A pastry class in France was all it took for Maury Rubin, owner of City Bakery, to drop a life previously dedicated to sports reportage for a life dedicated to baking. Twenty-four years later, Rubin, now 54, presides over an airy, high ceilinged establishment supported by columns the like of which are rarely seen inside of buildings in New York, and by many cups of hot chocolate. City Bakery became the natural medium through which Rubin began to channel his newfound passion for baking after his year of apprenticeship in France. And it was the organic result of him wanting a good pastry but being unable to find a decent one in New York.
When Maury opened City Bakery at 22nd East 17th St in 1990, Union Square was surrounded by empty buildings and lingering last-generation businesses suffocating on their last breaths. City Bakery was one of the first business to revitalize the area. Rubin did so simply, by building a reputation off of really good food, and great pastry made from ingredients sourced from the then just burgeoning farmer’s market. Rubin says, “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; we were going out, finding out suppliers of raw materials, we were doing what’s now pretty standard.”
And despite the Bakery’s growth, and its relocation to 18th st between 6th and 7th in 2001, Rubin says “I am still buying from the same family farms that [he] was 23 years ago. The only difference is that I’m buying from their children.” City Bakery was locavore before the word locavore existed.
In addition to letting the seasons and the market decide his ingredients, Rubin made what was at the time an unusual decision for a bakery, to also sell lunch items such as soups and sandwiches. And although some people questioned why a place called City Bakery would also sell lunch, Rubin just “trusted people to come in, check us out, discover what we were and to understand that ‘okay, this is what a bakery means today.’” Five years ago, Rubin counted the number of food businesses within three blocks that hadn’t existed when City Bakery first opened. At the time of the counting, there were thirty-one business that had yet to threaten the bakery’s popularity.
The bakery sells an average of 1,000 cookies a day, a statistic City Bakery, and its 9 small outposts called Birdbath Bakery, are responsible for. Other popular items are their pretzel croissant and even more notably, the hot chocolate.
The way Rubin tells it, City Bakery was more or less responsible for a new era in hot chocolate; “hot chocolate was on the original menu at City Bakery, and we started doing something with the hot chocolate that no one had ever done before.” Rubin says their hot chocolate was different because they were “using actual chocolate bars instead of cocoa powder. That’s the sort of moment in time, like, change in hot chocolate civilization; the switch-over from just putting water into cocoa powder and instead using actual chocolate.”
City Bakery tends to get a lot of hype around February when people are most desperately seeking solace from months of cold windy streets and can find it in a month of twenty-eight different hot chocolate flavors (every day a creative opportunity). Rubin calls this the Hot Chocolate Festival and it was born out of the usual lull that hit in February. He started it the second year of the business and now the hot chocolate’s reputation precedes the bakery, and it does so for a reason – it’s rich and it’s good. In the winter, he sells an average of 600 cups a day, many accompanied by homemade marshmallows that the bakery has been making since 1994.
The marshmallows sell for $2 apiece, but Rubin explains the pricing as such; “the raw materials are cheap but the labor is expensive, it takes almost a day, a little more than a day, to make them, and they’re ultra fresh. When people say “how long do they last?” we say ‘they’re not made to last.’ It’s here and now.”
City Bakery is still here and now and because of Rubin, is made to last. Two and a half decades of seven day weeks and 18 hour workdays (8 to 9 hours on Sundays) will take a toll on the most dedicated of men. Rubin used to believe that when he wouldn’t want to do it anymore that the bakery would die with him. Rubin was the one who “walked this thing up a mountain and sort of flew the flag,” and because of his commitment to the business City Bakery “became an institution, it became something that people from all around the world come to. It has become part of the city in the most legitimate way and is part of this neighborhood in the best way, and it does, it belongs to the city.”
Written by Katya Simkhovich