How Baked by Melissa’s founder turned a tiny New York City apartment kitchen business into a cupcake empire

Small Business

Count Baked by Melissa founder Melissa Ben-Ishay among the entrepreneurial success stories founded on getting out of the corporate rat race.

Before starting her company, Ben-Ishay worked at an ad agency in New York City – a role she felt unfulfilled in. The day she was fired was an “aha moment,” she recently told CNBC. She visited her brother at work, and he suggested the two start a business selling her cupcakes. They quickly created a website and shot images of cupcakes using a white sheet as a backdrop. 

Back in 2008, Ben-Ishay was doing it all: hand-delivering cupcakes to tastings, cold calling caterers from her bedroom and, once she had an order, boarding the subway with a white cardboard deli box full of her trademark tie-dye sweets. At the time, every cupcake came from her tiny New York City apartment kitchen. 

Baked by Melissa would sprinkle the city with bite-sized cupcakes in tie-dye boxes for the next few years, with her big break coming when the owner of Cafe Bari, who had fallen in love with the bite-sized cupcakes and offered Ben-Ishay the opportunity to use his commercial kitchen in exchange for selling him cupcakes at cost for the NYC holiday markets.

“Seven months after we founded the company, my dad drove in from Bergen County and helped me move all of my stuff from my little teeny kitchen to the basement of Cafe Bari,” she recalled at a recent CNBC event.

The cafe owner became a shareholder in Baked by Melissa, and the company was able to continue using the space for years. The organic foot traffic was already lucrative, Ben-Ishay says, but as the press started to catch on, people lined up around the corner. A year after it moved into the Cafe Bari space, Baked by Melissa opened its second location in Union Square.

Photography by Sara Lindsay

Since then, Baked by Melissa has become a global business with 14 bricks-and-mortar locations, worldwide delivery and a following of over 2.5 million on TikTok. Ben-Ishay has also taken on the role of CEO and recently published her second cookbook, “Come Hungry.” 

Social media has become increasingly important in building the “cupcake empire.”

In 2021, Ben-Ishay’s “green goddess” salad recipe went viral on TikTok and became Google’s No. 6 most-searched recipe nationwide, with 1.6 million searches in 2022. The recipe, which was recreated by celebrities like Cardi B and Lizzo, led to Ben-Ishay appearing on the Today Show and later posting a recipe for “green goddess” ranch, which amassed nearly two million more views than the original recipe. Now fans keep tabs on the recipes and routines Ben-Ishay shares on TikTok.

“Social media can be an incredible tool,” she told CNBC in an email. “You can do anything [when] you maintain the right attitude … show up every day (aka make it your job), listen to your audience and work to create quality content.”

Ben-Ishay declined to comment on how a TikTok ban in the U.S. would affect her.

Becoming a cookbook author backed by social media success has helped Ben-Ishay move beyond the cupcake brand.

“I wanted to share that philosophy and a way of eating that prioritizes nourishing ingredients in every meal,” she said. “I hope readers gain a sense of confidence in the kitchen through my recipes, that they can use with any ingredients in the future.”

Barriers to success for female founders and CEOs

Studies show that women face high hurdles in entrepreneurship, with vastly less access to funding than male founders and a high level of skepticism from a male-dominated investor world. There are some signs of improvement, with the rate of new business formation among female entrepreneurs rising, and more women investing in female-founded firms. These capital market issues contribute to research showing that women often lack the confidence to start a business, despite the research also showing that female-run businesses often outperform the market, leading to the creation of ETFs tracking women-led companies.

Ben-Ishay said she has experienced gender-based obstacles firsthand.

“It’s hard to succeed in business regardless of your gender,” she said. “[But] some challenges I’ve found to be more unique to females. I think often men are overconfident, while women lack confidence. I didn’t become CEO of the company that bears my name until 2019, and even when I was put into the role, I thought I couldn’t do it. I was wrong.”

Now a successful CEO and social media personality, Ben-Ishay has built a brand uniquely its own. And the freedom and unpredictability of entrepreneurship leave her feeling fulfilled — she said she loves stepping out of her comfort zone and putting out fires.

“I embrace it,” she said. “That’s when we learn and grow the most.”

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