by Marilyn La Jeunesse
Twenty-three years ago, New York native Maury Rubin began his venture as an entrepreneurial baker in a small store in the East Village. Today, City Bakery has become a flourishing franchise in Manhattan and Japan. Known for their hot chocolate and pastries, City Bakery has become an integral part of New York City’s food culture.
The bakery started as a minute 8,000 square foot shop on 17th Street. Rubin had just arrived back from his apprenticeship in Paris to find that nearly all Manhattan pastries were lackluster compared to those he had learned to bake in France.
“I came back to New York and was totally obsessed with pastries. I went to every bakery in New York City. I was a maniac about it,” Rubin recalled. “I discovered that bakeries here were terrible. I was appalled and disappointed, but then I thought ‘I can do this better.’ So I started working on the bakery.”
In order to start his bakery, Rubin had to quit his job as a television producer for ABC Sports, where he had won two Emmy awards for his work. Abandoning everything he knew, he began researching business plans and advanced his baking skills. He eventually found six private investors who were willing to fund his bakery.
“In 1987, when I was first circulating that business plan, there wasn’t a human being on the face of the earth who knew somebody who invested money in a start-up bakery. It was a very odds against business proposition,” Rubin said.
City Bakery gained a loyal customer base, but Rubin quickly learned the struggles of maintaining a business. “The first few years of the bakery we had good word of mouth. People loved us, we were making really great pastries, but we couldn’t make a dollar,” Rubin said. “Staying around in New York City is not easily done.”
To keep City Bakery open, Rubin dedicated eighteen hours a day to the bakery. “I was completely immersed in bakery ideas,” he said. “In the fourth year I came to work as a business person for the first time.”
City Bakery turned its first profit in the fourth year. Seven years later, the bakery outgrew its original establishment and moved into a space that was three times the size of their original shop. Now, with nearly 2000 customers a day, City Bakery has established itself as a fundamental part of the Union Square neighborhood.
The interior of the bakery is unlike any other. Rather than adhering to the traditional wood tables with checkered tablecloths, City Bakery is minimally decorated with black and white tabletops blending smoothly with the ornate columns of the building’s original structure.
“I wanted something modern,” Rubin said about his minimalistic decorum. “The idea was to create a bare canvas. It was about clearing all the visual clutter away so anyone who walked in would focus on the pastry. It was all about the pastry.”
And he was right to focus on the pastry’s qualities. Their flaky, buttery outsides and delicious fruity insides are the main reason to come to City Bakery. Each pastry is seasonal, which follows Rubin’s desire to stay connected to the local farmers market. Although this allows variety in the menu, it is disappointing you can only order a strawberry pastry two months out of the year, especially when they are so delicious. But, the locavore movement suits the bakery well.
“At the time, City Bakery was unusual as a business shopping at the farmers market. Now, the farmers market has become a crucial part of the way the restaurant business in New York City thinks about procuring food,” Rubin said. “It’s been a really good representation of how we were at the front of something. I’m still buying from the same family farms that I was twenty-three years ago.”
In addition to pastries, City Bakery serves one of the best cups of hot chocolate in Manhattan. In the winter the bakery sells an average of 600 cups of hot chocolate a day. According to Rubin, making their hot chocolate from melted chocolate bars, as opposed to cocoa powder, sets it apart from their competition. City Bakery Hot Chocolate was originally a seasonal offering, but its popularity forced Rubin to expand his production and hot chocolate is not served year round. However, specialty flavors are only sold in February during the bakery’s annual Hot Chocolate Festival.
“The festival was a promotional idea, but we sold more hot chocolate than anybody who’s ever made hot chocolate,” Rubin boasted. “The festival became its own life force and creative opportunity. It’s absolutely the single strongest promotional vehicle City Bakery’s ever had and it really does precede us. People walk in the door and if they know anything about City Bakery it’s the hot chocolate.”
During the festival a new flavor of hot chocolate is introduced each day. Banana Peel Hot Chocolate and Bourbon Hot Chocolate are two of the original flavors. Past festivals have included flavors such as caramel, pistachio, chili pepper, and cinnamon.
City Bakery also offers a fresh, homemade marshmallow to top-off your hot chocolate. Their marshmallows are enormous, and made fresh daily. According to Rubin he was the first person in New York to make a homemade marshmallow and, to this day, no bakery makes them in a commercial. Although priced at two-dollars a marshmallow, they are soft, chewy and not overly sweet. When they melt on top of the hot chocolate, it creates a decadent barrier between you and the chocolate beneath it. It adds an extra touch of sweetness to the hot chocolate that makes the two-dollar price tag worth the payment.
City bakery also serves salads, macaroni and cheese, sandwiches and has a fully equipped juice bar. It is a perfect place for an early-morning breakfast, or afternoon lunch-break. On a warm day it is recommended you stop by City Bakery for a smoothie and fruit pastry to go and walk just a few blocks south to Union Square to enjoy your treat in the park. In the winter, the loft area of the bakery is a great spot to enjoy a hot chocolate and freshly baked cookie.
Looking towards the future, Rubin says he has contemplated closing the bakery, but realized the impact City Bakery has had in the neighborhood. “The bakery became New York City’s. It became an institution, something that people from all around the world come to,” he said. “I think it belongs to the City.”