Cereal milk soft serve ice cream. Birthday cake truffles. Crack pie. Compost cookies.
These are just some of the amazing, iconic pastries that are available at Milk Bar. Milk Bar is an award-winning bakery with locations across New York, Washington DC, Toronto, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Boston. Founded by James Beard award-winning celebrity chef Christina Tosi in 2008, Milk Bar originally first opened in New York City, where it was initially run as an extension within David Chang’s Momofuku Restaurant Group. However, it has since spun off to become a force of nature in its own right in the restaurant world.
Driven by the energetic, enthusiastic and filled-with-life personality of its leader Tosi, Milk Bar found incredible success. Long waiting times outside retail locations and billions of media impressions drove strong growth at the stores and led to Milk Bar having an aided brand awareness of 21% in the US, higher than even some of the other big names in the restaurant or food industry, such as sweetgreen at 19% and Tate’s Bakeshop at 20%. Outside of just selling finished dessert, Milk Bar also sold kits for their fans to make these iconic desserts at home and also hosted classes and other activities at their locations – both encouraged additional engagement with the brand and helped contribute to the media halo that surrounded Milk Bar.
However, when the coronavirus hit and the pandemic caused shutdowns and quarantines in all its retail locations – particularly in New York City, where Milk Bar was founded but had also concentrated much of its physical retail presence – the Milk Bar operating model was put at risk. Prior to the pandemic, Milk Bar saw 75% of its revenue come from its physical stores and only 25% come from online. With such shutdowns in place, Milk Bar was at risk of losing a majority of its revenue and needed to quickly pivot.
And pivot they did.
Tosi has been at the forefront of a retail-heavy business pivoting to a more digital operating model to survive and innovate during this crisis.
One of the first moves that she did was to move her “media halo” creating content entirely online. The classes and activities that previously were hosted at the retail locations were replicated in an online format through video tutorials. For one, Tosi has been very active on her YouTube account, creating new videos and recipes but also showcasing how to create some of her iconic desserts.
Additionally, daily at 2pm, Tosi has been hosting a livestream baking class through her personal Instagram account. She called this Instagram live cooking show, “Baking Club” and these videos were described as having an “infectious energy” while being “lively and joyous”.
She made these shows for her 433K Instagram fans – and the fans of Milk Bar by extension – to really engage with. She lets her fans know what ingredients they will need a day ahead of time, tries to use only ingredients that people usually have at home, and lets them follow step-by-step. She created and curated her content to be focused on creating an easy and albeit free experience for these customers. In the world of quarantine, where everyone was stuck at home needing activities to do, she created an easy and free outlet for them to engage with a celebrity to actually build and create a little piece of joy in their own kitchens.
While she may have said that her motivation for creating such content was to share a little bit of joy in the world, this move to focus more on digital content has been incredibly smart on her end. Specifically, it helped to generate a strong marketing push especially in a time when everyone has had ample amounts of time to be on social media.
By creating a buzz on all this new content that she was delivering – a buzz that was only further enhanced by the media outlets who all picked up this story and recirculated her baking show details across numerous articles – she brought her brand (and Milk Bar’s by association) to the top of people’s minds as something that could bring you joy in such a terrible time. And this sentiment resounded in people’s minds just in time for her wholesale launch halfway through the quarantine (Whole Foods in early April 2020 and Amazon in May 2020).
She also shows her resilience by not letting her business be run by fear. During this time, many other businesses were pulling ad space online because they expected a lower level of consumption from people. However, Tosi recognized that people were still wanting to spend on a little bit of joy in their life – people were still celebrating birthdays and needing birthday cake even if it was just at home by themselves. She ended up being able to spend on digital marketing online to acquire customers at lower rates. She went into a white space that others were too scared to go into and ended up creating huge demand for their delivery business that was being run out of their repurposed retail locations. Her initial numbers have indicated that her ecommerce is performing 8x its initial size and I believe she was successful in this endeavor because she invested in what she’s good at (the marketing and the cooking) and partnered up with other businesses for the other side of the coin (worked with DoorDash, Uber Eats, Caviar and Postmates for delivery and their technology platforms).
Milk Bar has the potential to see continued success even after the pandemic. Tosi has shown through her leadership that you need nimbleness and resilience, but most importantly, you should focus on what really differentiates your business to the customers – and partner with others on items that are less differentiated and not your core strength. Tosi’s strength is in her authenticity: she is unique in her storytelling and ability to share joy. You want to cheer for her because she dedicates so much of her life to being there for people (including donating much of her product to hospital workers during this time). Through her ability to tell this story successfully in the digital setting, she has successfully, from a business standpoint, braved this pandemic.