NEW YORK — On the fourth floor of a four-story walkup, past the Men’s Spa and the White Tea Medical Spa, is a heavy metal door behind which lies the headquarters of Baked by Melissa, purveyors of bite-sized cupcakes.
With exposed pipes and a polished wood floor, employees bustling about, and a cake stand bearing cupcakes, the space gives off a start-up vibe. At once relaxed and full of purpose, the atmosphere reflects the way company president and chief products officer Melissa Ben-Ishay has kept the multi-million dollar privately held cupcake empire from going stale. And that’s no easy feat in a city where today’s kale chips are tomorrow’s sushi burritos.
“I’m always working, thinking ahead. I think six months, nine months ahead. I like to think about what I like to eat, what would be the most delicious,” Ben-Ishay said sitting inside the glass walled conference room.
To that end, her cookbook “Cakes by Melissa” was published in October, and the company introduced their new double-stuffed macaroons. And, last August, after torch bearing neo-Nazis marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, it participated in its first social justice campaign, #SideWithLove.
Through #SideWithLove, people could order a box of 25 of the company’s signature quarter-sized confections online to send free of charge to anyone, anywhere. The campaign saw the company send some 150,000 cupcakes across the United States.
“It was a little gesture, a nice gesture and I hope to do more things like it. Food is something that makes people feel good. It’s a little bite of happiness; it makes you feel carefree in a time where we need to embody who we want to be,” said Ben-Ishay.
A whiteboard covers nearly the entire surface of one wall. Covered in black marker it resembles a page torn from a football coach’s playbook. The team, as Ben-Ishay frequently refers to her employees, was mapping out the next couple of months, their busiest — and her favorite — time of year.
Ben-Ishay launched the company in 2008 after being fired from her job as an assistant media planner at Deutsch Inc. It’s a story she’s told many times before: how the day she got fired she went straight home and drowned her frustration in batter and icing. How as she whipped up the baked treats she kept thinking of father’s daily reminder: “You’re smart and you are capable. You can do anything you set your mind to.”
Two hundred cupcakes later she felt better.
The next morning she sent her best friend’s daughter to her public relations internship with cookie dough, s’mores and peanut butter flavored cupcakes as well as her signature, Grateful Dead inspired flavor: vanilla tie-dye. It took one, maybe two bites, before the agency owner decided she simply had to meet Ben-Ishay.
Then 24, Ben-Ishay said she just knew her moment had come.
She immediately went to her older brother Brian Bushell’s office to fill him in.
In spite of having never worked as a professional baker, held a retail job, or taken a cooking lesson, she knew she had to act the experienced baking professional if she was going to make an impression. She also needed a name and logo. The siblings settled on Baked by Melissa. Matthew Baer, their childhood friend and her brother’s business partner, came up with the logo, a tie-dyed cupcake.
The tasting went smoothly and by the end of the day Ben-Ishay had a business. It came together so fast there wasn’t time to think of a plan, she said.
“The entrepreneurial spirit is not to worry and to just get shit done. I took advantage of every opportunity. I had to learn how to buy ingredients in bulk, hire employees. It was an ignorance is bliss kind of thing,” she said.
For the company’s website they took photos of the baked goods on her IKEA coffee table, the backdrop a white bed sheet. She baked cupcakes in her Murray Hill apartment and rode subways to make deliveries. Her parents often came in on weekends to help — her mother folded boxes and her father helped get the cupcakes where they needed to go.
Later that year restaurateur Danny Omari helped Ben-Ishay set up her first holiday market booth in Union Square and open her first storefront in SoHo.
“We were peeking out the window to see lines of customers around the corner and that has never stopped,” she said.
While the company initially decided against seeking venture capital, or crowd sourcing funding through websites like Kickstarter Inc. or Indiegogo.com — instead maxing out credit cards and taking out small business loans — it received a one-time $6 million angel investment in July 2015, according to pitchbook.com.
It has been nearly 10 years since Ben-Ishay popped a fresh batch of cupcakes into her apartment’s oven. Today the company’s kosher-certified cupcakes come in a myriad of flavors including monthly limited-edition varieties, are available in 13 stores — including one in New York’s JFK airport — and ship to all 50 states.
“I wouldn’t want to go through it again. It was hard. To start a business, it has to be the topmost priority. I did not have a husband. I did not have a child. I worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week,” she said.
Now she and her Israeli husband Adi are the parents to a daughter, Scottie, who turns two in January. Ben-Ishay said she loves Sunday mornings when she pulls a chair up to the kitchen counter and cooks with Scottie. Sometimes pancakes, sometimes smoothies — it’s an activity that takes her back to her own childhood.
“Growing up we were always doing hands-on projects, arts and crafts. I see baking as arts and crafts, but you get to eat your project. I would pull up a chair next to my mom and dad and help out,” said Ben-Ishay.
“As long as I can remember I’ve been baking,” she said, whether it was replicating her mother’s kosher for Passover chocolate sponge cake and brownies, or baking cupcakes for her brother’s friends so they wouldn’t shoo her away.
Her brother stepped down as CEO last year. In his stead Seth Horowitz, who held executive positions in Everlast Worldwide, Modell’s Sporting Goods and Iconix, was named as CEO.
Aside from dreaming up new flavors — the “so delicious” chocolate graham cracker or the hot chocolate (“We put hot cocoa in the stuffing and in the icing and it tastes like hot chocolate. I put one in the microwave yesterday and it was so, so good!”) Ben-Ishay loves spending time in the commercial kitchen.
“It’s my favorite part of the job. Every cupcake is baked by hand,” she said. “I could tell you who iced every cupcake. Everyone has their own sort of signature. I bake too. It’s authentically ‘Baked by Melissa.’”