As part of the Wild Ophelia Women Entrepreneur Series, we sat down with one of our favorite bakers, Melissa Ben-Ishay.
After leaving a job in advertising, Melissa started Baked by Melissa by jumpstarting her business out of her apartment and building an empire from scratch. Her company has grown exponentially in only a few years and nothing has slowed her down. Not even pregnancy.
With the launch of Baked by Melissa’s gluten free cupcakes and storefront, as well the introduction of their new macarons, Baked by Melissa has a lot of tasty things going on. Melissa took some time out of her busy schedule to sit down with us and talk about her career, her baby, and everything she’s learned along the way.
Spoon: We all know the story of your infamous transition from advertising to baking. What was the hardest thing about that transition?
Melissa Ben-Ishay: There are always challenges when you’re starting out. I was taking a chance, trying to do something I love and baking out of my apartment. I had to keep myself motivated every day. There were and still are challenges every day.
Spoon: What was the catalyst for starting your business?
MB: I always wanted to go into business with my brother and being let go from my advertising job was definitely a catalyst for that.
Spoon: When you were first starting out, how did you handle marketing for your products?
MB: We had this delicious product that people were going crazy over. We didn’t focus too much on marketing in the beginning. The product marketed itself.
Spoon: What was the biggest mistake you made when first starting out?
MB: I view mistakes as very positive. It’s how we learn and grow as individuals or companies. Everything was a lesson.
Spoon: What was your biggest fear when you decided to open a storefront? And how did you overcome that fear?
MB: Fear and entrepreneur are two words that don’t go together. I do remember worrying about whether or not people would come buy cupcakes they’ve never heard of before. Then there was a line around the corner opening weekend!
Spoon: Do you think you would still be in advertising if you never started Baked by Melissa? If not, what do you think you would you be doing?
MB: I don’t think I would be in advertising. I would find a job I felt passionate about and felt fulfilled from. I don’t know exactly what that would be. But it would be something where I am creating things with my hands. I love to cook and bake, and I love people.
Spoon: What would you say, specifically, sets you apart from competitors in your industry?
MB: I know that there are a lot of cupcake places out there. We sell bite-sized desserts and we don’t just sell cupcakes; we now have macarons and gluten free cupcakes.
Photo courtesy of Baked by Melissa
Spoon: Besides the items you now sell, how else has your business evolved since you first launched?
MB: When we first launched we had one storefront and now we have 14. Right after our first store we started shipping nationwide and our team has grown.
Spoon: What is it like working with your husband?
MB: I actually work with my husband and my brother. My brother is our CEO. Working with your family has its challenges, but at the end of the day you’re working with people you trust. I feel fortunate to be able to work with my family.
Spoon: Tell us about your new gluten free cupcakes and storefront? What kickstarted this venture?
MB: We saw a void in the marketplace; we wanted everyone to experience Baked by Melissa whether they had Celiac disease or a gluten intolerance. I developed a gluten intolerance during the first trimester of my pregnancy. That definitely taught me a lot at the right time since we were finalizing the product at that point.
Spoon: Best moment of your career so far?
MB: It’s hard to pinpoint just one, but launching gluten free was very pivotal and exciting. Launching macarons is the other one.
Spoon: What advice would you give your 21-year-old self?
MB: At 21 the advice I give myself is 1) everything is going to be alright, and 2) measure twice, cut once.
Spoon: What do you expect to change with the arrival of your baby?
MB: Everything is going to change.
Spoon: Are you going to teach her any baking skills?
MB: Absolutely, my daughter will know how to bake. I think she’ll naturally learn a lot of skills in the kitchen because that’s where her parents spend most of their time.
Spoon: What do you think is the most important skill you will teach her?
Spoon: What advice would you give to young women who want to start their own businesses?
MB: Start small, and nothing happens overnight. If you set a goal, make small steps toward that goal every day. I would also say get the product into the hands of people who can give you candid feedback.
Spoon: What was your favorite late-night snack in college?
MB: Oh, I was the queen of late-night snacks. I loved cereal in a red Solo cup with hot cocoa mix, waffles and ice cream with maple syrup and chocolate syrup, and all the magical cakes I baked.
Spoon: Any baking tips for all us young college Betty Crocker wannabes out here?
MB: Follow the recipe the first time you make it and then the next time you can experiment because then you’ve got it down.
Spoon: Where is your favorite place to eat in NYC?
MB: I like to eat at new places as often as I can. I really like Sushi Seki and Russ & Daughters.
Spoon: Do you have any favorite bakeries besides your own?
MB: Of course, I love food. I like Breads Bakery. I also really love the babka and chocolate chip loaf at Sadelle’s.
Spoon: What is your go to happy hour drink sans pregnancy?
MB: Dirty martini straight up.
Spoon: What was your favorite food trend from 2015?
MB: I don’t really believe in food trends. I tend to shy away from the word trend. I just like to eat things that are delicious.