I don’t think I realized the totality of what my mom and dad did for a living—and how it really set me up to build this incredible bakery empire—until the day before I opened Milk Bar. I called my dad and said, “hey, we’re opening this bakery tomorrow.” 

He asked where I was getting my milk, and I was like, “what do you care about where I’m getting my milk?” I didn’t really pay attention to what my parents did for a living because it always felt so boring—until I realized that it’s actually such a part of me, and just paved the way for me to become who I’m meant to be. 

Baking was a really big part of my upbringing. My mom was a very passionate baker, though not the most skilled baker. My grandmas, the matriarchs of my family, my aunts—everyone baked. We didn’t bake to be fancy. We baked because it was just something we did. It was our conduit, our pipeline to community, togetherness, to sharing, to having that little sweet moment after a meal. A way to show up on someone’s doorstep to say, I know you’re going through a hard time, you’re not feeling great, or whatever it was. Baking was our vehicle to do all this. 

A young Christina Tosi poses with a cake; little did she know how sweets would become a centerpiece in her life.

Courtesy Christina Tosi and Milk Bar

We baked oatmeal cookies, or sugar cookie squares, or cut-out cookies—really, really, really simple stuff. But oftentimes, those simple, nostalgic, baked-good moments, I find, are the most powerful tools and they’re the tools we use even at Milk Bar today.

At around what age did you start to cook with your family?

The story of me getting into the kitchen as a kid goes like this: All the matriarchs in my family loved to bake, and they were a big part of our caregiving. So we hung out in the kitchen—myself, my sister, my cousins. My grandma always made oatmeal cookies, and she called us to help scoop or roll in confectioner’s sugar, and be a part of the recipe-making.

My grandmother realized that I was sneaking more oatmeal cookie dough than was allotted for a four- or five-year-old, and then she kicked me out of the kitchen because I could not control myself. And it was probably at that time—five, six years old—where I started concocting things. I wasn’t allowed to turn the oven on by myself, but I would be measuring flour and sugar and milk and making this sort of doughy, pasty concoction. I really started imagining dessert in a different way. 

It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I was actually allowed to turn on the oven myself and I could really imagine those concoctions and see them all the way through to something that was baked on a cookie sheet and shared with others. 

What was your favorite thing to bake?

I had different baked goods that I became fascinated by and ultimately obsessed with throughout my teenage years. I had a season of 10th grade where I was obsessed with making some version of gooey marshmallow cereal treats, and every single night before bed I would make a giant batch of cereal treats. 

Sometimes it was classic Rice Krispie treats, sometimes it had a combination of different cereals and had other mix-ins. Maybe I browned the butter, or I put an extract in it. And the next day I would always bring those cereal treats and cut them into eight squares for my eight girlfriends, and we’d meet at my locker and eat the new cereal treat of the day and talk about life and be 10th graders. 

My first restaurant job wasn’t until I went to college. Instead of joining a sorority or other more apt college-type organization, I became obsessed with the idea of working in a restaurant. I went one day with a resume that had nothing on it except for running my mom’s shredding room in her accounting office, and applied to be a hostess. From there on, in the world of food, I was hooked. 

My first year I went to the University of Virginia, then I transferred to study abroad in Florence. And then I finished my last year at James Madison University. I studied everything from mechanical engineering to the Italian language to applied mathematics.

Christina Tosi standing a kitchen
Tosi in her element.

Courtesy Daniel Krieger

What was your first job after college?

My first job after college was running a bakery on an island off the coast of New Hampshire. It’s called Star Island. One of my girlfriends that I knew from college had convinced these people that I was an incredible baker.

I had no experience running a bakery whatsoever; it was definitely a trial by fire. But I was in it, and I loved every moment of it. 

How did that opportunity come about?

When my girlfriend was in college, she had this summer job at a conference center on this island. She knew I loved to bake, and she asked what I was doing that summer. My friend said, they have a kitchen and you love to bake. I bet we could get you a job being a baker there. And I was like, that sounds great. 

I’m very much a cannonball personality. I love the idea. I don’t need to know any of the details. I just cannonball in and figure it out. And little did I know that there weren’t multiple baking positions. There was one baking position because there was one baker and you baked breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You bake bread, you bake baked goods, you bake desserts, et cetera. And lord knows what she told these people. 

But before I knew it, I was on the road to Portsmouth, New Hampshire to get on a ferry to live on this glorious island off the coast and, day one, show up with my rucksack. And it’s like, here’s the bakery. I used to know the stand mixer at home. Then all of a sudden, I was in front of an 80-quart mixer—big enough to take a bubble bath in. 

I was given this book of old recipes that were real mainstays at this conference center. It was like, make whatever you want to make, but at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, people expect baked goods. Needless to say, day one, I didn’t make enough cookies. I didn’t sleep very well that night, but every other day after I’ve never had a dough that hasn’t arrived except for that day—and I try to always make sure we have enough cookies.

I did that for the summer. And halfway through that summer, I knew I wanted to be in food. I knew that I wasn’t going to be an actuary or translator for the UN or whatever crazy ideas I had for my college majors. So much so that on my day off, when I went back to the mainland into town, I said, I want to do this for a living, I’m gonna go at it. I want to move to New York City, I want to go to culinary school. I’ve already been to college. I’m 18 and I’m already behind.

My idea was: I’ll go to New York, go to culinary school by day and work in restaurants by night. By the time I left that baker job on this island off the coast of New Hampshire, I knew that was my next step. 

I went to the French Culinary Institute on Broadway and Grand, which is now the International Culinary Center. I was there for an accelerated pastry arts program for six months. So Monday through Friday, from seven or 8am until 3:30 or 4pm, non-stop, I was in the classroom baking, getting the tactical work off.

Then right after school, I’d bring my baked goods, hand them to someone on the street, and go into a restaurant and work by night. I worked at Aqua Grill at first to pay the bills. And then I got my first real pastry job at Bouley, which was a four-star New York Times fine-dining restaurant down in Tribeca. I thought, I’ll get my ticket punched in fine dining. It was the restaurant of New York City. Top of its craft, top of fine dining, most inventive, most delicious food down in Tribeca, established by Chef David Bouley. 

I literally got my foot in the door, in the back door of the kitchen. I knew someone that knew someone that knew the pastry chef there. They said, Hey, if you’re looking for some help in the pastry department, my friend of a friend of a friend is a pastry student and she’s looking for experience. Alex Grunert is an incredible Austrian pastry chef. He was like okay, show up tomorrow. How early can you show up? 

Christina Tosi working on her baked goods
Tosi working her magic.

Courtesy Gabriele Stabile

I had no clue what I was doing. I had no clue what to expect. And I was given someone to trail, to basically follow the shadow. Little by little, he taught me the basic things like, here’s a case of apples. Peel them, core them, dice them, for hours. Here’s a case of eggs, shell them. Here’s white chocolate, melt it down. 

Little work, little by little by little, until I was given a little bit more responsibility, a little bit more responsibility, a little bit more responsibility. And by the way, I got my butt kicked every single day. Like every single day I messed something up. Every single day, I wasn’t moving fast enough. The efficiency of motion is really important in professional kitchens, the sense of urgency. 

And y’all. I don’t know if you know this, but in fine-dining restaurants, if you’re the pastry chef or the pastry team, you’re working until two or three o’clock in the morning because your last reservation is 11, or 11:30 at night and after multiple savory courses, dessert starts to hit the table at you know, 1:30, 2am. You’ve got to serve up your courses of dessert, scrub down, and come in and do it again the next day. 

How long were you working at Bouley for?

A year and a half. It’s really important, in your first fine-dining restaurant, to give at least a year’s commitment. That’s a really important part of the food community—and working your way up. And by a year and a half, the tricky part for me was I had worked my way up in the pastry department and I knew I wasn’t going to become the pastry chef. Alex was. And I also knew that I wanted exposure to a different kind of restaurant, a different cuisine, a different approach to pastry, because I knew what I had in me was this homely, American baker sensibility—and now this really skilled, trained perspective through the lens of culinary school and Bouley. But I knew I had so much more and so many more questions about food.

When did you start working at Momofuku?

I started working at this crazy, boundary-crossing restaurant called wd-50 in the Lower East Side under Chef Wiley Dufresne and the pastry chef, Sam Mason, and Alex Stupak. They were doing brilliant things with food. They were really clever about their approach to flavors. We had something on the menu called “eggs benedict,” and it was like a deconstructed eggs benedict that you would order for brunch, but put back together these really beautiful precise fine-dining elements. 

I loved the way that they were really taking nostalgic foods and breathing this very fanciful, thoughtful, considered life into them. I worked there for about a year and a half, and then I met Dave Chang at Momofuku, through Chef Wiley.  

What drew me into Momofuku was what Dave was doing with savory food and fine dining. He had a very similar path to mine. He went to culinary school, cut his teeth at a fine-dining establishment, and really sought to democratize savory food. 

I was this very passionate home cook and I was now this increasingly skilled pastry chef—pastry cook. There was no space in between the two, and I really wanted to figure out how to bring the sensibility of a plate of brownies to the New York City food scene in a way that made sense. I felt that there was a giant hole.

My first job at Momofuku—I think Dave and I joke that we called it the et cetera position because it was sort of anything and everything. But honestly, every single job I ever had at Momofuku was to work for someone that’s passionate, that’s doing something great, but that’s understaffed. It means that you have the opportunity to get your hands dirty, and get your hands on as many things as you’re capable. It’s all for you to take it to reach out and take. 

Initially, there was no dessert menu at Momofuku. That’s because the guys at Momofuku just really didn’t think that there was space for dessert. None of them were pastry cooks or pastry chefs. They were all savory cooks and savory chefs. For them it was about speed, efficiency, and getting people into their loud, rambunctious environments, energetic environments, and to get them out and on their way.

I came in to help support other parts of the restaurant business, but I had this undying love for dessert. I would go home after every day at Momofuku and bake and bring the baked goods in. Because that’s what you do when you’re obsessed with dessert. And they love dessert, they just didn’t think there was a place for it on the menu. And one day, Dave and I sort of decided that maybe there was a different way forward. Dave knew I had all this pastry experience. He knew I love to bake. And he knew I wasn’t going to be the et cetera operations person forever. He knew my heart was really in baking and so he’s the one that pushed me.

He said, I think you should put dessert on the menu. He sort of equal parts dared me and pushed me to put a dessert on the menu. So I made a strawberry shortcake with small, sweet little gem strawberries, and I put my own little spin and riff on what a freshly macerated strawberry shortcake was. And I hid it in the middle of the menu where we put all the other market fruits and vegetable dishes just to see what would happen. And it sold out the first night. It sold the second night. 

Christina Tosi stands in the kitchen
Tosi at work.

Courtesy Gabriele Stabile

The third night, I started adding a few more things here and there, and adding dessert to the other Momofuku restaurants. And before I knew it, I was, I guess, the pastry chef for all the Momofuku restaurants.

Walk us through a little bit about what different positions you held throughout your time working at Momofuku. 

At Momofuku, I did everything from working the cash register at Momofuku Ssam Bar, to managing opening and closing—rolling up the gates, closing down the gates, making sure that it was clocked in and clocked out, that payroll was done, and even managing operations. For instance, I was on the noodle bars in the middle of a shift and water started coming in from the ceiling above, because one of the neighbors up above didn’t turn their bathtub off. 

I also called contractors to help design and develop new restaurant concepts like Momofuku Ko. We also taught English lessons to all of our Spanish-speaking teammates and I helped find new teachers to help continue that program. I kind of did anything that needed to be done. And pastries. I was making all the desserts for all the Momofuku restaurants. We didn’t have a real established pastry program, so I was doing it out of the basements of whatever restaurant had space. 

As I was doing that, the space right next to one of the Momofuku restaurants got a new landlord and came up for lease and we were worried that we would get a new neighbor, a new tenant that would challenge us in some way. And I needed a little bit more space to pick dessert. So Dave and I hatched a plan that I should take over the space that just came up, and to actually make it into a bakery.

I think he saw the baked goods that I would even just make for a family meal, or make for my coworkers before we got into the heat of dinner service. He asked what my plan was, and I was like, oh, one day, I’m going to open a bakery. When I was a teenager, the idea was that it would be called Cookies Cookies Cookies, and I’d sell cookies. 

Dave would always joke and tease. He has a way of getting into your psyche without you knowing it. And he told me I had something brewing in my head, and that I should take the space, figure it out, and that he’d support me in at least taking that first step. But he said, ‘I know you well enough to know that you’ll figure it out, Christina.’ And I guess the rest, they say, is history.

When you opened Milk Bar, did Dave have any part-ownership? Or was it fully yours?

Dave, and the Momofuku group, basically gave Milk Bar its loan to start, to open, to sign the lease, to open operations. At the beginning, we used a lot of the operational pieces that we had built, from finance and HR, to help set the basic structure of Milk Bar. We shared a little kitchen door with Ssam Bar, so it was kind of a thoroughfare between the restaurant and the basement, which is where we had all the restaurants and walk-in coolers. 

We were essentially one big family running two different operations. We opened Milk Bar on November 15, 2008. It became very clear, within a few weeks, that running a bakery and running a restaurant group are two very different challenges. Pretty quickly thereafter, I told Dave I had to figure out how to actually build the back end of all of this so it could stand up on its own.

How we think about team talent and culture at a bakery that’s open from seven in the morning till two o’clock in the morning is totally different than a bustling lunch-and-dinner restaurant in the East Village. It was just one day at a time.

When I first opened Milk Bar, we had an incredible team of four people who worked from doors open at 7am to closing time at 2am. We were still making all the desserts for all the Momofuku restaurants. And slowly but surely, as our business grew as a Milk Bar bakery, we started slowly training other savory cooks at the different restaurants that were interested in dessert, which was a really cool transition.

What’s the story behind the name Milk Bar?

Growing up in the Midwest and in Virginia, Dairy Queen—and those side-of-the-road custard stands—were a very big part of my upbringing. My mom and dad were sweet-tooth soulmates. We love ice cream in my family. My original idea for Milk Bar was that it would be sort of like a modern-day Dairy Queen with a bakery display case as an offering. 

Milk Bar was always meant to my vision of what dessert can and should be in the world. Separating Milk Bar from Momofuku was always the idea, and always part of the plan. From a business standpoint, when you are part of a restaurant group that is known and loved and trusted, to have the opportunity to use that as a springboard into the sweet part of people’s lives, for me, was really key to getting the business up and running. 

The outside of Milk Bar, Christina Tosi's bakery
Milk Bar put Tosi on the map.

Courtesy Christina Tosi and Milk Bar

Was the vision for you to ever become a CEO?

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be the CEO of this crazy, brilliant bakery that shows up in people’s lives. Never, never, ever, ever, ever. I have had to move the goalposts for myself and for Milk Bar every year, and make the dream bigger. That has been one of the greatest joys of the last 16 years.

Did math ever play a role in your recipes at Milk Bar?

It’s like when your parents annoyingly tell you as a kid to do your math homework because it’ll be applicable later. I mean, my mom laughs at me hysterically every time she sees me do anything from scale up or scale down a recipe, to manage the books of a growing business and understanding the dollars and cents and gross-margin profitability. Math like: How do we make enough money to provide incredible benefits to our incredible team? That’s a part of my everyday. And now I’m a parent, so I do this stuff to my little kids at the same time and I’m like, guys, we’ll laugh about this one day. God bless our parents.

What kind of desserts does Milk Bar offer?

Milk Bar has everything from cookies to cake, pie, soft serve ice cream, and then some—but done on our terms. We say that we’re a classic American bakery, but we turn everything that we know and love about nostalgic, delicious baked goods on its head. It’s what we do. The world doesn’t need more chocolate chip cookies, but the world needs the spirit of a chocolate chip cookie in new dessert forms. So we don’t have to have a cookie on the menu, but we do have this gooey crunchy cornflakes chocolate chip marshmallow cookie. And we don’t have just a chocolate chip cookie, but we have a chocolate chip cookie that has pretzels and potato chips and graham crackers and ground coffee and butterscotch chips because salty sweet cookies have infinite possibilities. 

Vanilla ice cream is also awesome. But we do serve an ice cream that’s called cereal milk and it tastes like what it sounds like. It tastes like what’s left in your bowl after you eat cereal out of it. 

And we love cake. But come on; most cake is chocolate cake, vanilla frosting. There’s so much more! 

What’s your favorite creation?

That’s like choosing a favorite child. What I will say is I have a favorite creation based on any specific mood of the day. When I’m having my cup of coffee in the morning, it’s a compost cookie. It’s the sultry way to sort of wake up the taste buds with a cup of coffee. 

If I’ve skipped lunch, corn cookie, because you know, there’s corn in it and I’m getting my vegetables and my cookies save time. What do I pack in my bag when I’m traveling and I just have like a little snack? Super crunchy cookies, they’re bite size. They’re light and they give you permission to snack. Crunchy Brown Butter Chocolate Chip is my current favorite. Birthday truffles when I’m doing payroll because you’re just sometimes you need to dangle that little carrot in the form of a nice little gooey fudgy bite of cake. Cereal milk ice cream late at night because that bowl-of-cereal moment is something that always comes back to me.

And were you the one who came up with all of these ideas or was it a collaborative?

There is no I in team—that is a saying for a reason. I always joke with the team that I am the one that sits in front of the camera and does the thing for us all, but every single person that’s been a part of the Milk Bar team for the last 16 years has their fingerprints on our menu. 

I really believe in that as a way of working, and that is a big part of Milk Bar’s backbone. Every single person that’s a member of our team, past, present and future has their fingerprints on the menu, but also on how we show up. I think that’s a really important part of running and growing a great business.

What’s the most popular dessert? 

Always competing for first place is the brown butter super crunchy cookie in the aisles of the grocery store like Whole Foods or Sprouts. On our bakery menu and in care packages, it’s always a tie for first place between birthday layer cake and truffles. It’s the from-scratch version of the box cake mix. My working mom always made Milk Bar pie. Gooey, buttery, sugary and delightful. Compost cookie, cornflake cookie, marshmallow cookie, confetti cookie, and then cereal milk because it’s cereal, but they’re always duking it out. It changes week to week. 

Do your parents play any role in Milk Bar?

My dad, the agricultural economist—the milkman, if you will—he knows all the dairy farmers. It’s the sweetest downhome Midwest thing to say, but he’s been basically always, like, if we are ever looking for more milk, because our business is growing, or we’re opening a bakery in a brand new market, he’s always like, you should check this guy out. And then makes the introduction to a great dairy farmer.

How do you believe that Milk Bar sticks out in a time where lots of new dessert chains are entering the market?

Dessert is a thing that everyone’s excited about. There’s dessert concepts left and right, there are dessert trends online, offline. It is pretty cool to see. It’s pretty cool to be 16 years into Milk Bar and to see when someone crams a bunch of wild crazy kitchen-sink things into a cookie to be like, that’s pretty cool. 

It’s our sweet 16th birthday, and to think about how we’ve contributed to what food is, what the dessert scene is, and what it will continue to become—it’s awesome. The best thing that we could do is to be who we are—and to do that with relative blinders on, thinking: What do we think is cool? Why are we passionate? I think that’s the secret to anything: To not chase something that’s not who you are. To not chase a trend. To be aware of how the world works, and to remain exactly who you are and to believe and to know that continuing to push on is always going to be good enough, if not the secret to your success.

Christina Tosi sits on top of a table in her kitchen
Tosi has become a giant in the world of food.

Danielle Kosann/courtesy of Christina Tosi

To what do you attribute your success?

The secret to my success is one day at a time. 

It’s one recipe at a time. It’s one cookie. One ingredient, one thing at a time, like a digestible bite. And more than anything, it’s to keep going. 

When I was coming up at Bouley, in the heat of service, you’d get a call and get yelled at and taken down a few pegs. The thing that I always tell myself is stay on the line. Stay on the line, stay in the game. Whatever you do, just keep going. 

You’re going to have successes, and you’re going to have pitfalls. And that is true in running any business and building yourself up into whatever your dreams and your visions are. You have to stay in it.

Was there anyone who ever gave you business advice along the way that you still remember today?

My business-maven mom has so many one-liners. One of my favorites is, don’t let the ankle biters get you down, which is to say, as you’re building, there will be all these little things that are trying to bite at your ankles. Don’t focus on them. Focus on your bigger picture. Focus on your why. For us, it’s to make people happy with dessert, to feed every single person in this country in this world a cookie because we know what it does. Stay focused.

Taylor Swift had a Milk Bar cake on her 34th birthday. Did you know that that was happening?

We had no idea. She’s a customer, just like anyone else is a customer. But it is pretty awesome. We had no clue she’s a customer. She waits in line just like anyone else. But it’s really cool to know that we fuel other creatives and other people that inspire us and bring things that are joyful and magical and positive in life. It’s pretty cool to know that we’re in good company.

You also have a big following on social media and a club.

Milk Bar lives in real life at our bakeries. We live online through our care packages and in the aisles of the grocery store. We also have a pretty cool social-media following. And one of my favorite things that happened online is this club that I started Bake Club. Great name, right?

During the pandemic, I started it because we were all alone, we were all like, segregated into our little lives and little worlds. And I only know how to exist one way, and it’s to show up for people with dessert. And when I was locked indoors, I thought, how am I going to show up for people with dessert? That is like my reason for being. 

So I just went online one day, and I said, Hey, I’m gonna start a bake club. So I just tell you, these are the simple ingredients you need to show up. You join me at 2pm with a killer playlist, and we jump right into it. I bake from my home kitchen, you bake from wherever you’re baking from.

It has become this insanely large, wide, joyful community of people that are pen pals all across the U.S. that show up and show out. And it’s the ultimate leap of faith. But at the end of you know, 15, 20, 30 minutes, you’ve accomplished this incredible thing. And perhaps, then, you also have a reason to get out into the world and share it.

How often are you baking?

I bake almost every single day, which might be a surprise to no one. I eat dessert almost every single day. But I am constantly tasting and tinkering thinking about things I bake early in the morning. Sometimes I bake late at night. I don’t always get to bake on the clock, if you will. I bake at the bakeries. I go to the bakeries to try things. I send care packages to myself, I go to the aisles of the grocery store. Dessert is very much my ecosystem. I’m eating, sampling, thinking, editing dessert, or baking dessert, because that’s where, often, my inspiration comes from.

Did you have to bootstrap your company at all?

Yes. Bakery margins are razor thin; you have to sell a lot of cookies to pay the rent. But we did a lot on our own, because I had already been the plumber, the electrician, the general contractor, and the health-department consultant. So much of building a business can be done by the people that are in the business, at least to start, especially if you don’t have the financial resources, which we didn’t have at the beginning. 

But every year at Milk Bar, I think about doubling and tripling down on ourselves. We’ve raised money to help grow the business over the course of 16 years, but I do think that Milk Bar is what it is—so human—because it was built by the people who are part of it. And I think that’s a really important piece of our fundraising strategy.

I want to be really clear, there was no business plan or fundraising strategy to start Milk Bar. But for me, it was fundamental. There were things that I learned from my mom about how you make a great business and how you make do when you don’t have the financial resources, and I applied those, and still apply them to this day.

You don’t need a lot of money to start a great business, but you have to start somewhere and you start small, and you build and you grow from there. And you figure out what’s working that you keep doing, and what’s not working, which you stop doing. 

What’s the story behind your logo?

People couldn’t find the door to Milk Bar at first because we were halfway down a dark block off 13th Street. And I thought, I can’t pay to put a sign outside, because I’d have to apply to the Department of Buildings and pay for X, Y and Z. But if I can hang a sign inside that’s bright enough, people will see a little bit of light and maybe come down the block and find us. This was before Google Maps was a thing. 

And so I thought, Okay, I’ll just make a sign that says Milk Bar. But Milk Bar’s pretty long when you actually start to blow it up. So I was like, Okay, well, it’ll just be Milk to start. And I thought, Okay, what should it look like? I started going through the different fonts on Microsoft Word, and Brush Script Medium felt like the right, classic, side of the road custard stands. 

And for the longest time, Milk, just the search term Milk, Milk Bar would return as the top search term because people still think to this day that our name sometimes is milk because of this fun, cursive pink, neon sign and logo. It’s become a calling card. It’s become part of the iconic recipe that has been Milk Bar these past 16 years, and it’s just Brush Script Medium on Microsoft Word.

Did you have any other failures with dessert? 

We’ve had so many failures at Milk Bar. And I say that with a smile on my face because to be a great chef, you have to be really, really, really in love with failing. For every great recipe that you come up with, savory or sweet, you have trudged through so many failed attempts to get a great roast chicken or a great layer cake. That is just true love. Failure, like, drink it up for breakfast and let it energize you. 

We have so many great ideas that didn’t do the thing that they needed to do from a menu standpoint, but also from a business standpoint. The last few years were hard, we had to close down some of our bakery locations that didn’t make sense anymore. Through the pandemic, we had this great DTC care package, and an e-commerce boom. And then, like so many others, as the last few years have evolved, we’ve been figuring out who we are and how we want to show up and where we want to be. We’ve continued to line our incredible offerings in the aisles of the grocery store. And all of that comes from trial and error—passionate ideas, sometimes faced with harsh and brutal realities. 

But I think, when you’re all in, you should never do something that you’re not very, very passionate about. Strong opinions loosely held. It’s knowing when something is a great idea and either isn’t the right time, or it’s not a great idea for this thing. But you have to be passionate about the idea going in. And you also have to know when the world, your customers, and your team sometimes tells you “it’s not for us.”

Recently, I was trying to add up how many innovations we’ve brought to life over 16 years. It’s been hundreds of thousands of innovations through the lens of cookies, cakes, pie, and soft-serve ice cream. We’re so excited. 16 years in, we’re not slowing down anytime soon. We’re so excited about what the future holds, what we’re chasing down, what we’re passionate about. 

It’s about figuring out how to show up and bring life richness and stickiness and make you feel something awesome. And just stop everything else around you for just a minute.

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