Courtesy of Baked by Melissa
April 18, 2022 4:36 PM EDT

For over a decade, Melissa Ben-Ishay’s name—or perhaps more accurately, Baked by Melissa, the company she founded—has been synonymous with teeny-tiny cupcakes. But these days, Internet denizens might know the 38-year-old baking entrepreneur better as the self-assured mastermind behind TikTok’s most ubiquitous salad, a chopped Green Goddess: an herbaceous, garlicky melange of greens that’s collected fans like music superstar Lizzo and influencer James Charles.

While it might strike some as ironic that the queen of miniscule cupcakes is now the salad doyenne of TikTok, Ben-Ishay credits her newfound fame as a TikTok food influencer to a genuine love of being creative in the kitchen.

“I love to make salad as much as I love to bake cupcakes and dessert,” she told TIME matter-of-factly in a phone interview from her home in Hoboken, N.J. “I think that comes through in the content I create …There are certain things that I can do uniquely for my business that nobody else can do. And TikTok is equally important in the sense that nobody can do it like I can.”

Baked by Melissa’s origins trace back to 2008, when then-24-year-old Ben-Ishay was fired from an advertising job. The next day, Ben-Ishay, an avid baker and cook from an early age, made her now-signature tie-dye cupcakes for a friend’s little sister to take to her first day at a PR internship, which led to the agency’s founder recommending Ben-Ishay to her caterer. Within months, she had a Lower Manhattan storefront and a brand of bite-sized treats with a cult following. While some people may have balked at striking out on their own so quickly, Ben-Ishay demonstrates both tenacity and indefatigable confidence, the latter of which is evident in her TikToks, as she capably dices, chops, and slices while telling viewers that what she’s making is going to be the most delicious thing they’ve ever eaten.

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Her meteoric rise as a food influencer was born out of a response to another major life change: the pandemic. During its early days, at the height of social distancing, Ben-Ishay began spending more time on TikTok, scrolling through videos every night in bed. It wasn’t long before her love of the content’s unfiltered, authentic nature inspired her to create clips for a personal account, which racked up hundreds of thousands of views. After her first video went viral, she knew she had to start making TikToks for the Baked By Melissa brand, which had always thrived on other social media platforms.

But to her surprise, TikToks of toothsome desserts only performed moderately well, while candid videos of Ben-Ishay making salads exploded in popularity. The first—a clip of a tomato, red onion, and cucumber salad—has more than 3 million likes on TikTok, while her famous Green Goddess tutorial has netted 1.3 million likes and become one of TikTok’s most popular and recognizable recipes. Search “Green Goddess salad” on the platform, and you’ll find hundreds of videos of people recreating the iconic recipe.

“For me, TikTok is like the perfect storm because I’d be doing this stuff [in the kitchen] anyway,” Ben-Ishay says. “From a business perspective, I’ve done this long enough to know that it’s great when you feel like you’re in a rut, because now I’m going to push myself to think of something new.”

It’s hard to pinpoint how or why something goes viral, especially with TikTok’s volatile algorithm, but it’s easy to see why the Green Goddess salad has resonated so widely. There are a number of factors: Ben-Ishay’s fast and assured chopping, which is a prominent feature in all her salad videos, is basically ASMR for foodies, a satisfying visual and auditory experience—one that has led to her make chopping tutorials and knife recommendations for fans. Her cooking videos are accessible—ingredients that most people would be familiar with or have on hand in their pantry or fridge. But the biggest draw might just be Ben-Ishay herself, as she assures you in every video that this is “sooooo good.” And the Green Goddess salad actually is just that good.

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While Ben-Ishay, ever the entrepreneur, has considered the possibilities of monetizing her famous Green Goddess dressing, she’s more excited that people are getting in the kitchen to try her recipes, where creations like a loaded kale salad and taco salad nachos have made her a staple of #SaladTok. Her goal is to make easy, delicious, and nourishing food available to everyone, which is why in addition to making videos, she posts every recipe from TikTok onto the Baked By Melissa blog.

Now with her devoted following, she’s moved into a new role as an influencer with gusto, using her platform to support other creators and bring attention to the issue of crediting. After learning that you cannot own the intellectual property of a recipe, Ben-Ishay now has a policy: if she uses another food creator’s recipe, she won’t list the recipe on her video, but instead tags the creator—thus redirecting her followers and their engagement to the original account. As someone whose recipes regularly go viral, she knows how important it is to give credit where credit is due.

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“Through Baked by Melissa, I’ve learned the importance of leading by example,” she says. “And TikTok has given me the opportunity to lead by example for a new audience—I take that job very seriously. It’s made me a better person, having the responsibility to others to be a good person.”

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Write to Cady Lang at [email protected].

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