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Baked By Melissa’s millennial CEO is now Gen Z famous … but not for cupcakes

March 23, 2022, 8:24 PM UTC

Melissa Ben-Ishay might seem like the typical, self-made millennial CEO.

She’s got a classic, up-from-the-bootstraps origin story, launching a cupcake business out of her apartment at 24 after getting fired from her media planning job. She lived with three roommates and spent 13 hours a day refining her recipes out of a basement space in a lower Manhattan cafe that let her use their kitchen.

Ben-Ishay seems to represent her generation — or the story her generation likes to tell — about slogging through one hard-luck economic story after another before hitting the big time. But the CEO of Baked By Melissa wants to set the record straight.

Ben-Ishay, now 38, went viral on TikTok, an app whose average user is 20 — but it wasn’t a cupcake that caught the attention of this younger crowd. Posting under the @bakedbymelissa handle, one recipe in particular caught fire over the Thanksgiving season: her homemade green goddess dressing. The video, which Ben-Ishay narrates as she hand-chops cabbage, cucumbers, chives and blends garlic, olive oil, walnuts, and spinach, has clocked nearly 21 million views. 

“As long as we’re getting brand awareness out there, then we win,” she says. Spurred by her recipes’ popularity, she’s going back to basics and working on a Baked By Melissa blog. The site, which is due to launch in April 2022, will provide access to her recipes — for free. 

Ben-Ishay’s TikToks with fresh vegetables routinely outperform her baked goods videos, but that hasn’t made her consider adding a new category to the BBM brand.

“The opportunity with TikTok is just providing easy recipes that make peoples’ lives easier,” she said. “That’s what I can do while still being focussed on this incredible company.”

The bite-sized cupcakes, which come in packs of 6, 12, 24, 50 or 100, are the “best gift,” Ben-Ishay maintains, and 60% of its orders are for birthday celebrations. Bottled salad dressings are not on the horizon.

“I would be silly to shift my focus away from core business; we still have so much opportunity,” she says. “We’re not pivoting to being a salad dressing company. But if you make your own salad dressing from now on, I’ll be successful.”

Being the face of the company

Ben-Ishay considers herself inextricably tied to the company that bears her name. When establishing the brand 14 years ago, Ben-Ishay’s team constantly reminded her that she was the face of the company, even behind the scenes. 

“I was put under a microscope,” she recalls. “People would say things like, ‘You’re Melissa! You can’t leave a dirty dish in the kitchen! Lead by example!’ That was a challenge, to say the least.”

But, unfazed, Ben-Ishay opted to keep her name in the title as the company expanded. She says the pressure from all sides, rather than intimidating her, pushed her to become the best version of herself. 

She tells Fortune she’s proud of her company’s resilience during the pandemic, when it shifted to 100% ecommerce sales while revenue continued to grow year-over-year. The company declined to disclose further financials, but it noted growth on social media has been explosive: up 35% on Instagram and nearly tripling on TikTok since September 2021.

Cupcakes might not have the early-aughts cache they once did, but Baked by Melissa has sold 200 million cupcakes sold since 2008. To Ben-Ishay, 14 years in business has only made her more passionate in pursuit of growth — and personal accomplishment. 

“Success is working hard toward things you love,” she says. “Hard work, for me, is happiness, and fulfillment. I’m not working toward retirement. I have the great privilege of working with awesome, like-minded people who, like me, get shit done.”

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