by Megha Dharia
Maury Rubin discovered a passion for baking while on vacation in France. A pastry course that he took purely for fun quickly turned baking into an obsession that lead Rubin to establish The City Bakery, a popular eatery near Union Square.
High ceilings, the buzz of an energetic crowd, and the smell of hot coffee greet customers as they enter the City Bakery located at 5th Avenue and 18th Street. Famous for its homemade marshmallows and pretzel croissants, City Bakery has expanded to a cafeteria-style eatery, serving hot lunches, salads, and soups, side-by-side elegant French-style pastries.
Rubin stayed in France and spent a year as an apprentice as a couple of bakeries in France. When he returned to New York he became disillusioned by the quality of pastries sold in New York City bakeries .
“I went to every bakery in New York City and like the first ten days I was here, I was like a maniac about it. And I thought like wow. This is like…I mean at first I was just totally disappointed because I was really excited to eat great pastries. I was sort of shocked and appalled and disappointed. But then I was like, ‘Wait a second, I can do this better.’ So I started working on the bakery,” Rubin said.
Established in 1990, City Bakery brought an unique business model to the bakery business, focusing on sourcing his raw materials to local farmer’s market, using organic foods, and working with seasonal menus.
“What I wanted to do with a bakery was attach it to a farmer’s market, number one, because the other thing about those other bakeries, you went in to buy a fruit tart at any one of those bakeries, the fruit came out of a can, there was just no way that the fruit wasn’t processed food. So the first thing was using a farmer’s market as a fresh, totally fresh supply–inconsistent also, which was from an operational point of view difficult, but from a quality of food point of view, fabulous.” Rubin says.
City Bakery’s unusual business model came with a consequence; the business wasn’t making any money. The bakery industry was harder to break into than Rubin anticipated. In the first few years, City Bakery garnished a good reputation and saw a steady crowd. The unique pastries as well as the affordably priced lunches were bringing in customers. Rubin was spending 18-19 hours a day in the bakery yet, they weren’t turning in a profit. It was in his fourth year in business that Rubin decided to spend a little less time creating pastries and a little more time focused on being a small businessman. His efforts paid off as the bakery quickly outgrew the building it resided in.
After eleven years at East 17th Street, City Bakery moved to its current location on West 18th Street. The change was significant.
“We went from 28 seats to 128 seats. We went from 1 level to 2 levels,” Rubin said.
A tradition that Rubin continued in his new location was baking the pastries on the premises like many diners and cafeterias across New York done back in the day. The dough is mixed and prepared at a nearby kitchen before being brought to City Bakery’s location.
“We actually still bring it here and then bake it here. We make everything literally right down the street. City Bakery is 3 West 18th Street and we mix our doughs at 18 West 18th Street. So we’re about 100 feet down the street,” Rubin said.
After ten years of working hands-on in the kitchen, Rubin now spends time overseeing quality control and developing creative pastries to introduce to his bakery. He has passed on the skills he learned in France to a new generation of pastry chefs.
“Our pastry kitchen is really, you know I think it’s one of the most special parts of what the bakery has, has been through the years because the way the French taught me I taught other people in New York,” Rubin says.
City Bakery even hosts a Hot Chocolate Festival. Rubin started the festival after he noticed that the month of February was very quiet for business. The following year he decided to invite customers to try out different flavors of hot chocolate such as banana peel hot chocolate and bourbon hot chocolate. The customers loved it and so a festival was born.
Twenty-four years after it first opened City Bakery has become a popular local and tourist destination. On a typical Saturday the bakery sees around 2500-3000 customers and nearly 40% of them are international tourists from various countries in Europe, Canada, Brazil, and especially Japan, according to Rubin.
With such a large far-reaching clientele, it’s no surprise that City Bakery sells an average of a 1000 cookies a day and nearly 600 cups of hot chocolate a day, during the winter.
Passion for pastries and a strong work ethic have brought a great deal of success for Rubin. City Bakery has grown to into an organization with over 100 employees and two locations in Japan. Rubin has also started an “eco-friendly” chain bakery called Birdbath with locations across Manhattan.
Now, the hardest question Rubin faces is when to retire. After more than two decades of working unbelievably long hours, Rubin says that he is exhausted and wonders often about who would be a worthy successor to take over City Bakery. Yet, while he ponders over that question, there is one thing Rubin is sure about, “it’s sort of the greatest thing that I can say about the bakery and just in one quick thought is that the bakery belongs to New York City.”