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 sweet Tosi touches has a twist, from her Cereal Milk ice cream to her “naked” birthday cake (above).
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 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 self-doubt.
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.
“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 likeI’m self-awarebut 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.”
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 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.
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.