By John Ambrosio
When it comes to baking, Maury Rubin knows a thing or two. Since 1990, Rubin has been the owner, operator and head chef of the City Bakery, a popular Manhattan eatery near Union Square.
In the 24 years since the City Bakery first opened at its original location on West 17th Street, Rubin said that he has seen the neighborhood change dramatically. In that time, the Union Square Green Market has grown from a casual, twice-a-week event to a four-day NYC institution, new residents and business have moved into the area and Union Square has transformed into the hub that it is today.
“Union Square in 1990 when we opened was completely different and uninvolved like it is right now,” Rubin said. “We were one of the first nicer, new generation or next generation businesses that moved in.”
The City Bakery has changed a lot since the 90s, too. In 2001, it moved from its 17th Street Location to a bigger space on West 18th Street and now has a much larger menu, Rubin says. However, the basic formula for the bakery’s success remains largely the same.
According to Rubin, what set the City Bakery apart in its early years were its “great pastry” and its commitment to locally sourced food and ingredients.
“No bakery before City Bakery in 1990 had worked completely off of the farmers market, seasonal menus, organic; we were going out, finding out suppliers of raw materials,” Rubin said. “When the bakery opened, the bakeries around New York City were sort of the old family, ethnic bakeries—sort of Italian, German, Jewish, French—it was really sort of the last breath of a different time in the bakery world.”
Rubin first fell in love with baking after a serendipitous trip to France introduced him to the world of French pastry making.
“I took a pastry course [in Paris] purely for fun,” Rubin said, who was working as a television producer at the time. “Then I spent a year as an apprentice at a couple bakeries in Paris. I came back to New York, and I was totally obsessed with pastries.”
Shortly after returning to New York City, Rubin slapped together some funds and opened his bakery. From these beginnings, his business grew to what it is today; a major destination that draws thousands of customers from all over the tri-state area and even as far as Japan, where Rubin last year opened a new location.
“We’re a destination location on the weekends and you have people who come to the city,” Rubin said. “And then people from Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut who are in the city, and we’re really a very popular, international destination now.”
But the City Bakery’s biggest attraction is its annual Hot Chocolate Festival, which Rubin says draws in an average of 600 customers a day during the winter. According to Rubin, the festival, which features exotic and creative flavors of the popular winter drink, was born out of a slump in business in the bakery’s first February.
“I literally typed up a letter and handed it out to customers and asked them if they’d like to come one Friday night for a tasting of all these different flavors,” Rubin said. “And that was a super popular thing; a lot of people came, they loved it and that became the first hot chocolate festival.”
Looking to the future, Rubin says that he can’t keep pouring as much of himself into his business as he has been, but that he still has work to do.
“I’m exhausted and what I’m trying to do these days is grow the business and pull the value out of it, so that I can get the financial reward appropriate with how much heart and sweat has gone into more than two decades,” Rubin said. “But, you know, it’s a little bit like if you have this house, and you move into this house that is a special something at one point, and then the neighborhood or something about the place changes and grows and becomes super valuable, and you think, there’s this thing of great value, but it’s where you live.”
Rubin added that, while City Bakery was his creation, it’s no longer his to close.
“And I think it’s sort of the greatest thing that I can say about the bakery and just in one quick thought is that the bakery belongs to New York City,” Rubin said. “Now the trick is just to find out, or figure out, how I make a transition where if I don’t want to run the bakery anymore, who else does that; who’s worthy.”