Discover why nostalgia works: Christina Tosi’s Milk Bar

26 May 2022


The Taste Tomorrow Trend Radar showed people became nostalgic during the pandemic; consumers went back to familiar recipes they hadn’t bought or made in ages. The data also showed that 75% of global consumers prefer traditional tastes. This trend has been found across all age groups, from those under 25 to those over 50, so it’s safe to say that people are still looking for flavors and taste experiences that remind them of days gone by. Nostalgia has become a successful selling point for companies, especially when it comes to patisserie. Pastry chef Christina Tosi even made nostalgia her trademark when she opened her store Milk Bar in 2008.

Shaking up the scene

Known for turning familiar flavors and ingredients into completely new and modern recipes, Milk Bar has been shaking up the dessert scene ever since its opening. Food magazine Bon Appétit described the sweet shop as “one of the most exciting bakeries in the country”, but at Milk Bar they like to stay humble. They are not ones to feed the hype. Christina Tosi and her team are just super into creating flavorful treats that bring up nostalgic feelings. 

Cross-country care packages

Milk Bar opened its first store in NYC’s East Village, where they developed a loyal fanbase. More stores soon followed. Over the past decade, Milk Bar has expanded to 16 locations in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Boston and Toronto, with online ordering options for the rest of America. Online Milk Bar offers what Tosi calls ‘care packages’: boxes filled with sweets of choice. This service is very successful. “Eighty percent of our care package business comes from states where we don’t even have stores,” Tosi tells Baking Business. “Our community is much larger than the stores”. 

Grocery store staples

Tosi’s success comes from fusing her culinary skills with her profound obsession for home baking, grocery store staples and classic American sweets. In an episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table, Tosi discusses her fondness for boxed cake mixes and artificial vanilla flavors. Her love for home baking and traditional dishes started at an early age. Growing up, Tosi and her grandmother used to bake oatmeal cookies together. Even though they both used the same recipe, her grandma’s batch would always turn out better than hers, “just because grandma made them”. At that moment, Tosi realized the success of baked goods was in the spirit. “It’s a time and a sense and a place”, Tosi says in an interview with The Hershey Company. With Milk Bar, Tosi is tapping into precisely those precious food moments and those shared food memories everyone has from their childhood. She’s trying her best to celebrate and replicate them without ever competing with those memories. 

Childhood traditions

Heavily influenced by her upbringing in Ohio and Virginia in a family of sweet tooths, the chef states that the treats at her bakery and dessert shops are influenced by childhood traditions like eating excessive amounts of ice cream and weekly trips to the grocery store with her family. “I wanted it to be a riff on a modern-day Dairy Queen meets a celebration of my love of baked goods … hence the product mix of cookies, cakes, pies, soft-serve ice cream, cake truffles and everything in between,” Tosi says. “Some of the things on our menu at Milk Bar I was concocting like a mad scientist from my teenage years at home in the kitchen.”

Nostalgic, whimsical & authentic

When it comes to developing new items for the Milk Bar menu, Tosi relies on nostalgia, a whimsical element and the discipline of authenticity. The product development process can be lengthy. In an interview with Shondaland, Tosi explains: “The hard part of running a business that’s based around innovation is that could happen the first day you work on something, but it could also happen two years later, and you have to be really real and patient about that pursuit because until the ‘aha’ hits, it doesn’t go on the menu. It doesn’t leave the doors of the kitchen.” One thing is certain, nostalgia is one of the most essential ‘ingredients’ when creating new recipes. “Nostalgia in and of itself has a positive connotation. It has the ability to bring us to a time, a place or a feeling, where, if it's locked in our memory and our heart, it’s part of our positive optimistic self.”

All American classics

Looking back on her success so far, Tosi is beginning to have feelings of nostalgia herself. In her Chef’s Table episode she explains: “The food that I think of and bake and feed people with has a sense of comfort and joy and care, and it's through the style of these baked goods that has existed in America for generations and generations before me and I'm confident for generations and generations to come. I hope that when kids think about making a cake, a lot of them are using their imagination with limitless bounds. To think that started with me and that I get to be a part of that for every generation that comes, and have the opportunity to honor all the generations before me, to take it and run with it; it just leaves me speechless, it’s pretty cool.”


Milk Bar’s assortment has grown steadily over the years, but there are some staples. Here are two perfect examples of those nostalgia-inducing baked goods:

Birthday Cake

Inspired by the classic combination of a boxed vanilla funfetti cake and a tub of frosting that all kids love, the Milk Bar Birthday Cake has become an absolute bestseller. Although the boxed original is quite simple, the grown-up version of this classic children's birthday cake took quite some time to come about. “It took two years for us to figure out how to deconstruct it and make it from scratch and layer it back up to capture all of that emotion and nostalgia and feeling that we had in our pasts”, Tosi says. The cake has three tiers of vanilla birthday cake with rainbow-colored sprinkles, layers of creamy frosting and crunchy cake crumbs. And of course, lots of rainbow sprinkles on top to wake up the customer's inner child.


Cereal Milk

Milk that tastes just like the residue at the bottom of a cereal bowl. It was that very specific memory that Tosi wanted to put on the menu. It took a lot of time, trial and error to reach that hard to describe taste, but eventually, Cereal Milk was there. Sweet, salty and a little bit corny at the same time, just as it was supposed to be. At Milk Bar, they have incorporated Cereal Milk into multiple recipes. It has been used to make panna cotta, soft serve and eventually ice cream. Pints of creamy cereal milk ice cream with swirls of cornflake crunch, to be exact. It’s everything Christina Tosi would have dreamed of as a kid.


Our Taste Tomorrow consumer data shows just how clever Tosi's tactics are. People aren’t just nostalgic and inclined to stick to traditional taste. When trying new types of food, 67% would still like to have a familiar element. That is just what Tosi did when she invented cereal milk or created her own version of the birthday cake. She innovates through the re-invention of classics. 

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