Maury Rubin built his business on an idea and a name so brilliantly simple it seems ridiculous that nobody had thought of it before: the City Bakery. As universal and inviting as Manhattan itself, it would be a warm from the delicious goods baking on-premises, as well as from the people packing in to grab a croissant on the way to work.
What began as a passion for bringing delectable pastries to the Average Joe has now exploded into an ever-expanding empire, including a smaller sister bakery called Birdbath and a delivery service. Two City Bakery locations just opened up in Japan. Through it all, Rubin has persevered with an Olympic work ethic and an invaluable instinct for giving the people what they want.
The City Bakery on West 18th street off 5th Avenue is only a block from its original location, but in every minute detail it is worlds away. Comprised of two stories, it’s all dusky wood and delicious smells and tinkling music; the perfect place to huddle over a book and watch the afternoon light recede. On weekdays, Rubin says that the bakery serves 1,400 customers. On Saturdays, anywhere between 2,500 and 3,000 people will wait in line for their pretzel croissants or hot chocolate, complete with marshmallows the size of a Rubik’s cube.
That’s not to mention the cookies, a City Bakery staple. “We sell more cookies than any bakery in the history of New York City,” said Rubin. “We sell an astounding number of cookies every day…it’s about a thousand cookies. So, we’ve been selling a thousand cookies seven days a week for at least fifteen years — a lot of cookies for one independent bakery.”
The central display island on the first floor is bursting with morsels fresh out of the oven — maple bacon biscuits, muffins, flaky croissants oozing with chocolate. What’s now a culinary haven the size of a school gymnasium was not always this luxurious.
“Union Square in 1990 when we opened was completely different,” said Rubin. “The original space [on 22 East 17th Street] was 1,900 square feet and the store area was 1,500 square feet and the kitchen was 400 square feet.”
A former producer and director of sports TV under the legendary, notoriously ornery Howard Cossell, Rubin was on vacation in France when he decided to take a pastry course for fun and quickly became obsessed by the craft. He then spent a year in Paris as an apprentice at several different bakeries, including the renowned Pâtisserie Jean Millet, and returned to the US eager to continue to indulge in his newfound passion. He was quickly let down.
“When I got back to New York, I discovered that bakeries here were terrible,” he said. “It was like the family [business] type of thing…it was just a very different moment for bakeries, and I thought, ‘Okay. I can do that better.’ I just learned how to make better pastries, and I went to every bakery in New York City; the first ten days I was here, I was like a maniac about it. At first I was just totally disappointed because I was really excited to eat great pastries. I was sort of shocked and appalled. But then I was like, ‘Wait a second, I can do this better.’ So I started working on the bakery.”
Despite being a total novice when it came to starting a restaurant — he pored over books in the New York Public Library, teaching himself how to write a business plan — Rubin’s instincts proved to be extraordinarily savvy. Committed to baking with fresh ingredients, he sought a location near the Union Square Greenmarket, an area which was then a far cry from the sought-after, chain-laden neighborhood it is now. “There were a lot of, strangely enough, empty buildings around here,” said Rubin. “A lot of the storefronts along Fifth Avenue were last-generation businesses; strange, one-off family businesses.”
Little did Rubin know, his small-scale, homegrown method was about to dominate the landscape. “We built a reputation by being really unique…no bakery before City Bakery in 1990 had worked completely off of the farmers market, seasonal menus, organic; we were going out, finding suppliers of raw materials,” he said. “We were doing what’s now pretty standard.”
Of course, nowadays you can’t so much as turn a corner without being bombarded by restaurants hawking gluten-free options; the mating habits of their free range chickens; the low calorie counts of their salads. Health-consciousness is having a major kick, as is the commitment to fresh ingredients, especially in a metropolitan area where just-picked veggies can be hard to come by. “When City Bakery started, the farmer’s market was Wednesday and Saturday only and it was probably a dozen to twenty farmers,” said Rubin. “It was a lot of potatoes and onions. Now it’s four days a week. Now it’s a jam packed New York thing to do.”
With all the new competition, Rubin is showing no signs of passing the torch. He’s in the kitchen 7 days a week, though he’s scaled back and now wakes up at 5 a.m. to get to the bakery before it opens (during City Bakery’s first 7 years, he’d wake up at 2:30 and get home at 10 at night). However, he admits he’s exhausted after his decades-long sprint to make his dream a reality.
“I used to think forever that when the time came that I didn’t want to do this anymore, I’d close City Bakery and that it would never be the same…I thought for a long time that when I don’t want to do this anymore, the bakery just won’t be anymore. I remember just telling people that and them looking at me like I was insane, like that was the craziest sentiment; like it must somehow automatically belong to someone else.”
“I think that over the years, what’s happened in the most powerful way is City Bakery — I own it and still run it, but I think the bakery became New York City’s,” he said.
[Image via author]