The great artist Georgia O’Keefe said, “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant — there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing.”
I like this quote because it opens up the definition of greatness to mean something so much more than “success” or “achievement.” The act of putting something into the world and being willing to adapt and evolve is simply what matters at the end of the day.
My guest on this episode of School of Greatness is a success by any definition. But what I like about her most is that she didn’t try to have everything figured out when she launched her business. When Christina Tosi launched Milk Bar in 2008, she didn’t even have a menu ready for their first guests.
“I remember that morning of opening day — it was 6:00 AM, and we were two hours away from opening. I’m looking around, and we don’t have a menu. I knew what we were serving, and it was loaded to the point of [a] sales system … but I realized when you walked in, you couldn’t actually see a physical menu. So we took off the legs of the stainless steel prep table and grabbed the dry erase marker. I have terrible handwriting at best.” – Christina Tosi
Christina didn’t let perfectionism get in the way of action. Today, Milk Bar has 17 locations and a thriving delivery business.
So many of us are crippled by making a decision about how to launch their business or grow their business or start a new project. This analysis/paralysis holds you back — nothing new is ever going to be perfect from day one. The quicker you start, the sooner you learn and can adjust. That’s something I love about Christina: She was willing to try, innovate, and be creative. As her creativity grew, so did her business. But first, let’s go back to the beginning.
Christina Tosi is a chef, author, and television personality. Christina is the recipient of several awards and was featured on a list of “Most Innovative Women in Food and Drink” by Food and Wine Magazine in 2014. She was featured in Netflix’s Chef’s Table Pastry season as the founder and owner of Milk Bar, the sister bakery to the Momofuku restaurant group.
When Chef’s Table approached her, Christina was surprised they wanted to hear her story. She wasn’t running your typical fine-dining restaurant.
“When they first approached us, I thought, ‘Maybe I read the wrong article [about the show].’ I thought they had the wrong impression [of my business]. The spirit of what we do is very democratic. We make cookies that are accessible to everyone. It’s a $2 cookie. You don’t have to make a reservation. It does take a team to put together [our cookies], but we’re doing it in this really big, almost Willy Wonka-type factory — the spirit is so different.” – Christina Tosi
Before all the press and attention, Christina worked in those fancy, fine-dining establishments you typically see on Chef’s Table. She moved to New York to be a pastry chef and worked her way up at Bouley before joining the team at David Chang’s Momofuku. Despite working at some of the top-rated restaurants in the world, she was feeling unfulfilled in her career.
“I was finding fulfillment in the pursuit of the craft, but I wasn’t finding fulfillment in where I needed to be as a pastry chef, as a top dog. I was resonating with the part of the creation but not the entirety of the creation. … I took a look at myself in the mirror, and I was realized ‘I really want to go home and make cookies at the end of the day.’” – Christina Tosi
Christina started to ask herself, “What’s it all for?” Why was she pursuing success as a pastry chef when it didn’t truly align with her internal definition of greatness? This was the spark that led to her “a-ha moment” — when she realized that she needed to make her unknown, known.
It took meeting David Chang for Christina to start to recognize the true potential of what she could do with her passion for baking. If you’re unfamiliar with David Chang, he’s a restauranteur who’s on a mission to democratize savory food. On shows like Ugly Delicious, David demonstrates how food can bring people together in beautiful ways.
“I saw what [David Chang] was doing through savory food, and I thought, ‘There’s a path for me.’ I started working for him at Momofuku, helping him run operations. I would bake cookies at night and bring them in. He knew that I had a pastry background, and so one day he said, ‘This is pretty much ridiculous, it’s clear what you need to be doing. Go and do it.’ That gave me that little push to open Milk Bar.” – Christina Tosi
Christina said when they opened Milk Bar’s first location next to Momofuku, they were anything but ready. She didn’t expect that there would be a line out the door on their first day.
“We took off sprinting … and every day we figured it out for good and for bad. We made so many mistakes, and the beauty of the mistakes was that we didn’t have the opportunity for the mistakes to sit around. We make a mistake and learn [from] it.” – Christina Tosi
Christina attributes part of her success to following her intuition. She’s strong in her conviction that there’s no one right path for anyone — the decisions you make may lead you down a curvy path, one with wide lanes, or one that turns out to be a high-speed highway. But, make sure you show up to whatever path you’re on each day and learn from it.
Christina has been growing Milk Bar for the last 11 years. I had to ask — what’s next? What is she dreaming about, and what is her process for making the unknown known?
“I’m very introspective. I’m actually an introvert, so I spend a lot of my recharge time alone. Baking alone, going on a run alone. I leave my apartment in the morning, and I think, “Okay, you have to let [being an introvert] go and you have to go in and be a person for people.’ But a lot of that dream-setting, measuring, and swimming around in my own head happens when I’m alone and on my own — late at night or early in the morning.” – Christina Torsi
I’m similar in that I run through ideas in my head a lot on my own before sharing them with the world. Sometimes it helps to listen to music. Other times, I’ll listen to interviews or meditate. Christina meditates too — probably better than I do — and she also goes on long runs to get away from distractions.
“I take an insane amount of empowerment in running long distances. There’s something about this sense of telling myself and [pushing myself to run] forever. Its mind over matter and also this [feeling that] you can do anything. You have to just start taking that first step, second step. Running for me is not hard to do, once I’ve taken the first three steps, I [feel like I can take] a million steps. It’s that mentality of empowerment — once you start, you’ll figure everything else out. You don’t have to have all the answers.” – Christina Tosi
I’m not a distance guy by any means, but I love the philosophy Christina has towards running. It’s true — that the first step or second step is the hardest one. It’s also a great metaphor for creating space to reflect, dream, and step (literally) into your power. Achieving greatness doesn’t happen overnight — it’s a process that is messy, imperfect, and different for everyone. But taking that first step on the path to greatness is crucial.
It’s clear to me that Christina is a driven individual. She’s not afraid to pursue her big goals and own her creativity.
“I do what I do for me. I do what I do because it’s what makes sense in my head. I have no clue whether it will resonate with people. …I didn’t anticipate that [Milk Bar] would blow up our universe in the most beautiful way — that it [would affect] people in ways that had nothing to do with food.” – Christina Tosi
As Milk Bar and her notoriety have grown, Christina says she feels like the stakes are higher than ever. When you’re just starting out, it’s easy to make mistakes — people expect it. It’s when you’re running an established business, and people are counting on you, that the pressure is really on.
One piece of real advice that Christina would go back and give her younger self is to be open to the advice of others.
“I think when people ask, ‘What’s your biggest mistake? Would you ever change anything?’ [My answer is] ‘no,’ but I would love to be able to go back into my 20s and [tell] myself, ‘What you’re doing is great and keep going, but let the conflict in a little bit more and let the criticism in a little bit more because you are so much better off when you do.’” – Christina Tosi
There’s a fine balance between having faith in yourself and your creative vision, while also being open to accepting help from others. When you can open part of your dream and vision to let other people in, they can help you grow and achieve big things. No one knows everything — being humble can give you the tools you need to succeed. Stay true to your creativity, but don’t be afraid to be open to advise, too.
One of my favorite questions to ask guests is, “On the final day of your life, you get to write down three truths — three lessons that you’ve learned from your time on this Earth. What are your three truths?” I think this question can really reveal what someone has learned along their journey, and where they’ve prioritized their energy. I love this particular truth of Christina’s:
“I showed up, I meant it, and I made it better. That is my measure of a day. … The thing I try to do regularly is when I check in with myself before I go to bed, and I’m like looking to my own internal voice, I always ask, ‘Did you show up? Did you mean it?’ It’s applicable that everything big and small, especially the small.” – Christina Tosi
Christina shows up big time for her customers and staff — something I really admire is that she’s recently set up a 401k for all of her employees. That’s right: All 330+ people who work at Milk Bar will earn retirement benefits. Christina calls Milk Bar a labor of love, but it’s clear that she appreciates and values the commitment of her staff. She’s shown up for her team big time, in addition to making the world that much sweeter.
This interview was so full of inspiration — and it will make you crave cookies! It was so cool to hear more about Milk Bar’s operations and Christina’s creative process. Of course, no interview would be complete without my favorite question: “How do you define greatness?”
“I think my definition of greatness is being able to sit with myself and smile. Be happy to find happiness in just being alone because I’m an introvert.” – Christina Tosi
If this episode hit you right in the sweet tooth, you can order online from Milk Bar for delivery across the U.S. They have locations in New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Toronto, Boston, and Las Vegas. Follow Milk Bar on Instagram for recipes and new menu items, and follow Christina’s Instagram, @christinatosi to see what she dreams up next. She also has a bi-weekly newsletter you can sign up for on her website.
I want to acknowledge Christina for her creativity, curiosity, and for showing up — pursuing your big dreams is never easy. Everyone told her it was crazy to make cookies for a living, but she did it anyway and inspired so many people along the way. No matter what the challenges were, she showed up as a rainbow for so many people through the last 11 years of Milk Bar.
Friends, join me on Episode 778 to learn about putting your idea out there and taking the first steps to greatness with Christina Tosi! It’ll change your life!
Lewis: This is episode number 778 with Christina Tosi. Welcome to the school of greatness my name is Lewis Howes, a former pro-athlete turned lifestyle entrepreneur and each week we bring you an inspiring person or message to help you discover how to unlock your inner greatness. Thanks for spending some time with me today now let the class begin.
Georgia O’keefe said “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing.” Welcome to this episode I am super pumped we’ve got Christina Tosi in the house.
If you are a fan of MasterChef then you’re gonna love this episode. I watched an episode of MasterChef and was blown away by the story about Christina Tosi, she is the founder and owner of milk bar which is the sister bakery to momofuku restaurant group, and with a number of locations all around North America it’s been blowing up and her story is incredible.
In this interview we talked about how her story became a metaphor for people who are passionate about life and what it takes to get your dream going. Also the power of making mistakes and figuring out answers as you go when you start a business and not just having it all figured out right from the start. How to scale a business and what it takes to go from one store to several around the country from starting out with minimal funding to raising more money and beyond, also the mindset of an introverted entrepreneur and how that compares to an extrovert. This is a powerful one make sure to share this with your friends’ lewishowes.com/778. Make sure to tag Christina Tosi on Instagram let her know what you enjoyed about this, and I’m telling you guys you will be addicted to all the goodies at milk bar. So make sure to check out milk bar because it is unbelievable what they make.
Big thank you to our sponsor ziprecruiter. Now, hiring is challenging I’ve been there in my business many times but there’s one place you can go where hiring is simple, fast, and smart and it’s a place where growing businesses connect to qualified candidates and that place is ziprecruiter.com/greatness. Now, ziprecruiter sends your job to over 100 of the webs leading job boards, it’s pretty cool. And they don’t stop there as applications start rolling in ziprecruiter analyzes each one and spotlights the top candidates so you never miss a great match. Ziprecruiter is so effective that 80% of employers who post on ziprecruiter get a quality candidate through the site within the first day. Right now our listeners’ school of greatness can try ziprecruiter for free at ziprecruiter.com/greatness. So make sure to get your business growing by going to ziprecruiter.com/greatness. Ziprecruiter the smartest way to hire.
And big thank you to our sponsor today netsuite. It’s the business management software that handles every aspect of your business in an easy to use cloud platform, giving you the visibility and control you need to grow. With netsuite you save time, money, and unneeded headaches by managing sales, finance and accounting, orders and HR instantly right from your desktop or phone. That’s why netsuite is the world’s number 1 cloud business system. And right now netsuite is offering you valuable insights with a free guide ‘7 key strategies to grow your profits’ at netsuite.com/greatness. You can get this free guide that’s netsuite.com/greatness to download your free guide ‘7 key strategies to grow your profits.’ Make sure to get the free guide right now at netsuite.com/greatness.
Once again a big thank you to our sponsors today and if you are looking to turn your passion and pursuing your passion into a powerful business that makes an impact then this is the episode for you with the one the only Christina Tosi.
Welcome everyone back to the school of greatness podcast we have Christina Tosi in the house, good to see you.
Christina: Thank you.
Lewis: I’m all drugged up on milk bars and truffles right now, so excited. I’ve been wanting to learn more about you ever since Higgins told me, Matt Higgins told me that I have to have you on. I was next to you in line at the pop gala last year, I didn’t say hi to you because you were busy and I watched the Netflix special.
Christina: The chef’s table.
Lewis: Unbelievable. First off how amazing are those specials? They just make you love people and love food.
Christina: They’re incredible it’s an incredible process because these people learn everything about you and your background, and it’s fascinating to me. I mean they’re storytellers right? They’re storytellers and they do it through video and they do it through interviews.
Lewis: The music is just like so moving and emotional.
Christina: They know how to just like tap into you, like getting into your brain waves, getting into your heart streams.
Lewis: How long was that process for you?
Christina: It took 14 days.
Lewis: 14 days of filming?
Christina: Yeah, which on some level and you have to imagine they probably did months of research in advance because they came in knowing what they wanted: 1 committing 14 days of your life to something like that is a commitment and it’s also a leap of faith because you’re also like, I mean you’re gonna see, I’m a big believer in when you commit you’re jumping. There’s no like committing a quarter of the way or half of the way. So, it’s like ‘great, welcome to my world. What do you want? What do you need?’ but I also think committing helps make something like that what it is.
Lewis: Even better.
Christina: Yeah, because if they don’t understand you how are you going to tell your story.
Lewis: Now did you know it was going to do pretty well base on like previous chefs that you talked to?
Christina: No, because up until that point chef’s table was about typically fine dining chefs and you’re in their beautiful restaurants, you’re in their beautiful kitchens.
Lewis: You didn’t have a restaurant?
Christina: Didn’t have a restaurant and our kitchens are, you know New York City kitchens for example 11,000 square feet of space. And so I’m thinking like we don’t use tweezers, we mix cookies in mixers that are big enough for you to take a bubble bath. And so when they first even approach us, I was like ‘maybe I read the wrong article’ or I think perhaps you have the wrong impression because you’re not gonna get the story that you typically tell. The spirit of what we do is very democratic, we make cookies that are accessible [?] to everyone. It’s a 2 dollar cookie you don’t have to make a reservation, it does take a team to put together but we’re doing this in this really big large almost Willy Wonka type of factory, and the spirit of this thing is so different. Our stores are open from 7-8am to midnight or 1 am or 2 am, it’s so different. I think that acknowledgement for me was the, they’re gonna stretch and so committing to this meeting them at that stretch.
Lewis: It came out when? Last year?
Lewis: What happened afterwards?
Christina: Well, I had no concept of, it’s kind of interesting you live in your own world, you live in your own head. I do what I do for me, I do what I do because it’s what make sense in my head. I have no clue whether or not it’s, I don’t know I’m sure it will resonate with some people, maybe not others. I didn’t anticipate that it would sort of like blow up our universe in the most beautiful way, I mean that it affected people ways that had nothing to do with food, like food was really the conduit more so than it was the focal point. I think you get into it because food is interesting. It was really interesting our story became metaphor for people that are passionate about life, that are trying to figure out what it means, what it should mean, what it takes to chase down a calling, and that it ended up acting as just like a connective tissue like an open hand. I think also became real like became a think that people went back to be encourage, we’re all just regular normal people, there’s nothing special in me that’s not you or you, it’s about how deep your willing to dig to what it takes. I didn’t just wake up one day.
Lewis: Start making cookies.
Christina: And I think it just kind of ripping back and bringing down all of the barriers and boundaries that keeps people put up in their heads through a really honest simple story of like we make cookies. We do it on our own terms and it took a long time to get to the point to even have access to do that and once we did it, it took us another 10 years to where we are today and being as honest as possible. In that mom always said that honesty is the best policy and it really is.
Lewis: So for those who haven’t seen the special or don’t know what we’re talking about, you have been a chef like 5 star restaurants for many years right? And can you tell the story of brief amount of like what you were doing at the last restaurant? And how milk bar started.
Christina: So, I move to New York to become a pastry chef, I went to culinary school because I thought being loving to make dessert in a professional capacity meant being at the top of your game, and being at the top of your game was being the most expensive fine dining establishment, and I worked my way up and I what I realize in doing that was I love that pursuit of that craft, but when I took a look at myself in the mirror I was like “But I really want to go home and make cookies and the end of the day.”
Christina: I want to feed, I love feeding people and my version of loving to feed people isn’t in the fanciest environment.
Lewis: Like a little thing in.
Christina: Yeah, which is gorgeous and amazing. I obviously have so much respect for it just wasn’t what was in me. And so the last restaurant I was at, I was doing that while also trying to figure out what my next step was because I knew that I couldn’t do that anymore and be true to myself.
Lewis: If you’re finding fulfillment in the work you’re doing necessarily.
Christina: Exactly. I was finding fulfillment in the pursuit of the craft but I wasn’t finding fulfillment in like the truth where I needed to be as a pastry chef, as a top dog. Like I was resonating with the [?] of the creation but not the entirety of the creation.
Lewis: You’re making great money does not really exist when you work in a kitchen, you work really long hours you don’t really make lot of money it is a true labor of love.
Lewis: But you’re working at the best places?
Christina: I was working at the best.
Lewis: Credibility, people looked up to you and respected you like the master of your craft.
Christina: For sure. But I was like what’s it for? Because I still want to come in early and make crazy brownies or cookies for everyone that works in the kitchen, and then I’ll go and do my job. My day job which inevitably when you’re working in a restaurant is typically a night job was, I was getting to a place that I was that I purposely didn’t want when I decided to work into a kitchen. I don’t want to work for a routine for some level that job was, so I needed to get out and figure out my next step was. And my chef at that restaurant introduce me to Dave Chang, who was democratizing savory. He had a very similar path he was in fine dining restaurant and this doesn’t make sense to me, and so he open this like hilariously confusing ramen shop and was just “I’m just gonna cook whatever I want that’s delicious and I’m just gonna open the doors, and if you come and get a stool you can eat for 7 or 9 dollars.” And it became a magnet for people that would make a reservation at this fine dining restaurant, and for some that live around the block that was like ‘I’m here for good food.’ And that made sense to me on so many levels, I saw what he was doing through savory food and I thought like there’s a path for. So, I started working for him at momofuku and helping him run operations. I would bake cookies at night and bring them in and he knew that I had a pastry background and so one day he was like “This is pretty much ridiculous, it’s clear what you need to be doing. Go and do it.” And gave me that little push to open milk bar.
Lewis: So you were working with him doing operations, you weren’t actually cooking?
Christina: Like there were no desserts on his menu. You like saddle up into this noodle bar and you go ‘I’ll have roasted Brussel sprouts’ which is something that exist now but didn’t exist 12- 13 years ago. It was kind of like bunch of cowboys, like a few dude running the kitchen and I knew how to hold and all that. The thought of dessert at that point was like ‘what do you even make for dessert?’ because it’s like a ramen bar but there’s kind of like pseudo Japanese food but also not at all, became a melting pot for food but also you need to get people in and out, you’re only charging on a few bucks you got to get them in and out because you don’t want them to sit and eat dessert.
Lewis: So did you start serving dessert there for customers?
Christina: I did overtime. I started like working backwards and going, I came up with soft-served ice cream, you don’t want people to sit on their chairs for a long time.
Lewis: Time to go.
Christina: Something that is going to be a beautiful liquid puddle, if they don’t eat it quickly right? And beyond that I was like this tiny little space there’s no room in the kitchen for a pastry team, so how do you reverse engineer that? Well, I can make this big flavor fall delicious milks if you will, ice cream bases.
Lewis: But it was different than just soft-served, it had like serial milk right?
Christina: Yeah, they are all different kind of crazy flavors because I was also like I don’t want to make vanilla ice cream. Everyone makes vanilla ice cream like I’m not here to be the 2nd or the 3rd than anyone else, I’m here to be the 1st. That was where I started to like put the pieces together of my own voice through food and my perspective on it and I was ready when I open, when Dave was like ‘this is ridiculous just go and do it.’ I mean I was running operations so I was like, dude there’s this spot next door it’s coming up we need to be careful, a competitor could come in. The landlord could make trouble for us and it became clear very quickly that I would take over that spot because it’s best for the momofuku side of the business and check the box like ‘we’ll still be together, we’ll have each other’s back but you’ll go and do this thing.’
Lewis: So you opened it next door, what happens during the first few months?
Christina: We opened the door on November 15 of 2008 and there’s a line out the door immediately, to the point that I have so many things I’m thankful for, one of the things was that I did not have enough time to worry about any of the things that I worry about now. There was no point in me that I was like ‘what if no one comes?’ I worry about that every day. We just opened our 17th store and I’m like ‘what if no one comes? Or what if no one cares? What if like calling something that has you know pretzels and potato chips and chocolate chips and coffee and all of these random in your covered things?’ I don’t have time to worry about any of that. So, we open the doors as we really did open in our truest like most honest form of ourselves because we just had this vision and then in a beautiful and terrible way, we [?] gut check it, it was just gutter.
Lewis: You didn’t have a test crew for people?
Christina: No. And I was like we’re going to open at 8 am and we’re open until 2 am, and there was no point of me that was like ‘you are gonna be at work from like 5 o’clock in the morning until when you’re done cleaning up 3 o’clock in the morning.’ We were like a team of 4 or 5 where it was like ‘maybe we need a few more people if we’re gonna do that 7 days a week.’ And so the doors open and there was a line out the door from the beginning and we figured it out, I mean we took off sprinting and we started climbing and every day we figured it out for good and for bad. We made like so many mistakes and the beauty of the mistakes were that we didn’t have the opportunity for the mistakes to sit around, so we make a mistake and learn it.
Lewis: Fix it really quick.
Christina: I mean I remember that morning of opening day it was probably like 6 am and like ‘okay, we’re 2 hours from opening and I’m looking around and we don’t have a menu.’ Like I knew we were serving and it was loaded to the point of sales system, and we have paper menu but I was like “You walk in and you can’t actually see a physical menu.” So, we took off the legs of the stainless steel prep table and grab the dry race marker, and I have terrible handwriting at best. We didn’t know what to expect but I think in a beautiful way it resonated with people because I think when you buy a cookie you’re buying it something so human, if you ever had a cookie or a cake or a pie you’ve probably had it from someone that’s in your family that cares about you. I think you are just getting this honest team of people that they cared so much about what they did and we’re just figuring it out. So it required a lot of patience from our customers but you also got the most delicious baked mix by hand delivered with so much care thing and people just came back.
Lewis: Just serving love all day. Every time I go to New York there’s always a line.
Christina: So one of the reasons there’s a line is because the reality of doing business in New York City for stores is like rent is expensive, you got to sell a lot of cookie to pay the rent and I mean you’re open 7 days a week, 365 or 362. But for me I really think about our stores in New York and I think in New York you’re there to be a person in the world. Your apartment is small you’re not really cooking at home, maybe on a special occasion but you go home to sleep. You do everything else to be out in the world. So that store for me was really special because it’s just a window on the street, it was like we can try and jam people in or that neighborhood is like that. You go to explore and so it felt more of like we have to be a part of the street of New York City.
Lewis: That’s cool
Christina: So you just grab it and you go on your way.
Lewis: That’s amazing. So the first store you were making the cookies and cakes in the store? But now you have this huge warehouse where you have bathtubs of truffle bowl of butters or whatever it is you have in there that you’re mixing all day from the Netflix series. How did you learn how to scale it? And when did you realize that you can’t do this in individual stores anymore it all has to be in one place?
Christina: I like to think about my life especially when people go like “Okay, but how do I get to where you are?” Like you have to follow your intuition and you have to make sure that every decision you make, it doesn’t have to be on one straight path it can be a very curvy path, it can be really wide lanes but you have to make sure you show up to whatever that path is every day and mean it. So when I think about answering that question ‘will every single day lead up to that?’ Trained me for that decision and learning how to do it. So, when I first decided to work in kitchens I would work in like kind of some level in any kitchen that was compelling to me and I got a job really early on before I moved to New York, someone convince someone that I was a great baker. And someone gave me a job running this huge bakery on an island off the coast of New Hampshire. But I have to cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner for 800 people every day and I showed up and in the spirit of like you have to rise to the occasion.
Lewis: You used to claw one not at scale.
Christina: Yeah, the one that sits on your kitchen counter but it’s like great. You got to just lean into it and I was like ‘great just give me the quick 1, 2, 3 how do you life the bowl up?’ and I figured out how to do it. Went into New York went into all these fine dining and never seen a mixer like that again, but in my mind was like ‘okay, I know how to feed the masses.’ So when we open the milk bar there was a line at the door and I was like.
Lewis: This little thing over and over.
Christina: Hugely undersize for the demand and I was like “We’re gonna need a bigger bowl.” And it was a lot easier to figure out what that bigger bowl looked like because I just started going to my experience and memory of okay, what does this mean? One day at a time, one step at a time. One huge mixing bowl, instead of buying little packs of butter we buy 30 pound case of butter and instead of buying a 30 pound case of butter we buy you know like 3,000 pound brick of butter and you just make it happen.
Lewis: 3,000 brick.
Christina: It comes like a pallet and I’m not joking.
Lewis: It’s not like a bunch of little bar it’s one big thing? They make a big brick?
Christina: Well how do you think they make the little sticks?
Lewis: How much does a 3,000 pound of brick cost? It’s crazy. How many cookies can that make?
Christina: Hundreds of thousands of cookies. But that’s also when you start to go, at some point as you grow a business you have to go ‘How do I work smarter not harder?’ and you just have to equip yourself. I think for me one of the biggest like mental realization was people do it every day, like you’re not necessarily any better or worse equip than someone else. Whether the toilet is clog or you need to move a light switch or the delivery van breaks down, like these are people doing applicable things that they’ve learned in the world and not like empowerment of equipping yourself with as many skills as necessary to solve your problems is really important. And for me those are like the really fun parts. 1 how to you scale up the cookies to go from this to that is trial and error, trying to throw as much as your learnings possible against it and then learning along the way. So when we scale up we need to always increase salt by 15% or flour needs to, you have to be careful with it. A bigger mixer so you’re gonna develop glutton because it takes more manpower, there’s more friction that’s working the dough and cookie dough, you want to mix as little as possible so they’re tender and fudgy. But it is not being afraid to acknowledge and solve with it.
So yeah we have this tiny little store 750 square feet. In New York we have an 11,000 square feet kitchen in D.C it’s about 4,000 square feet. Here in L.A it’s 3,000 square feet.
Lewis: How many stores in L.A?
Christina: Just one just our flagship.
Lewis: 3,000 square feet for store? Are you gonna expand it more then?
Christina: I don’t know. There’s a shop from a corner of my front door I can think. It’s the tricky part of knowing too much at this point.
Lewis: What do you mean knowing too much?
Christina: Like now opening a store is different than opening that first store. There’s so much more on the line, I mean you got to know this right? In your career you work you work and then once you start to actually achieved there’s more people counting on you, there’s more to lose and consider.
Lewis: Money involved and investors now.
Christina: Visibility all these things and your single decision is something that is responsible for so many other things. Aside from that it’s like why do people love it? If it were in every corner does it feel special? You almost worry about breaking it as much as you worry about feeding it and supporting it and growing it. And so when that happens like get out of the room go for a run, whatever it is because now you’re treating it in a way that so precious and that’s also not what it is. But it is like how do we inspire, the big question is how do we inspire celebration? How do we remind people show people be a part of people’s lives in the big and littles ways, especially the little ways for me. The little things that you don’t think about like I was on time at work today, whatever it was right. I like the bigger little things and being a part of that texture and people’s lives and what does that looks like. For me it’s not about store count, it’s not about measuring milk bar success in any way other than trying to figure out how to measure that really human connections which are basically possible to measure, but for me that’s why I do it, that’s what makes it worth it, and that’s kind of like what I’m protecting. I don’t want 100, 200 stores if it means if we do it we have to do it in way that still maintains that philosophy that isn’t just about like we’re opening it because we can open it.
Lewis: You don’t want to lose the magic. So what’s the vision then? 17 stores, what do you call them?
Christina: Milk bars. I mean every store is different, which is part of the formula like we don’t stamp them out. We have a road map but it’s really important that each one of them is [?]. That it’s a reflection of people that are a part of it and I don’t mean on the inside, I do mean on the on the inside but I also mean we wouldn’t be a part of your life. So if you go to a store your part of that what making is or what it is.
Lewis: What’s the vision then moving forward? You’ve been doing 11 years almost? What’s the next?
Christina: For me milk bar in my most grand vision and I’ve had to go back to like dreamscape because every time I get close to a dream you got to set the bar a little bit further. So my current bar is to make milk bar a thing that would, the 10 year old version of myself growing up in the suburbs of Ohio or Virginia that milk bars reach and presents is there to inspire the 10 year old that is like that loves cookies and loves doing things to make people feel like supported and a part of something that loves walking up and down isles of a grocery store. That loves like digging into the covers making total mess, that milk to make milk bar into a thing that a 10 year old that just has the most basic normal access that anyone in this country might have in that suburban setting. That empowers that person to learn the rules and have a little break a little bit. A big one that I also feel like in my head it makes perfect sense and it’s not out of reach.
Lewis: How do you continue to reinvent the dream as you continue to get closer to it? What’s the process for dreaming beyond the dream?
Christina: I’m very introspective. I’m actually an introvert so I spend a lot of time, my like recharge time is spend alone.
Lewis: Baking alone.
Christina: Baking alone, going on a run alone. So a lot of it is I leave my house in the morning, like my apartment in the morning and I’m like “Okay, you have to let that go and you have to go in and be a person for people.” But a lot of that like dream setting and measuring and swimming around in my own head happens when I’m alone and on my own. Which is usually late at night or early in the morning, and I gut check I’m a very big. I talked about like November 15th 2008 I had no time to gut check it was just guttural, I do all of my editing whether it’s editing recipe or editing a plan for the business or editing that like big dream and it happens when I’m on my own and I run things through my mind.
Lewis: Crazy whenever I am running things by myself as well I get the best ideas, I get myself space on what’s working or what’s not working and start to redream as well.
Christina: Yeah, and it’s not like a to-do list thing. So tonight when you’re running we go through our head right.
Lewis: Dream bigger.
Christina: It’s almost like letting yourself be instead of just it’s like me vs doing. So interesting running is big for you in that space huh?
Lewis: It allows me to clear everything in my mind. You know sometimes I listen to music sometimes I listen to interview or sometimes I do nothing and all three times I get ideas and I start to reevaluate what’s happening in my life, good and bad or neutral.
Christina: It’s a meditative space. Do you meditate on the regular?
Lewis: Yeah. I mean I like to say that I’m very consistent but I’m missing some days here and there but I try to do 13 to 15 minutes every morning.
Christina: But missing is also like the humanity of it.
Lewis: I’m not perfect, I’m not gonna do the same routine every single day. But the work out is the most meditative thing I can do. You process any negative energy or any toxic energy or anything just kind of gets it out.
Christina: I like that. It’s true it’s that for me and also this, I think like for me I take an insane amount of empowerment in running long distances because there’s something about like once I get emotion this sense of telling myself of having the relationship of myself, like you can go forever. Its mind over matter and also this you can do anything, you can do anything you have to just start taking that first step, the second step. Running for me is not hard to do but once I’ve taken the first 3 steps it could’ve been my million step, it’s that like mentality of empowerment of like once you start you’ll figure everything else out, you don’t have to have all the answers.
Lewis: For me I’m not a distance guy, I’ll run maybe 4 or 5 miles max.
Christina: That’s like really long amount for most people.
Lewis: 3 miles is like. I’m more of a sprinter or interval sprinter. So if I do a 3 or 4 mile run the first 2 minutes is easy. It’s like right after I hit mile 1 or 1.5 it starts to hurt and then like okay I can either stop here or I can continue to push through it. And when I push through the pain and adversity and I get on the other side, it’s like I feel like I can run forever. Forever for me is like another 2 miles, but I feel like I can run farther than I use to running which is 4 or 5 miles, and I hit that zone as well where it doesn’t hurt anymore.
Christina: It’s almost like you’ve learn every time new to quiet the voice in your head. But whether you’re doing like sprints intervals or whatever it is I feel like it’s the same thing of like ‘we’re not gonna let that voice come like the voice is in my head.’
Lewis: What’s the worst voice that you have and what’s the best voice?
Christina: I think the best voice is the one that just puts a smile in my face. I went for a run yesterday morning and I think everyone on the street right now must think I’m a little lunatic because it’s the quietest voice that just, I’m just smiling like running up a huge a hill just smiling and be at peace. It’s the voice that almost doesn’t happen for us, it’s the voice that just keeps all the other voices quiet. I think the worst voice is the one that is hypercritical, whether it’s like you didn’t meditate today or this or that. And I think the best voice is the one like ‘oh I see you.’ And I think talking about it and acknowledging it is a big part of it, because whether you are talking about working out or talking about building a business or finding a calling and just the pursuit of engaging with it, what do they say showing up with? 80% or 90% of it like learning to showing up is that your strongest and most powerful voice is quieting voice to tell everything else to be quiet.
Lewis: A percentage wise throughout the day, what’s the percentage of the critical voice versus the positive voice would you say?
Christina: Depends on the day. I am at my best when I am, I know my relationship with myself when I’m at my best when I’m in just a little over my head where my drive to be like you got to keep your head up, you got to keep your head above water is like my middle voice that keeps the critical voice quiet. So, I’d say the critical voice comes out most at night and in the morning when I’m quiet and by myself.
Christina: I try to keep it out of the way the rest of the day by going like ‘hey great why don’t you build this bakery and make magnificent things.’ And when I’m focus on that it’ll usually quill everything else especially the voice that you’re like.
Lewis: Because your just focus on taking action and making it happen and figuring out.
Christina: Focus. I have my team I want to serve them and feel motivated, I want to push the bounds so they’re motivating themselves. I have all these other things that I am worried about that are in front of me as oppose to letting.
Lewis: Isn’t that interesting that you see love being an introvert but the times you’re alone you’re the most critical person. Why do you like being alone if you’re critical of yourself?
Christina: I think it’s the time that I get to know myself most. I think when I’m out all the time I don’t have like a stopping point to check in with myself, because I’m just go. And that stopping point to check in with myself is the place where I have the opportunity to feel the most accomplish. I don’t want or need somebody else’s recognition to tell me about me and where I am at and how I am feeling about the job I am doing. It’s the place where I have the opportunity for that when I’m alone but the tricky part is it’s also the place where like the bad voice have the opportunity to sneak into.
Lewis: Do you think you’d be as driven and successful as you are if you weren’t critical those alone times?
Christina: No, because I wouldn’t have my own measure. Like if you don’t have your own measure of what right or wrong is, you want to set up where you are falling short then how do you know? Then you have no measure then good and bad is all the same thing, right and wrong is all the same thing. But it’s also tricky because you have to be a person in the world and you can’t just measure your own feedback for yourself.
One of the big things that I’ve learned over the past 10 years is it’s easy to get defensive when you’re like ‘I’m my own worst enemy so I actually need you to give me feedback.’ And to open yourself up a bit more to start to understand the things you don’t know. You only know what you know you don’t know what you don’t know.
Lewis: Did you say you don’t care about the approval of anyone else?
Christina: That’s not how I measure my own success. I think that approval, winning awards and this and that, I think that those are things that are nice to have. Sometimes I think about my dare the commitments I make in terms of like it’s not just me anymore, like there are people that show up every single day and make a promise and I need to make a promise to me and to milk bar and it’s really important that I am making a promise to them, but also if something bad comes out of a piece of criticism it doesn’t, it also can’t mean that you’re a total failure. You have to find a space for those 2 things to exist. If someone has something positive to say that’s great but that can’t be the only thing, but also if someone has some negative to say there’s truth somewhere in it and that’s an opportunity and we shouldn’t be guards up so much, only barometers of success in measure that we’re not open to that. That’s where you start to really feel like you’re growing and blossoming more, it’s a scary place to be but it’s a good place to be too.
Lewis: What’s the biggest thing you learned about yourself the last 11 years?
Christina: That’s a good one. The biggest thing I learned about myself is that I know what I know and some days it’s a lot and some days it’s the beginning. That I think comes from, you know when you’re in your 20’s you’re feeling great about life you’re feeling great about time and that it’s such and empowering like decade of years and in a really beautiful way it’s so easy to be like feel great and feel big and to very quickly have that turn into like defense or closing yourself off to all of the things you will surely learn in your 30’s or 40’s. I think when people ask like what’s your biggest mistake? Would you ever change anything? It’s like no, but I would love to be able to go back into my 20’s and just taught myself to be like “what you’re doing is great and keep going but let the conflict in a little bit more and let the criticism in a little bit more because you are so much better off when you do.”
Lewis: Really? So you weren’t really getting criticism in?
Christina: I think I was doing like, I’m on my long distance run like I’ve got my armor on and every day is a battle, opening this business and going. I have to have my back first like on an extra level and I think the second you start to actually open yourself up to let other people be a part of that dream and that vision and that business in your life when you let people be with you, you’re so much better for it. And so I was a bit more, I’m a very stubborn person in general but I was incredibly stubborn in my 20’s and stubborn is what I mean, on the tiniest first string is also what drove me to make milk bar for what it is and why milk bar is what it is on many levels. But its opportunity at the same time like if I didn’t have that like no one gets to tell me who I am and what I’m not capable of, I mean in 2008 someone like “How much money in your bank account and you’re gonna open a bakery? That sounds like a bad idea.” I mean my sweet parents were like “My God. We gave you so much opportunities why do you want to go work in kitchens and why this bakery?” I both needed to be really stubborn and close-minded from other people’s opinions to be able to hear myself but at the same time I look back and go “What worked for me back then does not work for me today, and if I had figured it out would it have been holding me back so much?”
Lewis: What are you most proud of that you’ve done?
Christina: My biggest pieces of pride from my past few months is we just started a 401K program at milk bar, which is like when you work in restaurants you give it all, it’s a labor of love. But in a really tricky way people don’t typically, you don’t take care of yourself because you are working crazy long hours on your feet all the time it’s strenuous and scream and all of these things. And there’s typically not a program put in place to take. Your job is to restore these other people and that’s not why you love feeding and nurturing, but who has your back? I think it’s the question that I started asking myself or realizing and that was like, we offer health insurance and maternity and all of these other things but the 401K for me was like what if you came to the doors with milk bar. Like what if when we grew you grew, what if milk bar is a true reflection of people that work in it? And in order to do that you got to come in and make a promise every day but I got to promise to you and I won’t have your back and I think that’s the one thing when you work in the food industry. You don’t really think about the future because you are just so happy in this labor of love and that was for me is the ultimate, it took a long time and it’s not cheap and it is so worth it. And it’s like that part of it is the funniest part of it because looking back 10 years ago I would never, it wouldn’t even occur to me. I thought I was opening this bakery because I love to feed people and be a part of people’s lives and I do, I think the people’s lives that I underestimated I would become obsessed being part of my own teams was the people that helped me bring it to life.
Lewis: How many people are working in milk bar?
Christina: 320 – 330 it grows every day.
Lewis: Amazing, first one started with 4 or 5 of you?
Lewis: 17 locations. So you have people working in the store front and you have people working in the bakeries.
Christina: Yeah in the kitchens we have people that run like the delivery teams driving. Shipping and fulfilment and then we have the other like sticky teams of when we’re at like an Oscar party the stores are still open and so we have so many unsung hero on our team.
Lewis: Like caterers that are going into these events?
Christina: Yeah. They like show up high fiving and they work their butts off.
Lewis: When do you feel the most loved?
Christina: I feel the most love when I receive a care package from my mom. She sends me and I’m like technically a grown up. She sends me a care package it’s usually once a month or once every 2 months, she sees me in obviously a very true form of myself and know me my entire life. She sends me a package I kid you not, a bag of like candy like almost penny candy. She typically sends me baked good, she’ll send me a 9×9 square aluminum of butter cake brownie and she knows that I like everything you know.
Lewis: I love the gooiness.
Christina: It has to be under bake and usually all mush on one side because she doesn’t have like a master shipping warehouse the way that we do. It’s always on a bunch of, she lives in D.C area a bunch of D.C food section which is her way of pursuing me of being like ‘I get it and I support your dream.’ She always writes me a letter and it’s always on some random piece of scrap paper because she’s totally a waste not what lady. And it’s about whatever random things she was doing that day, there’s nothing big about it it’s just the texture of that day and moment in life, and maybe there’s like a baby quilt because we have this tradition in our family. My family they’re all sewers and quilters and they make baby quilts. So anyone that we know that’s having a baby gets a baby quilt that’s made by hand by the women in my family. It’s these lays and blankets of like visibility and acceptance, that’s where I feel the most love because it feels like that I know that I’ve been the same person since the moment I left home, I’ve been the same person. It doesn’t matter to her that she’s sending it to this huge office in New York City now, doesn’t matter to her that she’s sending baked good that’s totally smush on one side to a place that has plenty of baked goods.
Lewis: You feel the most seen by your mom?
Christina: Yeah, and it’s always in a cardboard box that’s been use 6 times. I love it because she’s kind of she also very stubborn where she’s like ‘oh I see you’ and it also for me is the biggest anchor for me in a day to get that.
Lewis: That reminds me of camp when I was growing up I went to camp, I would get care packages and it reminds me of home and feeling love as well.
Christina: Milkbarstore.com that for me is like the other part of milk bar is what we do online that a lot of people know but I think we’re still getting out is, it’s easy from a business standpoint. But for me it’s like the spirit of a care package.
Lewis: Feeling love and seen and home.
Christina: And some people in like a beautiful way like send themselves a cake.
Lewis: These are care packages you can send yourself anything or you have kind of preplan?
Christina: You can send almost anything on our menu, we don’t ship the soft served but we ship pretty much anything else.
Lewis: Do you guys do like scrap paper notes?
Christina: We should totally do quilts, my mom would be like.
Lewis: Every box get like a little candy thing.
Christina: Do you want to be the creative director of milk bar? We’d make a great team.
Lewis: I’m telling you this will go even better I think, if you added like kitkat or whatever it is like every box gets a little bit of candy, every box get a little square but quilt and a little wrap up note like a quote.
Christina: I love this.
Lewis: And it adds a more homie less corporate feeling.
Christina: That’s what I’m talking about right I got you. These humans are here to pack. But yeah like what else goes into the box is the question that hilariously we’re asking ourselves and that’s the fun part of building the business to like bringing that part of being seen in, or sometimes the team is like “Christina we can’t do that” and asking like ‘but why?’
Lewis: You couldn’t do serial milk either.
Christina: There you go. You couldn’t pay off rent for selling 3 dollar cookies but somehow we do it.
Lewis: So how many box of care packages do you ship a day?
Christina: Depends on the holiday season, I mean hundreds of thousands. We did this past holiday season was our biggest one and we, the only way we could make it work even in our big kitchen in New York because we ship some out of L.A kitchen and the rest on the New York City kitchen. We hired these trucks that were refrigerated to literally just drive around and keep the packages cold, until UPS or FedEx came to pick it up.
Lewis: Because you didn’t have enough frozen space.
Christina: This is the coolest thing and I look at that and I go “I wonder if 10 year old Christina got one of those.” But that was like and that’s to keep it funny to make it real, obviously it’s stressful trying to figure it out. But when we take a step back being like, we literally have trucks driving around our kitchens to keep the packages cold, because that’s how many people came out for their holiday care package.
Lewis: That’s cool. I’ve got 3 final questions for you this one is called the 3 truths. So, imagine you’ve accomplished everything you ever dreamed of and every dream you get closer to you have to reinvent a new dream and dream bigger and you achieved everything you want that you can think of. But one day you have to go, you know it could be 100 years from now.
Christina: You have to say goodbye to the world?
Lewis: Yeah. You’ve accomplished everything and for whatever reason all of the message that you put out to the world, everything you put out to the world you got to take it all with you so no one has your message anymore. But you get to write down in a piece of paper this final day 3 things you know to be true about all the lessons you’ve learned that you would share with the world. What would you say are yours?
Christina: I showed up, I meant it and I made it better. That and like really I thought, that is my measure of a day and similar to like, I like to meditate every day I don’t try to do it regularly. The thing I try to do regularly is when I check in with myself before I go to bed and I’m like looking to my own internal voice is like “Did you show up? Did you mean it?” It’s applicable that everything big and small especially the small.
Lewis: I like that. Before I ask the final question how can we support you. Where can we follow you? How can we show up to milk bar?
Christina: You got to come and hang out.
Lewis: It was right across the street in [?].
Christina: milkbarkstore.com is our handle, is our website. All of our social handles are website. My handle is just my first and last name Christina Tosi, you can go to ChristinaTosi.com I have biweekly newsletter that I try to show up, mean it and make it better in the world and kind of like share my own personal pack of random thing of what I enjoy in the moment or I discover in my week or 2. Come and visit us in the stores, for me it’s like come out in the morning or late night and come and see us and show up and we want to connect with you, let us connect with you. So show up not prepared, show up unprepared, show up like ready to take a leap with us.
Lewis: It’s an experience so make sure you guys go and check it out. Tried sample a few things. What are the main cities you guys are in?
Christina: New York, L.A, D.C, Las Vegas with the cosmopolitan and we have a fun little refrigerated cube of a store in Toronto.
Lewis: Any expansion in the Midwest?
Christina: In Boston, we just open a store in Boston I was just there.
Lewis: Are you gonna open up in Midwest at all?
Christina: I mean that’s inspiring the Christina as a 10 year old. What is that? How does milk bar get into the Midwest? For me that’s where it all began. That’s why the corn cookie exist. Growing up in the corn fields of Ohio is like that is the ultimate love letter.
Lewis: When you open it up in Columbus I’ll go there.
Christina: Well, I’ll show up for the opening.
Lewis: I want to acknowledge you Christina for your creativity and curiosity for showing up, because I think it’s hard coming from the Midwest and having these big dreams and actually pursuing it. You pursued a craft but you thought you were supposed to take for so many years and you realize “okay, this is a great job but it’s not where I ultimately want to be.” Almost everyone said it’s kind of crazy to go make cookies but you did it anyways and you’ve inspired so many people, so I want to acknowledge you for everything. I acknowledge you for showing up as a rainbow even though I know you said there’s a lot of darkness that happens day to day and challenges you have to go through and the grit that you have to have to make this happen after 11 years. So I acknowledge you for all the work you’ve done.
My final question is what’s your definition of greatness?
Christina: I think my definition of greatness is being able to sit with myself and smile. Be happy to find happiness in just being alone because I’m introvert.
Lewis: Be happy alone.
Christina: That to me is greatness. That’s something I make sure I wanted to have in life and if that’s what I leave with my mark are the thing that I know I checked off that is greatness for me.
Lewis: Christina thank you appreciate it.
There you have it my friends I hope you enjoyed this episode with the incredible Christina Tosi of milk bar. Again, I’m so inspired by her story, check out all of her information that we talked about and make sure to follow her on social media as well, which got some great stuff and check out one of her locations milk bar has been blowing up. You can get it online and go to her locations in one of her stores and try the full experience in person and you may get addicted. I’m telling you I can eat there cookies, bowl of cakes and everything it is addictive. Make sure to check it out ASAP, get someone a gift as well. You can buy a gift as well online and that’ll go a long way.
Big thank you to our sponsor ziprecruiter.com/greatness. Right now you can try ziprecruiter for free by going to ziprecruiter.com/greatness and they are so effective that 80% of employers who post on ziprecruiter get a quality candidate within the first day. Make sure to check it out right now at ziprecruiter.com/greatness.
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Always remember you don’t have to have everything figured out when you get started. So many people are crippled by making a decision about how to launch their business or grow their business or start a new project. But this analysis/paralysis is really what holds you back because you’re never gonna have it perfect at the start. All businesses evolve, all projects grow and transformed and innovate. You trying to over analyze and make everything perfect right away is only wasting time. The quicker you start the faster you go, you’re gonna learn quickly and you can adjust quickly just don’t stay stuck in your ways if it’s not working right away, be willing to adapt and evolve. And that’s something I love about Christina, she was willing to try and innovate and be creative and her creativity grew and so did her business along the way.
So, I hope you enjoyed this one again Georgia O’keefe said “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing.” I hope you guys enjoyed this one and as always you know what time it is, it’s time to go out there and do something great.