Christina Tosi has made a career of creating innovative treats from familiar, grocery-store flavors. The chef, founder, and CEO of the 12-year-old bakery chain Milk Bar has concocted soft serve ice cream that tastes like the milk left at the end of a sugary bowl of cereal, truffles inspired birthday-cake mix, and deliciously addictive cookies that blend cornflakes, potato chips, and marshmallows.
So it seems almost preordained that her unabashedly playful and decadent dessert brand would find its way into supermarkets. Last April, as the world locked down and some of her Milk Bar bakeries closed, Tosi’s baked goods company made its first foray into grocery aisles with a line of Milk Bar soft-bake cookies, sold at Whole Foods. In October, the company expanded to more stores, including Target and Shoprite, and debuted refrigerator-aisle “truffle crumb cakes” (a rich cake with a cookie-like exterior), wrapped in the company’s signature bold packaging. Now, just in time for summer, Milk Bar is launching its next product line: ice cream. The four flavors, which will be available at Whole Foods on June 1, are classic Tosi: birthday cake, cereal milk, cornflake chocolate chip marshmallow, and Milk Bar pie (vanilla swirled with butter and toasted oat crumble).
Milk Bar’s move into consumer packaged goods has been remarkably prescient—and successful. The company began in 2020 with 15 bakeries and a nascent direct-to-consumer website. Today, 60% of its sales come from its e-commerce site, which ships nationwide, and three of the brand’s bakeries have closed. The grocery line, now available at more 7,000 retailers, accounts for 20% of revenue—up from 9% percent last year. That figure is bound to grow as Milk Bar’s ice cream pints begin rolling out.
A dozen years after she broke through as a protégé of chef David Chang, spinning Milk Bar—and its modern-day Dairy Queen appeal—out of his Momofuku empire, Tosi is now poised to transform the way Americans think about grocery store treats. “I fell in love with food at the grocery store, that’s where my imagination took off,” she says. “I want to bring these simple, accessible flavors back to where they came from in a different form.”
Reallocating the pie
March 2020 may have been the time that people needed Milk Bar the most. A little more than a year ago, confined to our homes and uncertain of the future, many of us sought comfort in rich, buttery treats.
As Milk Bar’s brick-and-mortar locations closed down with COVID-19 restrictions, the omni-channel vision that the company had worked towards for several years suddenly became more relevant than ever. After all, when you can’t physically be with someone on a birthday or graduation, why not send them a variety pack of Milk Bar cookies in a cute pink and white tin? Or a pack of birthday cake truffles to enjoy for the next week? Demand grew for the company’s celebratory gifts and care package-style offerings.
Tosi, meanwhile, connected with people stuck at home and craving comfort by hosting a Milk Bar Bake Club on Instagram Live every day from March through July of 2020. Each day she whipped up new treats, posting ingredients on her page the day prior to allow viewers to cook alongside her. The series eventually turned into an ongoing weekly show with prizes for fans. “I make a ton more [food] than I ever did before. Bake Club is sort of R&D with what I have in my pantry,” she says over the sound of clanging pots in the background of our call.
Tosi is Milk Bar’s best spokesperson: infectiously enthusiastic, charismatic, and approachable. It also helps that she’s rail thin with perfect skin, suggesting that her brand of high-calorie, high-fat indulgence doesn’t have consequences. (Although Tosi insists that eating insane quantities of sugar doesn’t make her break her out, this writer can’t say the same after several days of eating cookies for breakfast.) Her frenetic energy and relentless optimism may be familiar to some readers who have seen her star turns on Netflix’s Chef’s Table and Fox’s MasterChef and MasterChef Junior. When we speak in May, less than two months after she welcomed a baby daughter with restaurateur husband Will Guidara, Tosi is busy testing recipes for baked goods for her cafes to be released in the fall. “I’m working on a maple cake that uses maple syrup in the actual sponge and I want to see if it’s possible. We’re going for fall vibes, a kind of cinnamon-doughnut vibe,” she tells me. “We would never actually sell doughnuts, though, so it would be a doughnut through the lens of a cookie or a cake or a pie.”
As Milk Bar was responding to the pandemic by building up its website and national delivery capabilities, it was also plotting an even bigger expansion into grocery stores. Milk Bar’s decade-in-the-making CPG launch had been planned for April 2020, but was pushed back when COVID-19 hit. Instead, the company introduced a test run of products in Whole Foods that month. When it received an enthusiastic response from customers, it moved forward with a bigger launch in the fall. (But not before quickly redesigning its packaging to stand out better on shelves.) In October, it debuted a full line of soft-bake cookies in flavors like “pancake” and “chocolate confetti,” along with its refrigerated truffle crumb cakes, which include strawberry shortcake and chocolate pretzel flavors. The products rolled into Target and Whole Foods nationwide, as well as other chains, including ShopRite, Giant, and Gelson’s.
Milk Bar’s grocery expansion fulfills a longtime dream for Tosi. While she trained at the French Culinary Institute (after studying math in college) and first started Milk Bar as an appendage of David Chang’s Momofuku restaurant, she learned to bake at home, using inexpensive ingredients from the grocery store. Now, she’s come full-circle. “There is no greater compliment [to me] than being in the aisles of a grocery store, because that’s where I fell in love with food.” she says.
Bringing Milk Bar to the masses
By moving into grocery stores, Tosi’s products are finally getting the reach to match her influence. Despite only having Milk Bar bakeries in New York, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Boston, Toronto, and Las Vegas, Tosi’s creations have had an outsize effect on the food industry. The naked wedding cake trend of the 2010s? You can thank Tosi’s cakes, made without frosting on the outside, for that.
She now hopes that even people who aren’t familiar with her celebrity-chef status and pioneering cafes will discover the brand. “Someone may not have heard of us before but might buy our products at a grocery store, and then get excited about visiting one of our locations,” she says.
The grocery store products are priced to woo new customers. While goods from a Milk Bar cafe cost a premium: a dozen truffles will set you back $24 and the incontestably delicious Milk Bar Pie (previously controversially named “Crack Pie”) costs $46. The grocery store goods, meanwhile, are priced at…grocery store prices. A box of eight compost cookies costs $4.99 and a pint of ice cream pint is $5.99, comparable to Ben & Jerry’s. “Right now our revenue is 20% consumer packaged goods. But we definitely see that changing because with CPG we are broadening our customer base by reaching more people at a different price point,” says chief strategy officer Sid Banthiya.
Former Focus Brands President and COO Kat Cole, who joined the board of Milk Bar in November 2019 after a stint as mega-chain Cinnabon’s President, says that Tosi has had her eye on the grocery shelves since they met several years ago. “She wanted to bring the Milk Bar magic to everyone and she understood that could not happen in flagship stores. Most founder-chef creators, a few years ago, were allergic to grocery. She didn’t view it that way, but she wanted to do it in an organic way that was part of the brand.”
Like the goods she serves in her bakeries, Tosi’s grocery products combine flavors and textures to create something entirely new. Her refrigerated truffle crumb cakes, for example, combine the hard exterior of a cookie with the moistness of a truffle to create an irresistible treat. The chocolate pretzel flavor (my favorite) cuts the sweetness of the chocolate with a salty zing of pretzel. The CPG line is also unabashedly indulgent. A single truffle crumb cake represents more than a quarter of the doctor-recommended daily sugar limit—and it comes in a pack of two.
Though Tosi is quiet on where she’s taking the line next, Cole, who oversaw Cinnabon’s entry into supermarkets, says there are near-unlimited opportunities for new product lines. Cinnabon, which originally entered grocery stores selling frozen buns, now sells across multiple categories, including ice cream and creamers. The difference with Milk Bar is that it is in control of the entire product. “Cinnabon did more licensing deals,” Cole notes. “This begins and ends with Milk Bar.”
When Milk Bar was raising its Series B round in 2017, Banthiya says, potential investors would often ask if there was a possibility of creating a healthier line. “I said to them, there’s wellness on one side, and indulgence on the other, and we don’t sit in the middle of them. Every product we make will be indulgent, we are not diluting our brand.”
While it remains to be seen just how indulgent American shoppers are willing to be when it comes to their grocery store desserts, one thing is for certain: As it rolls out new products, the core of the Milk Bar brand—the sugar, the glitter, the sprinkles, and the dairy—is still very much intact.