by Nina Zade
The first thing to notice about City Bakery on any given day is the steady hum of its patrons. Located on 18th Street and Fifth Avenue, this hot spot is the hub of the area. Customers sit all around, chatting over hot beverages. Some try to get quiet work done. There’s a juice bar, a quasi-cafeteria style buffet, and entire second floor dedicated to lounging. White walls, dark wooden tables and trims, and Romanesque columns give a quirky, traditional delicatessen feel to a place that smells like rich coffee and pastries all day long.
The talk of this place is the hot chocolate – offered in two flavors and made from actual melted chocolate bars with the option of adding an enormous homemade marshmallow on top. Come February, the Annual Hot Chocolate Festival hosted by the City Bakery has many different flavor options, such as banana peel or Earl Grey. There is no real menu, but homemade pretzel croissants and chocolate chip cookies sell almost as fast as the drinks. The man behind the scenes – Maury Rubin, created the entire City Bakery brand from scratch, and all on his own.
Maury Rubin comes across just as his bakery does. In his 50’s, with a shock of dark gray hair and an apron tied over his casual clothes, he seems like the average working New York resident. His history as a baker, however, is far from common.
Rubin opened the City Bakery in 1990, after a yearlong stint as a baker’s apprentice in Paris in 1986. “I took a vacation in France. And I took a pastry course purely for fun. I loved it,” he reveals. He made the decision to stay in France indefinitely after that, and became “obsessed” with learning every facet of the pastry business. After a year of hands-on studying, he chose to return to the city and open a bakery of his own. “When I got back to New York, I discovered that bakeries here were terrible. I was sort of shocked and appalled and disappointed,” he says. “I thought, ‘Okay. I can do that better.’”
His first move with his return to Manhattan was to pay a visit to the New York Public Library at 53rd street to figure out how to write a business plan. Rubin spent days at home learning all he could through trial-and-error baking, and found several private investors who, through an act of good faith, financed the project.
The original space opened in 1990 and was located on 17th street – a block away from the current location – and stayed open for 11 years until the 24,000 square foot 18th street spot debuted. The area had not seen such a business, which contributed to its growing popularity. “Union Square in 1990 when we opened was completely different and uninvolved like it is right now. We were one of the first nicer, new generation or next generation businesses that moved in,” says Rubin. Residents living around Union Square were more accustomed to older, family owned business that remained the same operationally for decades.
Rubin wanted the City Bakery to reinvent the modern baking world. He trained his staff himself, teaching the techniques he learned as a baker’s apprentice in France. All of the baking was done every day on site, and Rubin found himself working 19 hours a day without making a profit. The fourth year in business marked the first year that the business made any money, and it has been making a profit every year since.
“The first decision I made about the bakery was I wanted to be as close to the Green Market as I could be,” says Rubin. He committed himself to staying close to the farmer’s market, using only organic and locally grown ingredients for his creations. The decision to move away from processed foods – although pricey and often inconsistent – has made City Bakery into the global destination spot that it is today. The bakery also has a juice bar and a lunch buffet for those who crave something savory and more filling.
Rubin has also been working on opening more bakeries around the world. “We have a special relationship with Japanese. We’ve always had Japanese customers, and we opened two City Bakeries in Japan earlier this year,” he says. He is the owner of nine Birdbath bakeries around the city as well.
Maury Rubin hasn’t always been a foodie. Before his adventures in Paris, Rubin was an Emmy winning associate director and producer for sports television. Though he never gave up his love of journalism and sports, Rubin did achieve his most important goal: reinventing the way bakeries operate in New York City. “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. And you know, I think City Bakery still is all those things this many years later.”