Melissa Ben-Ishay: A Sweet Take After a Sour Year

Melissa Ben-Ishay holding plate of cupcakes
Photo by Yumi Matsuo

Melissa Ben-Ishay of Baked by Melissa

When I was a fashion editor at a big magazine a lot of companies sent me gifts. Sometimes I would get clothes and sometimes I would get accessories. It was fun, don’t get me wrong, but too often the size was off, the color wasn’t something I’d ever wear, or I just simply didn’t like it. But then I started receiving these white pizza-style boxes filled with tiny bite-sized cupcakes. They were from a new company that everyone in New York was buzzing about: Baked by Melissa. This was way better than a too-small top or a scratchy sweater, and my coworkers and I were thrilled every time there was a delivery. I’d open the box and we’d all stand around it, surveying the bounty and calling dibs on the ones we wanted. Each cupcake was a beautiful little work of art, as cute to look at as they were delicious to eat. The flavors were so unique, and the fact that each cupcake was barely bigger than a quarter meant you could actually try them all without getting sick.

By 2012 Baked by Melissa cupcakes were on display at every work dinner, every press event, and every showroom appointment I attended. Eventually it got to the point where I was probably eating them three times a week—and then bringing home extras for my husband who loved them as much as I did. My favorite flavor was Peanut Butter & Jelly, which was at once nostalgic and modern. Eating it was like taking a bite of the most perfect little sandwich, with the exact right amount of peanut butter and the exact right amount of jelly. But there was also Chocolate Chip Pancake, Red Velvet, S’mores, Cookie Dough, Cinnamon Bun, and Tie-Dye, among many others.

The Tie-Dye cupcakes were the most eye-catching little treats I had ever seen, featuring a bright swirl of colors, like hot pink and electric blue. They were the real star of the show and, not surprisingly, they became the brand’s signature. In fact, it was the flavor that inspired the original brand logo, which they still use today. Fast forward to 2021 and those tie-dye cupcakes remain the number one bestsellers. But the variety and creativity of flavors is really what makes the brand special. They always have at least 18 flavors at any given time, and are always working to create new ones. By “they” I mean founder Melissa Ben-Ishay and her husband Adi. They met on the day she opened her first store in SoHo and have been making cupcakes side by side ever since—she conceptualizes the flavors and he brings them to life as Director of Product. They have two daughters, Scottie age 5, and Lennie, age 2.5 and live across the river in Hoboken, NJ. I caught up with Melissa to hear how it’s been to run a business during a pandemic, what advice she has for other entrepreneurs, and what it’s like to work with your husband.

Melissa Ben-Ishay making cupcakes
Photo by Yumi Matsuo

What has been the biggest challenge in owning your own business during a global pandemic?

It’s hard to pick just one! There is no option to fail. There is no playbook for how to get your business through a crisis like this, but that’s probably why I have learned so much over the past year. Also, I feel an incredible responsibility to my team. The added pressure I put on myself to get us through it made it more challenging, but I love a good challenge. Although I would never choose to run a business during a global pandemic, I am trying my best to focus on the silver linings and the personal growth I have experienced with my teammates over the past year.

So what were the silver linings? Did you have any surprising victories in 2020 that you wouldn’t have expected?

My team is without question my silver lining of 2020. Our team was able to pivot overnight to an e-commerce only business. They worked harder and smarter than ever before, often working early mornings, late nights, and through the weekend. Our team is what got us through 2020.

What kind of pivots did you take in order to keep your business going?

To keep our business running first and foremost we had to keep everyone safe. We immediately purchased PPE for the whole team, built plexiglass dividers for our retail stores and the bakery, and implemented social distancing guidelines. When we reopened our stores in June, we moved to pre-packed, pre-assorted boxes, and we only allowed one customer in the store at a time. Another big change we made was having only one team member working one shift a day—this meant shorter hours of operation, yes, but it also meant increased safety for our team, for our customers, and for the community. It was the right thing to do.

What goals do you have for 2021?

When this all started my goal was to get our business through 2020 without having to close our doors for good. It was all about survival. But once we realized we would make it to the other side of 2020, the focus shifted to rehiring as much of our team as possible and reopening all of our stores. It was extremely daunting, but once again our team proved their dedication, resiliency and hard work. We are a much different business in 2021 than we were in 2020, and that’s ok. We learned that our company makes people happy during the good times and the bad. These days if you can’t celebrate in person, which many of us can’t, you can still count on Baked by Melissa to send something sweet to your loved ones and make them happy.

What advice would you give to a mom who is trying to start a business?

When you are setting out to start your own business it really has to be your top priority. My biggest piece of advice to any parents just starting out is to make sure you have a strong support system. Having people who love and support you will provide the encouragement you’ll inevitably need when you aren’t feeling super positive. You also need to find people who are willing to help out with childcare. Once you establish your support network it is then essential to understand what you are great at, and what you’re not. It’s important to identify where you are not the expert, and then bring people in to do that work. I did not build Baked by Melissa on my own, not even close. I surrounded myself with people who had skills I did not have, and together we founded this incredible company.

You launched your first store in SoHo, but you live in Hoboken now. Do you like living across the river?

When we opened our first store in 2009 I lived in Manhattan. We moved to Hoboken in 2015 right before I gave birth to our first child. My husband works full time in our bakery, which is located in New Jersey, and I was spending most of my time at our corporate headquarters based in Manhattan. We decided to move to Hoboken because it would allow us more time with our newborn and less time sitting in rush hour traffic. We could not be happier with our decision to move across the river. Hoboken is the perfect step between city life and the suburbs. It has all the benefits of living in Manhattan, but with a small-town vibe—Hoboken is only one square mile! We have made so many new friends through our children since moving here and could not be happier to call Hoboken home.

Melissa Ben-Ishay with family

Was selling tie-dye loungewear on your site a natural progression of your brand? Or was it a response to the rise of cozy, comfy quarantine fashion?

We actually started working on our tie-dye loungewear well before COVID. How could Baked by Melissa NOT offer tie-dye apparel? In fact, I can’t believe it took us as long as it did. We got very lucky with the timing of our launch because everyone was at home wearing sweats thanks to the lockdowns. We sold through our inventory in days!

I know your husband is also your business partner. How does that work as far as living and working together? Do you have any ground rules or boundaries set up?

My husband, Adi, and I met on the day we opened our very first store in SoHo. He was bartending at a nearby bar and a customer asked him, “who is this beautiful woman?” to which he responded, “she’s going to be my wife.” And he was right! Since we met at the beginning of the Baked by Melissa journey, all we knew was spending all day every day together working on the business.

Since COVID, I split my time between working from home and the bakery, where Adi works. We work well together. I think setting clear structure and expectations is the key to a successful working relationship—and a successful marriage, for that matter. We have laughed together so many times since March because we’re truly good at being together. We’ve spent more time together over the past year than we have in a while. It reminds us of the first years of our relationship and how we first fell in love.

What was the biggest change in your day-to-day life once you became CEO in 2019? Does it feel good to have even more control over your company? Or is the responsibility overwhelming?

When I became CEO in December of 2019 I didn’t even really want the job. Our current CEO could no longer be in his role and I was elected by my board to step in—I was in shock. The role was extremely outside of my comfort zone, which I usually love, but I was scared. Looking back, I think being scared is ultimately what made it exciting for me. I thought it would be temporary until we found the right person to fill the role for the long term, but I quickly learned that the right person for the job was me all along. I went from stepping into the CEO role to leading our company through our busiest holiday season ever, right into Valentine’s Day, which is our single busiest week of the whole year. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, hello global pandemic! Talk about CEO bootcamp. Of course I hate that we are in a pandemic, but I have loved the business challenges that came along with it because I’m grateful for all I’ve learned. Through these unique experiences as CEO I have gained self-confidence I did not have before. I am living proof that you can do absolutely anything you set your mind to. I think women in general do not give themselves enough credit and we don’t go after things the way men often do. I didn’t even think I wanted to be CEO of Baked by Melissa, my own company that bears my name. Shame on me! If you’re reading this please close your eyes and think of something outside of your comfort zone that you want to accomplish. You can do it. Women can do anything men can do and more. We can have babies. Don’t ever forget that.

What’s your favorite recipe from your cookbook, Cakes by Melissa: Life is What You Bake It?

My favorite recipe from my cookbook has to be the hot cocoa icing and the hot cocoa glaze. Those two recipes perfectly capture my personality and the way I create because I love to bake outside the lines! When I was in college I used to take a red Solo cup, fill it with cereal and milk, and add a packet of hot chocolate mix. It was delicious! Those recipes—plus our cereal cake—are directly inspired by that old college snack. And of course I also love the tie-dye cake! It is without question the most popular recipe in the book and it’s so damn delicious. I feel like as you grow up and life holds you more accountable, at least you can feel like a kid again through baking and eating fun desserts.

So what can we expect from Baked by Melissa this year?

For now we are focused on Valentine’s Day, our busiest time of year. This Valentine’s Day we have partnered with the non-profit organization Good Grief that provides free and unlimited support for children, teens, young adults, and families coping with loss. For every February Fix 25-pack sold we will donate $1 to help fund their peer support programs. When the 14th rolls around I ask you to think about the people in your life that you love most. Reach out to them. Check in. Tell them you love them. If you’re anything like me, you’ll send them cupcakes, and by doing so, you’ll also be supporting Good Grief and the many people that have lost someone they love dearly.

What do you think your daughters are learning from seeing their mom run her own business?

I love this question. I hope my daughters are learning that women can be great moms and great leaders. I also want them to understand that hard work equals fulfillment. My daughters see first hand that women can do anything.

What do you hope they learn about love from watching you and your husband work together?

I think it’s important that they have real expectations for life, and that they learn the greatest things oftentimes take the most work. My husband and I love each other and our children so freakin’ much, but Adi and I are learning and growing together every day. We are human. We make mistakes, we compromise, and we always treat each other with the utmost respect. When we make mistakes, we apologize. I hope they see that and I hope they learn that love is life’s greatest gift.