It’s just a bit more than a hop, skip and a jump from where Melissa Bushnell Ben-Ishay grew up in Hillsdale to Bookends in Ridgewood.
Let the record show, we’re talking about the Melissa of Baked by Melissa, the bite-size cupcake entrepreneur, who live in Hoboken now. Ms. Ben-Ishay will appear at Bookends this Sunday to promote her latest book, “Come Hungry.” And let the record further show that “Come Hungry” — I suspect this will sadden cupcake lovers the world over — is chockablock full of recipes for salads. Salads!
It is a journey that began in Hillsdale’s George White School. “I was in the fifth grade and we had a Pioneer Day,” Ms. Ben-Ishay said in a Zoom interview. “As part of Pioneer Day we had to make a layer cake. And I remember, after Pioneer Day I just made more and more layer cakes.
“It was so fun, and I loved to bake cakes and cupcakes for friends and family. It’s how I truly show my love.”
The transition to lettuce was inspired by maternal grandma Sylvia, “who would always let me help her make the salad. My mom, even when I was a little kid, would ask, ‘Would you like to make the salad?’ So I would make the salad. I liked to chop.”
On dad’s side of the family, grandma Anne “had four kids and could come home and whip up a meal like it was nothing. She was an incredible cook and I think a balaboosta.”
So cooking seems to be in the family’s genetic makeup, helped along by what seems like an idyllic upbringing. You can tell it was happy and joyous because she remembers the Jewish Standard being delivered to her house every week. To be fair, there probably were other positive memories, as well. “I grew up with a brother” — Brian — “three years older than me and two wonderful parents” — Marc and Karen — “who still live there today. The neighborhood was amazing. We played outside, had friends on every corner.”
“My parents empowered my brother and me in everything we did, the kitchen included. My dad has the same love of food I do, and I think my brother got that from him as well. The kitchen is the center of the home. It was mine, and it is mine even today.”
Melissa attended Hebrew school at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake three days a week, celebrated holidays with extended family at her home, and recalls doing the tashlich ceremony, casting off the previous year’s sins by throwing Cheerios into a backyard koi pond.
She was a member of the Washington Township Y — now, sadly, a church. In fact, at one point her father was the organization’s president. “I used to go there after school and work out,” she said. “I took pottery classes there. I had birthday parties there. I remember Rudy and the snack bar. We would go there and get pizza.”
Life was so good for Melissa that the worst thing that happened to her turned out a blessing. It’s cupcake lore now, but after graduating from Syracuse University in 2006 with a major in child and family studies, she was fired from her second job, as an assistant media planner at an advertising agency. Distraught, she went to Brian for advice.
“My brother and I are best friends,” she said. “Always have been. He is the very definition of entrepreneur, always coming up with new business ideas, even when we were in our teens. We always talked about going into business together.
“When I was fired, I went right to his office, crying. Without hesitation, he said, ‘It’s the best thing that ever happened to you,’ like the great big brother he is. He told me to go home and bake cupcakes.”
As the legend continues, Melissa sent cupcakes to the offices of Alison Brod PR with a friend newly interning there. “I told her go make new friends,” Ms. Ben-Ishay said. “I knew everyone would love the cupcakes. That office was known at the time for being all female, and all girls love cupcakes.”
Ms. Brod loved them, and she put Melissa in touch with her caterer. He asked her to come down for a tasting, loved what he tasted, and decided the cupcakes would be a great addition to his offerings.
She ran back to Brian’s office. In relatively short order, Melissa, Brian, and Brian’s business partner Matt Baer — he grew up in Woodcliff Lake and “I call him my brother from another mother,” Melissa said — came up with a company name and a logo.
A lot of things happened all at once. The caterer suggested from his perspective, “people would just go crazy if the cupcakes were bite-sized. People love little things.
“Challenge accepted. I figured out how to make them bite-sized. And two weeks later I had my first event.”
At roughly the same time, Brian and Matt created bakedbymelissa.com. Photos of the several varieties — including the OG Tie Dye cupcake (in honor of the Grateful Dead) were shot by a simple Canon point-and-shoot camera ensconced on a white bed sheet. Minimum order, 100 cupcakes, all baked by Melissa in her apartment and then delivered via subway.
She coupled that with booths at farmers markets and pop-up stores. The company opened its first walk-in store in 2010 and now has 14 of them.
Ms. Ben-Ishay still seems a little amazed by her success. “I love cupcakes and thought how cool it would be if I could bake cupcakes for a living,” she said. “I knew I had to do everything I possibly could to make my dream come true. I never want to look back and say, coulda woulda shoulda, and I still run my business, the same exact way today.
“I think it’s an incredible privilege to lead Baked by Melissa through this wonderful time of growth. I have a product that makes people happy during good times and bad. How cool is that?”
Growth. She said it’s a time of growth. So I ask if there are any immediate expansion plans. She looks offscreen for a second — at Brian, perhaps — and says, “Our plan is to continue to get our product into more people’s hands.”
So that means something’s afoot and she doesn’t want to talk about it. But my position is clear. Unless they’re chocolate, Salads by Melissa is a nonstarter for me.
Melissa Ben-Ishay of Baked by Melissa will be at Bookends, 211 E. Ridgewood Ave., Ridgewood, on Sunday, January 21, at 1 p.m.