by Amanda Zambito
Maury Rubin, CEO of The City Bakery, enters City Bakery’s kitchen at the usual time of 7:30 AM on a search for his favorite pastry. Instead of continuously being drawn to the batch of pretzel croissants or the lot of peanut butter cookies, Rubin’s favorite pastry changes daily: it is the specific pastry that “came out of the oven [and] has that special, perfect glow about it,” the one that “wave[s] at [him].” Once he spots the pastry that “says hello,” Rubin takes it away to a quiet place where he can enjoy it in peace. From this undisturbed vantage point—just him and his pastry—Rubin gazes at his bakery and contemplates the journey he has taken in creating New York City’s famous City Bakery.
City Bakery, located on 3 West 18th Street, New York, NY, has been a bakery in and of New York City since its establishment in 1990. Creating fresh, seasonal food using ingredients from the Union Square Farmer’s Market, City Bakery offers a diverse menu that includes an array of pastries, a salad bar for lunch, and beverages like hot chocolate and cappuccino. Serving an average of 1,400 customers daily, this bakery is a staple lunch spot for locals, a must-see restaurant for foodies, and a destination-location for tourists.
The bakery welcomes its customers with high ceilings and first- and second-floor seating. The decorations are minimal: the dark wood in geometric shapes provides a modern contrast against the white walls, the small, vanity-mirror-like bulbs give off a warm ambiance, and the hanging photos document the history of City Bakery. Most importantly, when a customer walks in, they are immediately faced with an array of pastries sitting within the central, glass-encased register.
One will find the prices are as welcoming as the décor. “The price of a cup of coffee [is] two…or three bucks. It’s really the price of admission,” explains Rubin. He aimed to make City Bakery a “quasi-public park,” where “anybody’s welcomed, whether you buy food or not.” The bakery’s self-service and “old cafeteria style” allows for a freedom to enjoy the food and environment at one’s own leisure. “That’s the beauty of it,” Rubin says.
Though the low prices and welcoming environment are enticing, City Bakery is most popular for its hot chocolate. “When I think about the popular food question, [it is] the hot chocolate,” Rubin says. The quality of hot chocolate holds true to City Bakery’s devotion to fresh, quality ingredients. “We started doing something with the hot chocolate that no one had ever done before, which was using actual chocolate bars instead of cocoa powder,” says Rubin. He calls this a “change in hot chocolate civilization.” Nearly as popular as the hot chocolate are the “ultra-fresh” marshmallows, which are produced in the bakery and take a full day to make. Rubin’s hot chocolate was put on the map through City Bakery’s Hot Chocolate Festival, a popular event that occurs every February and offers a different flavor of hot chocolate to customers every day of the month.
Rubin’s innovation in hot chocolate production is just one example of the ingenuity and creativity he has expressed throughout the history of City Bakery. “I’ve always wanted to have a business that was a little bit off kilter, a little bit enigmatic, and a little bit just its own,” he says. He has broken the traditional idea of a bakery and formed a new understanding of what a bakery means by way of City Bakery.
Rubin’s first step in forming this modern bakery began with fresh ingredients. “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,” says Rubin. This was a time when surrounding bakeries were filling their pastries with fruit from a can, and the words “locavore,” “climate-change,” and “global-warming” had yet to exist. Now, according to Rubin, farmers markets have become an integral part of the New York City restaurant business. But at the time, “City Bakery was very unusual as a business shopping at a farmers market,” says Rubin.
The second step in creating a contemporary bakery was a change in interior design. The “old family, ethnic bakeries,”—the ones who filled their pastries with canned fruit—also had a typical look. “What bakeries used to look like was a lot of [warm] wood, …red-and-white checkered tablecloths, [and] cats sitting in the windows,” describes Rubin. He wanted to break from this mold: “[the look] I wanted for the place was very modern,” says Rubin. The original City Bakery, located on 22 East 17th Street was “white, stainless steel, marble, and black-trim—that was it,” says Rubin. “[The idea] was about clearing the clutter away, so anyone who would walk in would focus on the pastry,” says Rubin. He adds, ”that was a radical design change for a bakery.”
The new-age alterations introduced by City Bakery could only come from a baker with an eclectic beginning. Rubin did not inherit a bakery; he was not born into a baking-family where the business was passed down from generation to generation. Rather, Rubin’s childhood passions rested in both sports and broadcasting. His first job was a television producer and director for ABC Sports. He worked under the famous sportscaster, Howard Cosell, producing and directing sports for 5-and-a-half years.
Then, during a vacation in France, Rubin took a pastry class “purely for fun.” What he did not expect was to discover a new passion that would replace sports—baking. “I became a little obsessed about [baking],” he admits. Instead of returning to New York, Rubin travelled to Paris to further pursue his newfound passion. In Paris, he worked at a pastry shop and apprenticed at a few bakeries for a year.
When Rubin returned to New York, he was eager to try the great pastries the city had to offer. “I went to every bakery in New York. The first ten days I was here, I was like a maniac about it,” says Rubin. His excitement quickly turned into disappointment when he realized the low-quality pastries New York had to offer. “I discovered the bakeries were terrible,” says Rubin. In this lack of quality, Rubin found opportunity. He thought to himself, “Wait a second, I can do this better.” He decided to create his own bakery.
The transition from sports broadcasting to baker/business owner was not an easy one. “I had to learn a lot,” Rubin confessed. A newcomer to the business-world, Rubin spent hours at the 53rd Street New York Public Library teaching himself how to write a business plan. In 1987, Rubin circulated his business plan, and found six private investors to invest in his start-up bakery. “It was a very odds against business proposition,” Rubin confesses. He also spent hours in his kitchen at home working on his baking skills. When City Bakery was first established, Rubin was one of six owners (at the time, he was the fourth largest) and one of seven workers.
The initial three years of the business were bleak in a monetary sense. Though the pastries gained a great reputation, the business failed to produce a profit. “Bakery business is really hard,” says Rubin. “There are a number of bakeries that have come and disappeared in less than a year or two years.” Rubin was spending 18-19 hours a day in the bakery, entering at 2:30 AM and leaving at 10:00 PM. It was not until Rubin shifted his focus from the pastry to the business that City Bakery obtained its first profit in the fourth year of business.
Now, in its 24th year of business, City Bakery has proven to be an integral component of the Union Square neighborhood. “It has become part of the city in the most legitimate way and is part of [the] neighborhood in the best way,” he says. Since the bakery was established in 1990, Union Square has evolved from a “very quiet development” to “one of the most valuable neighborhoods in New York.” The typical weekday customer reflects the neighborhood, as well. “The weekday customer is primarily someone who is working in the neighborhood,” says Rubin. “Let’s say, a book editor for a small publishing company who is thirty to fifty, who eats lunch here three times a week.”
City Bakery’s fame has even outgrown the limits of New York City. “[The bakery] became something that people from all around the world come to,” says Rubin. “We’re a destination location on weekends,” Rubin says of the usual 2,500-3,000 Saturday customers. Travellers hail from both other states and other countries. “We have a big customer base from Europe, from Brazil, from Israel, [and] from Canada,” says Rubin. He adds, “We have a special relationship with the Japanese.”
In fact, Japan is home to the only other two City Bakery’s in the world. “Japan chose City Bakery,” says Rubin. “Japanese are Francophiles. They love the French, and they love French luxury goods.” In addition to the other two City Bakery’s, Rubin has created nine Birdbath Neighborhood Green Bakeries (the “little sister” of City Bakery). Rubin leads this expansion with a confidence that he has obtained over the last 24 years of running City Bakery. “I know how to run a bakery from dollar to dollar. If you guys are all opening bakeries, I can make a bakery for much cheaper.”
Though experience can sometimes lead to contentment, Rubin’s desire for innovation has not faltered over the last 24 years. “I would say that I’m still developing new things,” says Rubin. He is focused on ideas in the beverage realm, and installed a juice bar in City Bakery two years ago. Rubin says the creation of new pastries is a rare occurrence.
One of Rubin’s biggest projects right now is not so much a beginning as it is an ending. Exhausted after years of managing City Bakery, Rubin is faced with the issue of retirement. “I’m actually working on trying to figure that out as much as I’m working on anything else,” says Rubin. It’s a topic that he regards as “a knife in [his] gut.” Though many questions are currently unanswered, one thing is for sure: City Bakery is not going anywhere. “I thought for a long time that when I don’t want to do this anymore, the bakery just won’t be anymore,” Rubin says. He realizes now that this is impossible. “The bakery belongs to New York City.”