by Megan Zhang
The aroma of freshly baked pastries wafts through the restaurant’s entrance as one crosses the threshold of City Bakery in New York City’s Union Square neighborhood. The appetizing smell only makes it more difficult to decide what to order at the pastry counter, which showcases the bakery’s signature pretzel croissants, blueberry scones, and bran muffins. It’s hard to resist adding a steaming mug of rich and creamy hot chocolate—made from actual chocolate and topped with a giant homemade marshmallow—to the order.
The atmosphere of City Bakery at 3 West 18th Street in New York City immediately feels homey, inviting, and somewhat reminiscent of the 80’s, with old-fashioned jazz and swing music playing softly in the background. Old black-and-white photos of City Bakery’s early days deck the walls, along with old promotional ads for the bakery’s annual hot chocolate festival. One framed cartoon displays the words “Marshmallows Over Manhattan” and depicts a wintery scene with people playing in the snow in front of the Manhattan skyline. The bakery is lit with old-fashioned light-bulbs along the ceiling, reminiscent of an 80’s theater. The restaurant’s overall décor shows great attention to detail; there are pillars with an architecturally intricate and rather artistic design, and even the thermostat on the wall has a frame around it.
Owner Maury Rubin, 54, opened City Bakery 23 years ago. Originally a television producer for ABC Sports, Rubin took a pastry course in Paris during the 1980’s and fell in love with French delicacies. Upon returning to New York City, he realized that American bakeries were terrible by comparison. “I thought, I can do that better,” said Rubin. “I didn’t know that until I came back to New York and went to every bakery I could.” After quitting his job, Rubin spent some time learning as an apprentice under famous pastry chefs in Paris, studying the small business industry, and teaching himself how to bake. When City Bakery finally opened its doors, it started earning a profit in only its fourth year. According to Rubin, the bakery had little competition because it offered really good food for cheap, and customers could eat in or take out. “That by itself was a very unique food business in this neighborhood 23 years ago,” said Rubin. Many new stores and restaurants have sprouted up around City Bakery over the past two decades, but Rubin explains that he has never been very worried about being wedged out by competition. “If we continue doing our best work and taking care of customers,” he said, “we don’t have to worry about the competition…we’ve built such a loyal, devoted customer base over the years.”
In addition to an unwavering crowd of satisfied customers, City Bakery has also built a strong reputation for its organic food and great-tasting pastries. Rubin proudly explained that the bakery makes all of its pastries on the restaurant’s premises and prepares all ingredients right down the street, only 100 feet away from City Bakery’s storefront. Right from the beginning, Rubin wanted to attach his bakery to a farmers’ market and use fresh, wholesome raw materials, instead of the canned and processed ingredients that were the norm two decades ago. “We built a reputation by being really unique in the sense that no bakery before City Bakery in 1990 had worked completely off of the farmers market,” Rubin said. Since then, farmers’ markets have grown in popularity and have become an important aspect of many communities around the country. “That’s a really good representation of how we were at the front of something,” Rubin said. “We have a bigger base of supply now, but I’m still buying from some of the same family farms I was 23 years ago. The only difference is, now I’m buying from their children.”
City Bakery’s interior is surprisingly spacious in comparison to that of most restaurants in the Big Apple, with high ceilings and two floors of seating areas. The entire bakery is a whopping 8000 square feet. After all, 1400 people visit City Bakery during a single weekday, and nearly twice as many visit on weekends. Rubin states that much of his bakery’s popularity stemmed from an idea he had during the business’s third month, which was a February. In an “extremely experimental frame of mind back then,” Rubin decided to hold a promotional hot chocolate festival the following February. He typed up letters inviting people to come sample different flavors of hot chocolate at City Bakery and handed these fliers out to customers. The original flavors were Earl Grey, banana peel, and bourbon, all of which were enormously popular and well-received. The hot chocolate is made from actual chocolate, not cocoa powder, so the drink is gooey, rich, and flavorful. City Bakery’s hot chocolate went on to become like a business within a business, and today, City Bakery sells 600 mugs of hot chocolate every day. It used to be a seasonal promotion for the winter, but customers demanded it year-round, so City Bakery now sells hot chocolate 365 days a year. Rubin calls his hot chocolate the “strongest promotional vehicle that City Bakery has ever had.”
Rubin’s pride in City Bakery is evident when he speaks about the store. After all, he has devoted much of his life to this bakery and “studied the bakery business like it was brain surgery” for nearly two-and-a-half decades. When asked who is going to take over the business when he retires, Rubin stated that that is the most difficult question anyone can ask him about his business. “I used to think for the first fifteen years that when the time came that I didn’t want to do this anymore, I would close City Bakery,” Rubin said. But Rubin believes that the bakery belongs to New York City now, and that the store has become an institution that is part of the fabric of the Union Square neighborhood. Rubin is still undecided as to who might be worthy enough to take over his pride and joy. “It became something that people from all around the world come to,” said Rubin. “It has become part of the city in the most legitimate way and is part of this neighborhood in the best way.”