Last year, pastry chef Christina Tosi told Eater’s Start to Sale podcast that she wanted to continue building her Milk Bar empire. She specified, “We don’t want to be Starbucks, we don’t want a Milk Bar in every block. That’s the antithesis of the spirit that you should feel when you eat a compost cookie,” and expressed that it would be “cool” to sell to a big food company: “[They] would take the Milk Bar business and make it into something incredible that would inspire me 25 years ago in the grocery store in Virginia in incredible, amazing ways.” Now, Tosi is one step closer to that dream.
Fortune reports that Tosi secured Series B funding from Sonoma Brands, the company behind Dang coconut chips, Krave jerky, and other quirky snacks, in what Sonoma says is one of its largest investments. The goal is to expand Milk Bar products into grocery stores nationally. “Our community is so much bigger than just where we have stores,” Tosi told Fortune. “It’s about reaching more people in more meaningful ways.” Sonoma founder Jon Sebastiani said Milk Bar could be the “next Oreo,” and funding could mean you see a Compost Cookie or a Milk Bar Pie (new name and all) at Publix sometime soon. The question is, is it too late?
Tosi found fame by running David Chang’s pastry program at Momofuku in 2005, launching childhood-influenced dessert trends like cereal milk soft serve and “birthday cake” as its own flavor. In 2008, she opened Milk Bar, serving more idiosyncratic snacks like the Compost Cookie — stuffed with butterscotch, chocolate, pretzel bits and potato chips — and “naked” cakes. Her brand of impeccably made but still fun and unfussy dessert catapulted her into her own celebrity chef status, judging MasterChef seasons, publishing three cookbooks, and starring in an episode of Chef’s Table: Pastry. Her Milk Bar (which is partially owned by but run independently from Momofuku) now has 16 locations, and she’s already marketed cookie mix at Target and a SoulFuel cookie at SoulCycle.
All niche trends eventually seep into the mainstream. Even if you’re not buying or baking Tosi’s goods directly from her, Tosi’s influence can be seen at every bakery and blog that now uses her most obvious tricks, whether it’s not putting icing on the outside of your layer cake, or powders that make your milk taste more like cereal. Tosi admitted this two years ago to Mary HK Choi, describing a salted caramel cookie she had recently eaten. “It makes me laugh because I’m like, I did that,” she said. “Like, no one put pretzels in cookies. Like, holy shit, nine years ago this was not a real thing in the world.” The fact that Oreo has a birthday cake flavor now, and everyone knows to sprinkle their brownies with sea salt before baking, shows how far Tosi’s influence has already gone.
Milk Bar COO Sujean Lee told Eater that scaling Milk Bar is a “conscious evolution,” which is why she perhaps didn’t capitalize on her brand at the peak of the “Crack Pie” craze. But though versions of her desserts can be found on menus and blogs, you can’t buy a potato chip-butterscotch cookie from Chips Ahoy. There’s still room in the cookie aisle. Right now, the Compost Cookie and Milk Bar pie are, a decade later, desserts tourists make special trips to try. Her treats, however dissipated and ripped-off, are still special, especially to dessert and food enthusiasts who know of Tosi’s creations, but haven’t gotten to try them because they don’t live near a Milk Bar store or bake themselves.
What remains to be seen is whether or not Milk Bar products will taste as good when bought from the grocery store, and if not, how they’ll maintain the business.