by Wendy (Tzu-Shu) Shyu
It is nine o’clock on a Monday morning, and City Bakery on 18th Street is busy as always. Walking into the bakery, the island in the middle as the counter, the high ceilings, the Chocolate Room in the corner, and the seats on the second floor reminds the customers of everything other than a bakery. “We’re a little bit like a quasi-public park,” as Maury Rubin, the CEO and owner of City Bakery, likes to call it. “Anybody’s welcomed, whether you buy food or not.”
Rubin, a former director and producer at ABC Sports in the 1980s, is now a proud baker with a dozen bakeries around the world. With more than a thousand customers coming into City Bakery every day, the story behind this business is as fascinating as its pastries.
In 1986, when Rubin was on a vacation in France, he happened to take a pastry course for fun. Little did he know that this would change the rest of his life. He became obsessed with pastries, and decided to stay in France for another year as an apprentice at various bakeries.
Coming back to New York, he found the bakeries here disappointing. The family-run bakeries served pastries made with canned fruit, and the interior designs of the shops themselves were depressingly traditional: everything made of wood and red-and-white-checkered tablecloths—“it was really sort of the last breath of a different time in the bakery world.” Telling himself that he could do better than that, Rubin thought of one of his favorite places to go to in France—the Farmer’s Market. Starting his own business plan in New York, his very first goal was to open his bakery near the Farmer’s Market at Union Square.
“At the time, City Bakery was very unusual as a business shopping at the Farmer’s Market.” In order to get the most fresh, organic, and local groceries, Rubin puts his bakery at a risk of unstable supply, as the source and prices of ingredients at Farmer’s Market can be very inconsistent and fluctuating due to seasons or weather. However, source of supply is not the only revolutionary trait of the original City Bakery, which was on 17th Street. “The whole place was white, it was a cement floor; it was white, stainless steel, marble, and black trim—and that was it. And that was a radical.” Rubin’s creativity established the unique taste for City Bakery, spreading the word around the neighborhood, making it one of the most competitive bakeries around the block.
As if always pioneering the bakery industry in New York, City Bakery is also one of the firsts to serve a lunch menu including sandwiches, soups, and salads. Redefining the business, Rubin wants to show the customers that, “this is what a bakery means today.”
Having sold more than a thousand cookies per day for the past fifteen years, Rubin is also very specific with his creations on food. Hot chocolate being one of the original items on the menu, he wanted it to be something different from others: “no one had ever done [this] before, which was using actual chocolate bars instead of cocoa powder.” Served in a round beige bowl, the milk hot chocolate at City Bakery is so thick and creamy that with the first sip, customers will realize the melted chocolate smoothly running down your throat, leaving a strong fragrance and taste of sweetness.
Topping the second-to-none hot chocolate, are the homemade marshmallows. Usually served with the hot chocolate, the half melting cube floating on the surface adds to the thickness of the drink, while providing a lemony freshness to the taste. Take a bite of the marshmallow, and it will melt in your mouth before you even notice it. This is an exclusive texture of fresh marshmallows. “When people say ‘how long do they last?’ we say ‘they’re not made to last,’” Rubin explains how labor and time-consuming it is to make fresh marshmallows, as the whole process takes more than a day.
If City Bakery has to be famous for one specific pastry, it would be the pretzel croissant. “The pretzel croissant is our signature pastry,” Rubin proudly states. The pretzel croissant presents the crispness of a croissant with a slightly burnt bottom, and the saltiness of a pretzel with the salt on the top. Unlike most croissants, it is less flaky. The salty taste of the pretzel croissant and the sweetness of the hot chocolate complement each other so well that it is a must-have combination at City Bakery.
Speaking like a proud father of his own pastries, Rubin remains humble in himself: “I’m really a student of the bakery business.” He started as a pastry lover with a strong sweet tooth and became an owner of one of the most successful and legendary bakeries in the City. Handed down most of his duties to his coworkers, he still hangs around the bakery and enjoys the pastry he has taught others to make. Rubin continues to be as involved in the bakery he started more than twenty years ago. He contentedly comments: “the greatest thing I can say about the bakery is that [it] belongs to New York City.”