Thirteen years ago, Melissa Ben-Ishay called her big brother after being fired from her job as an assistant media planner. Rather than encourage her to look for a new job, he told her to go home and do what she loves—bake.
“If it weren’t for my big brother Brian, Baked by Melissa would not exist,” says Ben-Ishay. “He was the one who encouraged me to go home and bake my tie-dye cupcakes the day I was fired from my job, and he believed in me and pushed me when I didn’t believe in myself. We founded the company with three others—each of us having a unique skill set. Together we created this magical company and you bet your butt that was incredibly challenging—and also amazing.”
Ben-Ishay’s memories from the early days of Baked By Melissa, known for its bite-size tie-dye cupcake goodness, are some of her most cherished. Today, Ben-Ishay serves as CEO of the company, which has 14 locations (13 in New York and one at Garden State Plaza in Paramus) along with a thriving e-commerce site. A Bergen County native, Ben-Ishay lives in Hoboken with her husband, who works with her on the business, and their two young daughters, Scottie and Lennie.
We caught up with Ben-Ishay to ask how she weathered the pandemic with two preschoolers at home, what it’s like to work with her husband and to share her favorite spots in New Jersey.
New Jersey Family: You’ve endured so many challenges since founding Baked by Melissa but none like surviving a pandemic. What was the best thing to come out of the pandemic for you?
Melissa Ben-Ishay: The pandemic was absolutely horrible and the pain and suffering it caused is catastrophic. Leading a company while mothering two small children from home definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone and taught me a ton as do all of our most challenging times. I’ll take my experience and learning with me through all the adventures and challenges that lie before me, and I will cherish the extra time I got to spend with my kids and husband over the past year.
NJF: You work on the business with your husband, Adi. What’s that like?
MB: My husband and I met the day we opened our very first store in Soho. For so long, all we knew was spending all day, every day together because soon after we met, I hired him to help me ice all the cupcakes! He was really good at it. Now, Adi works out of the bakery and I work from our corporate headquarters in Manhattan. Since COVID though, I split my time between the bakery, my home office in my bedroom and our corporate headquarters. We work well together. I think setting clear structure and expectations is the key to being able to work with your spouse. Adi and I have laughed so many times together since last March—because we have spent more time than ever together over the past year. But we are good at it, because for us, it’s just like those first years of our relationship and how we fell in love—over icing cupcakes and overcoming challenges.
NJF: You recently became CEO of Baked by Melissa. What was that like and what advice can you share for women who want to take the next step in their professional journeys?
MB: When I became CEO in December 2019 it was not only a shock, I thought I didn’t want it. Our previous CEO could no longer be in his role and I was elected by my board to step in. I was extremely outside of my comfort zone. I think being scared is ultimately what made it exciting for me. I went from stepping into the CEO role to leading our company through our busiest holiday season ever, right into Valentine’s Day—our single busiest week of the whole year, and then ‘hello global pandemic.’ Talk about CEO bootcamp! I was pushed so far outside of my comfort zone in the past year. Through my experiences as CEO I have learned a 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 don’t give themselves enough credit. We can have babies. Don’t ever forget that.
NJF: What inspired your birthday and other holiday boxes and what was your favorite celebration of the past year?
MB: In the past year I have learned the importance of celebrating everything! I used to take life’s simple pleasures for granted but then COVID hit and took so much of that away from us. At Baked by Melissa we pivoted hard and made sure our customers knew if they couldn’t celebrate in person they could still send cupcakes. We celebrated a ton of quarantine birthdays over the past year. It felt really good to be a silver lining for so many during such a challenging time. We’re still receiving notes from our customers with photos of loved ones they couldn’t see in person, thanking us for bringing so much joy during a challenging time. Those notes and messages carried me through this past year and make me feel so emotional in all of the best ways—it’s why we do what we do! Baked by Melissa makes people happy—during the good times and the bad.
NJF: What do you think your daughters have learned from watching you at work? Do they know you are Melissa of Baked by Melissa?
MB: My oldest knows I am ‘Melissa of Baked by Melissa’ but I’m not sure about my two-and-a half-year-old. They don’t learn it from me though, I think their teachers think it’s cool and talk to them about it. I’m really humble and low-key about it all because at the end of the day I’m just a mom and wife working my ass off to give my children and family the best life I possibly can while also being the best wife and version of myself. I approach every challenge as an opportunity to learn and grow and that’s why Baked by Melissa exists and continues to grow. I think my kids have learned that mommies work just as hard (if not harder at times) as daddies do. I love that it’s all my kids know. I couldn’t be more proud of that. For me, working hard towards the things you love is the definition of success and fulfillment. The journey is the reward.
NJF: There’s no such thing as real work-life balance especially when you own your own business but what advice do you have for moms juggling it all, especially now?
MB: Embrace the chaos and try not to take life so seriously. If your kids only eat snacks for an entire day or weekend, everyone will survive. For me, I know that I will miss these days so much and although some days feel hard as hell, I will remember them as the best—so I’m trying to live them as my best and appreciate every single day. I know with certainty I will miss this phase. And I hope it only continues to get sweeter. I know it will.
NJF: You grew up in Bergen County and now call Hoboken home. What’s a favorite New Jersey memory you have from childhood and what do you love most about living in Hoboken?
MB: My favorite New Jersey memories are of Van Saun Park, Paramus Park Mall—I can smell it when I close my eyes—and playing in my backyard. We moved to Hoboken from Manhattan when I was 9 months pregnant with our first child and it couldn’t be a more perfect place to raise our kids. Hoboken is one square mile so you can walk everywhere—it’s so close to the city which makes my commute a piece of cake, and it feels like everyone who lives here is in the same phase of life as we are. We’ve made so many friends since moving here and during warm months it feels like summer camp for young families. There are parks everywhere, our mayor is amazing. Can you tell I love Hoboken?
NJF: What does a perfect family day look like for you?
MB: A perfect day is a walk to the pier, soccer, a delicious homecooked lunch, maybe some gardening on our roof in the afternoon and hosting some friends for an early dinner.
Want to try your hand at making some of her famous tie-dye cupcakes? Try Melissa’s recipe here.