For Christina Tosi, Building a Dessert Empire Is Not All Milk and Cookies


New-employee orientation at Milk Bar is a little like the first meeting of a support group devised by Tony Robbins and Willy Wonka.

The 30 people sitting on folding chairs were in for a treat on this January morning in Williamsburg, Brooklyn: an appearance by Christina Tosi, who a decade ago conjured up the first Milk Bar bakery out of not much more than glitter, plywood and the brilliant idea of making soft-serve from the milk at the bottom of a cereal bowl.

When the time came to share a personal fun fact, Ms. Tosi volunteered that she had started making lanterns out of Popsicle sticks. Then everyone watched the company’s sizzle reel: Ms. Tosi riding a bike through the city. Ms. Tosi discussing failure. Ms. Tosi making the cakes with no side frosting that have become so popular the model and cookbook author Chrissy Teigen documented her attempt to make one for her 33 million followers on Twitter and Instagram.

Next up were clips from her star turn as a judge on “MasterChef Junior,” the Fox show whose seventh season begins on Feb. 26, and the seminal moment in 2009 when Anderson Cooper swooned over her famous Crack Pie on “Live With Regis and Kelly.”

Ms. Tosi, 37, is an introvert in overalls who carries math problems in her purse, along with embroidery thread to make friendship bracelets. Now, she has to figure out how to maintain the Milk Bar magic while running a multimillion-dollar business.

“Growing fast feels like selling out, but I realized if we controlled the growth it could be really cool, too,” she said during a 12-hour day of trainings, tasting and meetings.

She knows at least one thing: She doesn’t want a Milk Bar on every corner, like Starbucks. “I sat with it and lost a lot of sleep over it and finally I was just like, ‘That’s just not what we are,’” she said.

Still, there is no lack of ambition in the Milk Bar universe. People who manage the brand talk about making Milk Bar a verb, like Google or Uber, so at 2 p.m. someone might turn to a co-worker and say, “Let’s Milk Bar it!” and head out for cookies.

“We want to tap into the person who is like, ‘I just want to live my truth in my own weird, quirky way,’” said Sarah Tabb, the senior director of marketing, who spent six years as a brand manager for Coca-Cola.

Ms. Tosi plans to open Milk Bars in cities where there’s already a fan base, including Chicago and Miami. The company is upgrading its e-commerce, which is about a third of the business.

Then there is her holy grail: the grocery store. As someone with roots in central Ohio who grew up on hot dogs, Doritos and ranch dressing, she is a deep fan of packaged food, and the supermarket remains an inspirational touchstone. Milk Bar desserts on the shelves of America’s suburban grocery stores, she said, are her gift to children looking for creative inspiration in a sea of mass-market blandness.

For years, the bakery has operated independently of the Momofuku empire, but Mr. Chang remains a business partner. As Ms. Tosi sought more autonomy for herself and Milk Bar, there were arguments and frustration.

“She was becoming her own thing, and I didn’t know how to deal with it,” Mr. Chang said in an interview. “I wouldn’t say it was rough, but we didn’t have any reference points. I don’t think we knew how to talk to each other as business people.”

Both describe their relationship, then and now, as brother-and-sister. She still seeks his advice, which he now gives only when asked. “Telling her something head-on isn’t the right approach,” he said. “No one wants to tell Tosi she’s wrong.”

To watch Ms. Tosi in action is to understand focus at a new level. She samples every type of cookie and batch of soft-serve when she walks into any of her stores, noting in an instant if the batter was overmixed or if the soft-serve temperature is off. Earnest test-kitchen bakers present her version after version of new products, each gram of salt, fat or flavoring precisely calibrated.

The day of the orientation, Anna McGorman, the director of culinary operations, was taking another swing at a chocolate Milk Bar birthday cake. It was still a miss, albeit barely. The cake was chocolate, but it tasted too much like yellow cake and not enough like birthday cake. Ms. Tosi suggested more dark vanilla to balance the “creamy, dreamy vibe” of clear vanilla.

She knows her desire for perfection can be maddening. “I have too many opinions, and I like to know everything,” she said. “That slows me down a lot.”

Not everything Ms. Tosi touches is gold. She had to abandon plans to sell her line of fresh juice at the bakeries. Even though she likes to balance her daily cookie consumption with a green juice, customers didn’t.

To balance things out, she keeps a large family of plants she has nurtured from cuttings along the windowsills and an assortment of her favorite objets d’art, including her Popsicle-stick projects.

Mr. Guidara, 39, says his wife is the ideal mix of intensity and graciousness. “What’s amazing to me is, she hasn’t really changed in the most hilarious ways,” he said. She won’t let him buy her expensive treats like handbags, and prefers high-tops and jewelry she makes herself.

“It kind of drives me crazy,” he said.

She rarely eats at her husband’s restaurants. It’s too public, and the extra attention from the staff makes her nervous. “I want to go out and disappear,” she said.

Ms. Tosi says one of her few indulgences is travel, but sometimes it’s just an impromptu train trip to visit her mother and sister, who live near each other in Reston, Va. After years of scraping by on staff meals and $4 bodega sandwiches, having whatever she wants delivered seems like an extravagance, too.

“It’s this luxury of being like, ‘I’ll have dumplings as my appetizer and pizza as my main course, and then I have a bunch of cookies in the freezer,’” she said.

With her business in overdrive, life has become more complex. It’s a far cry from Milk Bar’s early days, when everything was Tang toast and sprinkles and D.I.Y., right down to its distinctive logo, which she created simply by typing the word “milk” in Brush Script Medium.

“Keeping the dream going is a different thing now,” she said. “How do you strip it back down to Brush Script Medium when you know too much?”



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