Mixing the cookie dough and cake batters at Milk Bar, the iconic bakery brand poised to grow a lot bigger, depends on a laser-focused, intelligent approach, which starts with researching every formula from the small scale (does it taste amazing?) to scaling up to larger batches (can you replicate it effectively?).
“We are not just saying, “Mix to light and fluffy.’ We are writing measurable, comprehensible steps — using precise instructions,” explains Christina Tosi, the chef and mastermind behind Milk Bar, now with 16 locations from New York City to Los Angeles. “We spend a lot of time in our R&D kitchens in New York and Los Angeles. If we are making a big batch, we’ll test a dough ball from the top of the mixer and one from the bottom. These types of steps help connect the team with what makes this cookie so special.”
Tosi, a two-time James Beard Award winner, is a wizard in the art and science of mixing and goes so far as to call Hobart Food Equipment a “best friend” for 10 years. At Milk Bar, every mixer is regarded with the same respect as any of the company’s 331 trusted employees, so much so that each has a name. One of the bakery’s 80-quart Hobart mixers goes by Lil’ Kim — “small, but mighty.”
Hobart works closely with Milk Bar, perfecting processes (how many seconds to whisk at specific speeds, desired dough weights, etc.) and refining best practices or techniques with one another. It’s truly a two-way street. It’s been that way since the beginning when Tosi started with an 80-quart Hobart that she used to churn her own butter. Today, Milk Bar uses a variety of Hobart mixers ranging up to 140 quarts — “so big you could take a bubble bath in it,” Tosi says with a laugh.
“Hobart has been such an incredible partner,” she adds with conviction. “We all need to be extensions of one another. Just like our equipment, we need every person at Milk Bar to come in and bring it every day. If you don’t have the right equipment, then a good idea is just a good idea.”
Making the magic happen
With engaging storefronts in New York, Washington D.C., Toronto, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Boston, Milk Bar is known for inventive creations like the Compost Cookie®, layer cakes with unfrosted sides, Cereal Milk™ Soft Serve and Milk Bar Pie. The brand name is building steadily across the country, especially as online sales continue to grow, and new locations are scouted. A multimillion-dollar investment from RSE Ventures, which has built an impressive stable of cutting-edge food brands, is helping catapult Milk Bar to the forefront.
In a 2017 report in Fortune magazine, RSE Ventures CEO Matt Higgins described Tosi “as perhaps the next incarnation of Martha Stewart for this generation. We tend to back founders who bring some magic to what they’re undertaking.”
Further, Milk Bar’s new Boston location is a joint venture with fast-rising &pizza, a Washington, D.C.-based pizza chain that shares the space. RSE Ventures is also an investor in &pizza.
“We’ve listened to the community and heard loud and clear that they’re looking for more than just another pizza shop — they want a neighborhood partner,” said &pizza co-founder and CEO Michael Lastoria. “&pizza stands for connection, inclusion and unity, and joining forces with Milk Bar is a perfect example of how we will bring those values directly to Cambridge.”
“The restaurants and cafes in Harvard Square help fuel some of the most brilliant and innovative minds in the world, and I’m so excited for Milk Bar to be part of this community,” Tosi adds.
When you ask Tosi about what it takes to become a trend setter, she graciously steers the talk in a different direction. “We take it a step further. We want to remove trends from the vocabulary,” she says.
“Being inspired is important. But we don’t unleash our creative spirit to set a trend. We just want to be a quirky American-style bakery. If we think it’s cool and tasty and we think it might bring joy to someone else, we do it. That’s my secret. How we do anything is how we do everything.”
Flavors you probably already know
Tosi was born in Ohio and grew up in Virginia and is a self-described dessert lover from an early age. She shares the familiar story of how she and her older sister would be allowed to lick the spatula while helping bake cookies, only Christina took it a step further. She would shape a whole cookie and gulp down a handful of dough.
“By the time my family caught onto my antics, I knew it was high time for me to fend for myself in the kitchen,” Tosi shared in a 2014 interview with bake. “I went away to college to pacify my parents and studied mathematics (her mother worked as an accountant, while her father was an agricultural economist for the USDA), but I’d stay up late each night after I was done with homework and papers, baking away. Upon graduation, I realized I didn’t want a real job. I wanted to move to New York City to attend culinary school and make my passion a profession.”
Upon graduation from the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center), Tosi flourished in her restaurant career, first with Chef Wylie Dufresne’s wd-50 and then Chef David Chang’s Momofuku.
“While working at wd-50, Wylie Dufresne taught me how to think about food, how to be critical, how to create, how to improve. At Momofuku, David Chang taught me commitment, empathy, balance and how to connect yet remain an individual voice.”
As fortunate as those experiences proved to be, Tosi hungered for more than what the fine dining sector could offer. She dreamed of opening her own bakery, so that her creative desserts could be accessible to many more people. Milk Bar opened in November 2008, and the rest is history — with many more chapters to be written.
Tosi founded the desserts program at Momofuku and created the concept for Milk Bar, a credit to her formal culinary training and her informal obsession with home baking, grocery store staples and classic American sweets.
The James Beard Outstanding Pastry Chef winner was named one of Fortune’s 40 Under 40 and was profiled on “Chef’s Table,” the Emmy-nominated docu-series on Netflix. She’s authored three cookbooks and has been a judge on Fox’s “Masterchef” and “Masterchef Junior.”
She is often seen sporting her signature bandana, searching for new ways to turn familiar flavors and textures upside down. “The flavors we create at Milk Bar aren’t necessarily new. They are flavors you probably already know in the back of your mind from your childhood,” she says.
Inspirations can arrive around almost every corner: “I recently came across a gumball machine with ice cream sundae flavored gumballs. I thought, ‘How would those flavors live in a layer cake?’
“Curiosity is the great equalizer,” Tosi continues. “We might be playing around with a flavor and — all of a sudden — a failure becomes a stepping stone to a new flavor application. We’re pretty relentless about getting the flavor just right.”
Looking ahead, she adds, “my goal is to be influential and accessible. For me, I want to evolve it and grow it, so that we could have an influence on that curious 10-year-old growing up in the suburbs of Ohio.”
Relentless attention to detail
For the success of any bakery, customer service means everything. That is another important lesson for bakery owners from Tosi’s experience.
“At the end of the day, people are coming to Milk Bar to indulge. It starts and ends with the troops. You have to have an unyielding amount of care about great customer service.”
For this reason, Tosi takes “onboarding” (the integration of new employees) very seriously. She meets everyone for two to three hours, during which time they learn about why Tosi started Milk Bar, a deep dive into the company’s core values and more. “We explain that why we brought you on board is deeper than your resume,” she says. “We have really high standards. Everyone has a voice, and everyone is expected to contribute. We offer best-in-class benefits as an employer, as a promise to our people. We take this part very seriously.”
Looking at the process of building a successful bakery brand, the founder of Milk Bar suggests that others start by believing in yourself, your products and your people.
“First and foremost, it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” says Tosi, who knows plenty on the subject as an avid runner herself. “When we first opened, my goals were honest and pure. It was all about the honesty of what we created in the kitchen and letting that be in the world. Then the challenges were finding the right people who shared the same dedication to techniques and the same integrity: Never being in a hurry and working toward the pursuit of what you love to do. That is empowering.”
“Be yourself,” she suggests to other bakers. “Once you’ve got a great product, the rest comes naturally. The everyday part is the hard part.”