by Deborah Lubanga
The thick smell of fresh hot chocolate is one of the first things you notice upon entering The City Bakery. Unlike like most versions of the classic beverage, it is not made from cocoa powder, but liquefied chocolate bars instead.
Located just off of Fifth Avenue, on West 18th Street, The City Bakery is perhaps best known for its annual Hot Chocolate Festival in February.
However, it is more than just a place to indulge your sweet tooth. Contrary to its name, the two-story eatery seems more like an upscale cafeteria than a mere bakery.
Just beyond the display case of cookies, tarts, and other freshly baked pastries are soup, salad, and sandwich bars where you can build your own meal.
This filling menu has made the bakery a popular lunch spot. In fact, CEO and founder Maury Rubin said more people come in for lunch than for the pastries alone.
A major part of The City Bakery’s popularity is the fact that only seasonal ingredients from local farmers’ markets are used. In fact, since opening in 1990, The City Bakery has been a trailblazer in the “locavore” trend, which has caused people to seek out food produced locally.
“We built a reputation by being really unique in the sense of no bakery before City Bakery in 1990 had worked completely off of the farmers’ market, seasonal menus, organic,” said Rubin. “We were going out, finding out suppliers of raw materials, we were doing what’s now pretty standard.”
But perhaps rivaling the uniqueness of the bakery itself is the story of its creation.
Hailing from Baltimore, the bakery’s founder had always aspired to be a sports journalist. Rubin realized this dream when he became a producer and director at ABC Sports Television in New York City. Over the course of his nearly six-year career, he won two Emmy awards for his work.
However, a much-deserved vacation to France in 1986 changed his entire career path.
While staying in the countryside outside Lyon, Rubin unknowingly tapped into a hidden passion when he decided to take a six-day pastry course for fun.
“I became a little obsessed about it. I decided to stay in France,” Rubin said of the fateful trip.
And for the next year, he studied the art of pastry making the old-fashioned way: through apprenticeships in French bakeries.
When Rubin returned to New York City, he made a point to visit every bakery, but he could not find the authentic French taste that he fell in love with.
“I mean at first I was just totally disappointed because I was really excited to eat great pastries,” he said. “I was sort of shocked and appalled and disappointed. But then I was like, ‘Wait a second, I can do this better.’ So I started working on the bakery.”
But this proved to be easier said than done. Rubin had never run a business before, so he spent his time at the library researching the basics of writing a business proposal.
From the beginning, Rubin knew his future bakery would use farmers’ market, which he frequented in France.
“[T]he first decision I made about the bakery was I wanted to be as close to the [Union Square] Green Market as I could be. And that turned out to be an incredible, valuable, good first decision,” said Rubin.
The aspiring baker started circulating a business plan in 1987 and found six individuals willing to fund his vision through private investment. So in 1990, The City Bakery opened at its original location, 22 East 17th Street.
But breaking into the bakery business is hard. In fact, Rubin found the food industry far more demanding than his work in television. When The City Bakery first opened, he was working 18 to 19-hour days.
Moreover, the hard work did not seem to be paying off because the bakery did not turn a profit for the first three years. But rather than quit, Rubin decided to reevaluate the way he was running his business.
“My head was completely immersed in bakery ideas and creative ideas and/or customers. And what I did the fourth year was start thinking about the business,” he said. “[A]nd to do that, I just gave the business its first opportunity to start to be, to be acting like a business.”
As he reflected on the first year of the bakery, Rubin took note that February had been the slowest month. So the following year he invited customers to a Friday-night hot chocolate tasting.
At what turned out to be the first Hot Chocolate Festival, customers sampled different flavors of the hot beverage, including banana peel, Earl Grey, and bourbon.
“[T]he festival became its own life force and own creative opportunity, and it’s absolutely the single strongest promotional vehicle that City Bakery’s ever had,” said Rubin. “And it really does sort of precede us. People walk in the door [and] if they know anything about City Bakery before they’ve ever been here, it’s the hot chocolate.”
Originally, The City Bakery only served hot chocolate in the winter, but the demand made it a year-round menu item. On average, it sells 600 cups a day.
Around 1994, Rubin added homemade marshmallows to the menu.
“When people say, ‘how long do they last?” we say, ‘they’re not made to last.’ It’s here and now. That’s the beauty of it,” said Rubin of his marshmallows, which take an entire day to make.
Aside from the hot chocolate, The City Bakery has also become famous for its pretzel croissant. But the cookies are perhaps the best selling menu items, with 1,000 purchased a day.
As business and popularity grew, the 17th Street location was overflowing. As a result, in 2002 The City Bakery moved to its current location at 3 West 18th Street. The move across Fifth Avenue, allowed it to increase from 28 seats to 128 seats and from one story to two.
But even with the increased square footage – at 2,400 square feet, it is almost four times as large as the original location – The City Bakery was quickly outgrowing the kitchen space.
As a result, the “bench work,” which includes mixing, rolling, and cutting dough, was moved out of the bakery. It is now done at 18 West 18th Street, which is just 100 feet away. However, the actually baking is still done on location.
“[T]he idea that baked goods don’t just land from some other place or out of space into your bakery, but they’re actually baked on the premises is a big deal,” said Rubin.
With its footing firmly established on West 18th Street, The City Bakery started to expand.
In 2007, Rubin opened the first of nine Birdbath Green Bakeries. As scaled-down versions of The City Bakery, they receive food from the main kitchen on 18th Street, but have their own identity by being eco-friendly. The wind-powered bakeries are made of recycled materials and offer discounts to bike-riding customers.
While there are several Birdbath Bakeries – the most recent opened in Midtown in February – there are only two other The City Bakeries. Surprisingly, both of them opened this year in Japan, a location Rubin noticed many French bakeries also choose to start their expansion.
“It was a little bit more like Japan chose City Bakery,” said Rubin. “And the way to explain it is that the Japanese are Francophiles. They love the French, and they love French luxury goods.”
As for other bakery-business developments, for the last five years Rubin has been working on expanding his beverage selection. For example, two years ago he added a juice bar to The City Bakery.
With this focus on drinks, new pastries are rarely developed. Although one thing you will never see at The City Bakery is cupcakes, despite their recent popularity.
“It’s almost like betting, cookies as opposed to cupcakes,” said Rubin. “Ten years from now people are still going to be eating cookies every day, the cupcake thing will be going going, going. There will still be some cupcake people around but it’s already peaked and it’s in decline.”
In addition to being unfazed by pastry fads, Rubin does not worry about the competition that comes along with them.
“[W]e built such a loyal, devoted customer base through the years that we have such a solid business that before I ever wake up and worry about a new place and worry about competition, I just know that if we do our best work every day and if we take care of our customer in the right way then we’re fine and I don’t have to worry about competition,” he said.
While Rubin still loves the behind-the-scenes work and is often found in the kitchen baking, his role is more related to overseeing quality control. But that does not mean he lacks faith in his staff.
“I don’t have to show up here to have the pastry be perfect and on time and beautiful and everything about that,” he said. “[W]e have I think the most unbelievably talented group of bakers under one roof in any kitchen [in the] country for sure.”
As Rubin has built up The City Bakery over the last 23 years, he has seen Union Square evolve and expand around it. In the three blocks around his bakery alone, he said that 31 food businesses have sprung up in the last five years.
He also witnessed the growth in popularity of farmers’ markets. When The City Bakery opened, the Union Square Farmers’ Market was only two days a week, but now it has become “a crucial part of the way the restaurant business in New York City thinks about procuring food and cooking.”
“We have a bigger base in supply now but we still have- I’m still buying from the same family farms that I was 23 years ago. The only difference is that I’m buying from their children,” said Rubin.
At 54, Rubin has considered what retirement would mean for The City Bakery. In the past he thought he would close it, but now that option no longer seems to be on the table.
“And 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. I think it belongs to the city,” he said.