Milk Bar: How Building a Dessert Empire Comes With Challenges

Milk Bar, a dessert concept by renowned chef Christina Tosi, is expanding rapidly across the country.

The dessert-focused restaurant recently held a new-employee orientation in Brooklyn, NY and instead of having other leaders on her team lead the meeting, Tosi surprised the new staff members by running the orientation.

Tosi, who started the chain 10 years ago, doesn't want employees to ever lose sight of what the brand stands for.

Dessert! Baked goods! Me! You! We are the conduit for it all. Milk Bar is Magic. Milk Bar is a movement," reads the last few lines of the brand's mission statement that Tosi read at the orientation.

Tosi has built a brand that is still up-and-coming and has quickly garnered a loyal following. The 16th store opened in the Boston suburb Cambridge in the beginning of the month. The number of employees has spiked by 70 percent in the last year and most of the management team is made up of women.

But with expansion, comes a unique set of challenges. While Tosi doesn't want the brand to lose its small-shop charm, she wants to bring Milk Bar's treats to the masses.

“Growing fast feels like selling out, but I realized if we controlled the growth it could be really cool, too,” said Tosi to "The New York Times” (NYT.)

Tosi takes a hands-on approach when it comes to the stores.

"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," writes the "NYT."

But she can't be everywhere and that's where she is going to have to rely on Milk Bar teams across the country that she can trust.

Even though she has big plans for the growth of the brand, she still doesn't want Milk Bar to be like Starbucks on every corner.

“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,’” said Tosi to the "NYT."

The Milk Bar team plans to focus on cities where the concept already has a following but also has its sights set on retail. Will Milk Bar desserts be on the shelves of grocery stores in the not so distant future? Tosi hopes so.

Milk Bar is also making a push to sell more products on its soon to be enhanced e-commerce platform.

Read more about how Tosi has built a dessert empire at the "NYT" now.

Speaking of dessert, check out the video below featuring some of the wildly popular desserts at Miami's Michael's Genuine. The executive pastry chef explains why some of the desserts have become fan-favorites and also gives some tips for aspiring pastry chefs.

Give Customers What They Want With These Clean-Label Dessert Recipes

Give Customers What They Want With These Clean-Label Dessert Recipes

Welcome to Foodable’s Smart Kitchen where chefs share innovative ideas around the challenges you work with every day. In this episode, Agnes and Chef Adrianne are cleaning up your customers' favorite desserts.

Customers are demanding clean ingredients and transparency in everything they eat from entrees to indulgent desserts. Many concepts are taking, cheesecake, a classic customer favorite, and adding fruit flavors to take the traditional plate to the next level. But while apple and cheesecake are a winning pair, ensuring consistent quality and flavor can be a strife for multi-unit operators. In this episode, see how Chef Adrianne makes adding fresh and clean fruit flavors to your dessert menu easy and cost-efficient.

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To Dessert or Not to Dessert: Sweet Idea or Stale Menu Offering?

The dessert element of dining out is the encore after the applause. The superfluity of a standout meal is made more memorable with that last kiss goodnight. Attention to the detail of a good cup of coffee and a striking dessert plate presentation can set a dining experience just over the top. But what are the challenges that come with it?

Dessert can mean a noticeable bump to a check average. It also slows down the dining room and requires talent lacking in today’s murky and shallow pond of skilled labor. For upscale casual, does it make a lasting impression or does it stifle table turns?

The push for healthier options. Menu engineering is in line with trends, as the climax to a meal has pulled a U-turn with shareable and small plates jumping up and down for attention rather than the sugary finish. With a nod to healthier dining preferences, the push for vegetable-rich, small plates make their way around the table; tempura, grilled, sous vide, roasted and pickled are snuffing the flame out from under the crème brûlée.

The bitter cost of something sweet. A bit in the Washingtonian makes the case for dessert being 86’d, decreeing that restaurants don’t want you to order dessert. True? While gorgeous dishes, especially dessert, can stupefy the onlooker, the ingredients can push food cost percentage over the tipping point. Add the skilled labor to pull off the anticipated shock and awe pastry production, and desserts become less sweet. An extra cocktail that takes seconds to build using ingredients that don’t go bad and require the existing skill of a bartender nudges dessert out as the last course for many operators.

For destination locations, dessert sales can mean 8 percent or more of gross sales. For casual grabs, that number can wither to a scant 1 or 2 percent of sales. With shrink — eating the good stuff, dropping a piece or two, spoilage — the cost to get caramelized banana bread pudding to the customer all but dashes any hope of profitability.  

Good desserts require quality purchasing. There are plenty of proper suppliers that can service the need. Frozen, pre-sliced or portioned desserts are not endangered breeds. So, that isn’t so much the concern. Really, really good desserts mean, at least, one skilled set of hands that can manage consistent production of appealing products that will generate enough money to cover the labor and justify an extra thirty minutes squatting of prime table real estate. That’s a tenuous predicament.

“I prefer to make them,” says Chef Adrian Cruz of Texas’s Orchard Lounge. “Desserts are profitable. I prefer doing the desserts rather than hiring a pastry chef. It's more of me learning to execute that stage.”

The move away from dessert isn’t reserved for fine dining. Border Cafe is one of many formula, chain operations that have ditched the last course. Rather, the chain’s business model, like a growing number of upscale casual restaurants, calls for omitting dessert in exchange for pushing another table turn.

Take into account storage and production space necessary for getting the butter-poached apple and pear tartine with maple ice cream to the table for a gentle $8 or $9, and it quickly becomes apparent that the juice simply isn’t worth the squeeze. Great gelaterias, cupcakes stands, and craft bakeries also nibble into the audience that may skip a sweet something in your place but opt for a walk to the dessert place up the street. Now the labor is lost, too.

But the charm of dessert can’t be summarily dismissed. Does a quality finish trump the few percentage points it takes to deliver a great tiramisu? Maybe bringing the curtain down on a meal has an inherent cost that, like linens, simply is part of doing business to ensure a standout meal worth a return visit.

So, before the last line is written on tonight’s dinner, the experience may fall a few words short of an epic tale. The dessert haves and have-nots are writing a story that will most certainly tell differing tales. Does the last course have to go away? No. Does it need to be reconsidered? It definitely isn’t an automatic.

Which Desserts Are Taking The Lead – Where, What, And How

Which Desserts Are Taking The Lead – Where, What, And How

By Suzy Badaracco, Foodable Industry Expert

Desserts return to the spotlight, as we move into recovery and desserts lend an insight to consumer mood and comfort level.  Desserts are back, but riding the line between historical/ regional to global classics and more experimental.  

Dessert Preparation

Before we can delve into the fabulous flavors and inspirations of desserts–we must look at their design. Preparation affects what foods can be offered and what will accompany them on the plate. An interesting thing about cooking techniques right now is not what the list includes, but what it leaves out - which is equally important.  Specific cooking techniques now included speed scratch, table-side prep, and deconstruction.  In fact, the preparations are becoming more diverse and complex, indicating further movement towards recovery.  The underlying theme is “bold on the palate.” Foods and flavors come down to which have staying power and which had so many voices screaming their names that they will get some attention this year.

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