How I Did It

I wanted to make sure I had a real busi­ness on my hands—not just a brand that peo­ple lusted after, with the dirty lit­tle se­cret that we didn’t make money.

Inc. (USA) - - CONTENTS - CHRISTINA TOSI MILK BAR Milk Bar, a grow­ing na­tional bak­ery chain with 12 lo­ca­tions and more than 200 em­ploy­ees

Milk Bar founder Christina Tosi— sip­ping a Crunchy Ce­real Shake—on build­ing her in­ven­tive baked-goods em­pire.

A trained pas­try chef fed up with fancy restau­rants, Christina Tosi hatched Milk Bar in 2008 with seed fund­ing from her then-em­ployer, David Chang, founder of the Mo­mo­fuku noo­dle bar em­pire. To­day, when the 36-year-old CEO and master­mind of Crack Pies and Com­post Cook­ies isn’t judg­ing on Fox’s MasterChef, she is busy ex­pand­ing her prof­itable bak­ery chain. (Mo­mo­fuku still owns an undis­closed stake in Milk Bar, which op­er­ates sep­a­rately.) In Novem­ber, she closed a re­ported eight-fig­ure fund­ing round from RSE Ven­tures, which Milk Bar will use to ex­pand lo­ca­tions, e-com­merce op­er­a­tions, and prod­uct lines. —AS TOLD TO MARIA ASPAN

My mom was an ac­coun­tant, and my dad was an agri­cul­tural econ­o­mist. They were the most pas­sion­ate ac­coun­tant and agri­cul­tural econ­o­mist you could ever meet, and they wanted me to find some­thing I was pas­sion­ate about at univer­sity. So I orig­i­nally went to school for en­gi­neer­ing be­cause I loved math and thought I liked science. But I re­al­ized after my first year that col­lege was not for me, so I took as many classes as I could and grad­u­ated in three years. Then I had to ask my­self, what is that one thing I could do that’s go­ing to make me ex­cited about wak­ing up in the morn­ing and that I’ll never get sick of? Mak­ing cook­ies.

Ev­ery time I baked cook­ies for peo­ple as a kid, it made me so happy. But when I was in culi­nary school and work­ing in fine-din­ing restau­rants, that was not a thing. I put my­self on this path to be­come this in-house pas­try chef. And it wasn’t un­til I worked for a few fine-din­ing restau­rants that I re­al­ized that ev­ery time I got to the top, I would leave. I didn’t re­late deep down with these fancy desserts. I loved the art of them, I loved the craft of them, but they just weren’t me.

I left fine din­ing and started at Mo­mo­fuku in a busi­ness op­er­a­tional ca­pac­ity for Dave [Chang]. He was do­ing some­thing that at least res­onated with me: He was mak­ing food for the peo­ple. He got out of fine din­ing on the sa­vory side be­cause he just wanted to make re­ally good food that could reach more peo­ple and be more ap­proach­able. I re­al­ized that my voice through food was the sweet ver­sion of that.

I would run op­er­a­tions at Mo­mo­fuku, and then go home and bake at night and

“Don’t go into any­thing be­ing scared. Don’t go into open­ing a busi­ness be­ing scared. Don’t go into a room full of men be­ing scared. I know what I look like— I‘m self-aware— but I’m not go­ing to wait for a seat at the ta­ble. My seat is at the front of the ta­ble, so I’m go­ing to be the first one to sit down be­cause I mean busi­ness.”

bring all my baked goods in the next day to work. Dave knew I wanted to open up a bak­ery, and one day this ten­ant next to one of his restau­rants was leaving. He said, “This is your love. I’ll help you get the space. Just go and do it.”

Where my nor­mal head would go into over­plan­ning and weigh­ing all my op­tions, I didn’t have time for that. It wasn’t about hav­ing a P&L. It was just: I have 45 days to make this hap­pen. I didn’t have time to worry about, “What if peo­ple don’t come, or what if peo­ple think the name Com­post Cookie is a crazy, hor­rid thing to name a cookie?” I didn’t have time for self­doubt. I had a mo­ment on open­ing morn­ing—at like 4 or 5 a.m.—bak­ing cook­ies with the three peo­ple who were crazy enough to fol­low me down this path. Then we opened the door, and there was a line around the cor­ner, down the block. It was like a can­non ball and we were off.

I am at my very best when I’m in over my head. The but­ter didn’t show up one day. You reach into these depths of your mind that you would other­wise never re­ally be forced to tap into, and I re­al­ized, “We have heavy cream. We’re go­ing to take this heavy cream, and we’re go­ing to churn it into but­ter. We’re go­ing to take some of the wa­ter con­tent out of it, and we’re go­ing to use that but­ter to make our cook­ies and our frost­ings and our cakes.”

When I first opened Milk Bar, I was also mak­ing desserts for the Mo­mo­fuku restau­rants. I will say that by day three or day four, I re­al­ized that op­er­at­ing a bak­ery was so dif­fer­ent from op­er­at­ing a restau­rant. Your mar­gins are dif­fer­ent; your strat­egy is dif­fer­ent. You’re busy early in the morn­ing. Peo­ple are com­ing and go­ing in greater vol­ume, be­cause you’re sell­ing a cookie, not a din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. I re­al­ized very quickly that I was go­ing to need to build my own team.

Mo­mo­fuku was my launch board. Dave was my brother through and through, and he very much is the se­cret to my be­ing pushed out into the world. He also gave me my seed money. It made sense, at first, to be af­fil­i­ated, for the bak­ery to be called Mo­mo­fuku Milk Bar. Why wouldn’t you use a name and an af­fil­i­a­tion that peo­ple al­ready know and love and trust? But even­tu­ally we were get­ting cus­tomers who were com­ing in and didn’t know how to say “Mo­mo­fuku.” The brand it­self is in­sane in its reach, but as I opened store two and store three, it be­came clear that the name was just con­fus­ing peo­ple. So, in 2012, we started drop­ping “Mo­mo­fuku” from the name.

I even­tu­ally paid Dave back the seed money, and last year was the first time since then that I’ve taken money. We were prof­itable, and at first I would be re­ally strate­gic about the money we made: “OK. If I do this pro­ject, we can buy a de­liv­ery van. If I write a cook­book, we can open three stores.” That was my growth strat­egy in part be­cause I’m stub­born, and in part be­cause plenty of peo­ple say, “Don’t take money un­less you need it. You don’t want to give away a piece of your busi­ness if you don’t need to.”

I re­al­ized that men­tal­ity was hold­ing us back. The speed at which the world of food changes was quicker than we were grow­ing. I am the cus­to­dian of the brand. That is my job, but I re­al­ized I wasn’t tak­ing as many risks as I should. I de­cided I wanted to re­ally con­sider rais­ing money—and I think you have to con­sider do­ing that and re­ally force your­self into that mind­set be­fore you ac­tu­ally de­cide whether it’s right for you.

Rais­ing money was a year and a half of my life, and I loved ev­ery minute of it. Boy, was it grind­ing and dif­fi­cult. At the end of it, my hus­band was like, “Does this mean I get my wife back?” be­cause you’re go­ing to war. You’re go­ing to the mat­tresses a lit­tle bit, and not nec­es­sar­ily in a neg­a­tive way. It doesn’t have to be ar­gu­men­ta­tive. You can’t do a good deal with bad peo­ple, and you can’t do a bad deal with good peo­ple. I of­ten use that as my com­pass.

I’m re­ally, re­ally, re­ally happy with the de­ci­sion that I made. One, to raise the money; two, to wait nine years to raise the money. I think that’s an anom­aly in this day and age. You typ­i­cally raise money and then you go, and then you raise more money and then you go.

I wanted to make sure I had a real busi­ness on my hands—not just a brand that peo­ple lusted after, with the dirty lit­tle se­cret that we didn’t make money. Pa­tience is a virtue. I think that in­evitably points to the spirit of what we do, which is make stuff with our hands. We’re beau­ti­fully ana­log in a dig­i­tal age.

THE SCIENCE OF SUGAR Ev­ery sweet Tosi touches has a twist, from her Ce­real Milk ice cream to her “naked” birth­day cake (above).

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