Patience and authenticity are the keys to long-term success in the food business, said Christina Tosi, founder and CEO of Milk Mar, in a presentation at the Summer Fancy Food Show on Monday.
Tosi developed the Milk Bar treat and dessert shop by taking the familiar flavors and ingredients of her childhood in the Midwest, and recasting them in new ways and in fun environments that seek to capture the joys of eating dessert.
“The product, by and large, is the familiar and unexpected mashed together,” she said in a Q&A session with Specialty Food Association President Phil Kafarakis. “My philosophy of food is that good food is simple but has an individuality to it.”
Creating products that “inspire joy,” as Tosi describes it, is a process that requires repeated trial an error.
“The hard part about running a business that’s based around innovation is that the ‘aha moment’ can happen on the first day, and it could also happen two years later,” she said. “If that aha moment doesn’t happen, it doesn’t leave the door of the kitchen.”
The company’s popular Birthday Cake, for example, took two years to develop, and involved deconstructing a traditional birthday cake and then rebuilding it, “layer by layer,” until it attained the high standards of flavor and texture that Tosi demands.
“Remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” she said. “It’s the marathon coupled with the authenticity that is the magic formula.”
Asked by Kafarakis how a company built around innovation can make the economics work, Tosi admitted it is challenge to create a budget that accommodates enough flexibility to leave room for failure and repeated trial and error.
Innovation, she said, is such an important element of the success of the business that the budget has to allow room for the development of the many products that never make it out of the test kitchens.
“We are in the business of innovation and joy,” said Tosi. “If innovation doesn’t exist in what we do, then we have no business.
“Big risk creates big opportunity,” she added. “If you’re not taking risks, and you’re not failing, you’re also not creating opportunities for success to happen. It’s a tricky balance.”
The same patient, deliberate approach that that the company applies to its product development has also guided its retail expansion, which now includes 16 store locations and an ecommerce business.
Tosi estimated that the company turns down 90% of the opportunities it has to expand the business in order to focus on the 10% of the opportunities that align with the company’s mission and objectives.
“It is about knowing who you are and who your business is, and knowing who your business is not, and understanding what are the right opportunities,” she said. “You also have to understand the economics of your business well enough so that you can know which opportunities are the best for you and your team.”
In the end the quality of the product is at the heart of the enterprise, because if that is lacking, “then it doesn’t matter where we go,” said Tosi.