Create & Cultivate 100: Food: Christina Tosi

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“Not your average cookie. Not your average bakery.” This is how Christina depicts her Milk Bar empire.

But that almost feels like an understatement. The chef-turned-entrepreneur and brains behind the sister bakery to the Momofuku restaurant group has expanded her business to fifteen locations throughout North America, while simultaneously publishing cookbooks, appearing as a judge on MasterChef, and being featured on Netflix’s Chef’s Table. Fun fact: She majored in math in college, but stumbled into baking.

Tosi understands the gravity in becoming a celebrated pastry queen, as she has created a product that plays a celebratory role in her customer’s lives, whether it be celebrating a birthday, anniversary, or another milestone. Her creations bring people together in a way that only sugar can. With this in mind, she’s on a one-woman campaign to become BFFs with The Rock...which we fully support.

What inspired you to open Milk Bar and how did you come up with the branding?

I had always wanted a bakery. When I was a kid, the working name was “Cookies, Cookies, Cookies.” I think Milk Bar is a better name. It’s a modern-day take on a Dairy Queen plus my quirky take on an American bakery. The first shop was several steps off a busy corner. I needed to pull people into the block to find us. NEON SIGN! And quick! The first logo, believe it or not, was just the word “milk” in brush script medium, which I typed out myself on Microsoft Word, highlighted, and sent off to the neon shop.

Milk Bar is an NYC staple, and you now have locations in LA, Vegas, D.C., and Toronto. When did you know it was time to expand?

Our growth has been gradual and organic. This is very important to me. I have always trusted my gut and tried to build new stores in spaces and places that call out to me, that own a piece of my heart in one way or another. Our roots will always be in NYC, but we are finding ourselves at home in new markets, following the demand, making each new store unique to itself, it’s home and to us.

If you could have a meal with someone, living or deceased, who would it be and why? What would you eat?

The Rock. For too many reasons to explain. We’d eat a pizza, then crush strawberry corn milkquakes because I’d lure him into cheat day and we’d giggle and high kick and talk about how giving this world more laughter, realness and light is the most important thing.

What do you crave in life?

I’m constantly curious and always on the move. I crave the feeling of bouncing from one meeting to the next, ideas flying. I crave time in the kitchen, blank countertops and a full pantry, to let my head and heart run wild. I crave endorphins. I crave time with friends and family. I’m most excited by the little things, though. I call them the little BIG things -- the teensy moments of humanity in life that make up a day. The smell of a warm cookie, the stolen joy of watching strangers embrace, reading a handwritten note from a fan or a friend, when the subway car comes right away, jumping over a puddle just in time. I celebrate every day and find joy in these things, because we only have one today, and I want to make the most of it.

What about your job makes you feel the most fulfilled?

I love getting to be a vehicle and a tool for spreading happiness in people’s lives—seeing how Milk Bar plays a role in birthdays, anniversaries, weddings and more often than not the everyday excuse for a celebration, the little life moments that make us FEEL.

My biggest source of pride in my role is giving a home to now more than 400 (!) hardbody employees. Milk Bar is a place where they can be—hardworking, creative, kind, ambitious, but also wacky and weird in all the best ways. I’m thankful that Milk Bar is a space where my team can take pride in their work, where they can feel and a part of something greater, a lightness in a world that needs lightness more than ever.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

My mother always told me to “be unapologetically yourself.” When I started in the restaurant industry, that meant rocking a cute headscarf in the kitchen to let the boys know I wasn’t going anywhere, and now as a CEO it means always going after the things I know/believe in. All you have in this world is your POV and your insights, your gut as your guide, so you better own it.

What’s been the biggest surprise or highlight of your career to date?

Milk Bar just celebrated our ten year anniversary! I never would have predicted all of the crazy places this business would take me, and I’ve loved every minute of it.

I celebrate every day and find joy in these things, because we only have one today, and I want to make the most of it.

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Where does your passion/drive come from?

It comes from within, I suppose. I like being in motion, defying what one can accomplish i a day, a week, a year. Working hard is the single best way I know how to get what I want.

What keeps you up at night?

A million things, but mostly the questions “Did I get the most out of the day?” and “Did I leave the world a better place than I found it?”

Whose career really inspires you?

RBG! Obsessed. A hardbody in every sense of the word. For one, she’s 85 and can still plank like a CrossFit champ. She is an icon for strong women everywhere—fierce, resolute, resilient, making the world a better place bit by bit. Her career is a perfect example of the fact that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

What has been your biggest opportunity or biggest challenge as a woman in the food industry?

I’m naturally a very warm and friendly person. I have a sweet voice, I wear colorful scarves, and I make cookies for a living. I think this gives certain people the wrong expectation when it comes to working with me. There’s an assumption that because I’m nice, I’m also naive...

The pastry industry is huge. How does Milk Bar constantly stay fresh and relevant?

Innovation is key. So is humility. We are constantly churning, spinning out new ideas and flavors. You can’t be afraid to take risks. Just be willing to edit when the risks don’t pan out. To zig when others zag. And above all, to keep it real.

When you hit a bump or hurdle in your career, how do you find a new road + switch gears to find success?

I look forward, not back. When something is done, I move on immediately. I am constantly learning from my mistakes as a leader and as a businesswoman. It’s important to take time to process events in order to learn from them, but it’s also important not to dwell on things or wallow in self-pity or embarrassment. Learn and move on!

What are you toasting to in 2019? What are you most excited for?

I’m toasting to b’day cake, to friendship bracelets, to innovation, and to constant creativity and connectivity.