by Kathryn Jones
For The City Bakery CEO and Founder Maury Rubin, building a million-dollar international business from organic pastries seemed natural.
23 years in, Rubin, a man from Baltimore, Maryland with a background in sports broadcasting, became into the businessman behind the innovative bakery that people come from all over the world to eat at. Unlike the seasonal and natural produce of The City Bakery’s goods, Rubin managed to keep a small business around long enough to expand into a series of seven establishments located in New York City and Japan.
“It just came along at the right time in ways I could understand it organically. So, I think, more than anything else, I’m a student of the business. And I don’t know how I’d still be here and if this business would be where it is if I hadn’t learned, applied myself, on the bakery business overall, outside of these four walls.” said Rubin.
The idea of the bakery grew out Rubin’s infatuation with French baking. He once worked as an ABC Sports television producer and director before a French pastry course directed Rubin into a different field than play-by-play announcements. Learning how to bake and use farmers’ markets during his vacation along the countryside of Lyon, France, pastries became an “obsession” for him. After apprenticing in Paris bakeries for a year, Rubin returned to New York eager for more pastries..
“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. I was sort of shocked and appalled and disappointed. I discovered that bakeries here were terrible. But then I was like, ‘Wait a second, I can do this better,’” said Rubin. He set out to make a new reputation for himself as a self-employed baker who could capture the essence of French pastry making in America. But Rubin faced the challenges of running his first ever business and lacking the amount of training other apprentices in France had. He combatted both by researching business principles off library shelves and teaching himself to bake at home.
Six investors provided enough money in 1987 for Rubin avoid taking out loans for his business.
Before Rubin could make any decisions on his new business, he needed similar resources to the ones bakeries used in Lyon, locally grown crops. The location of The City Bakery relied on the Green Market, a metropolitan farmers’ market that Rubin became fond of since his return from France, opening on 17th Street in Union Square in November 1990.
The bakery’s design drew inspiration from a Midwestern hamburger joint from the mid-20th century called White Tower. The City Bakery differed from others in the area with its 18-foot ceilings above the stainless steel and marble walls surrounding the cafeteria-styled space.
The first few years of City Bakery depended on word of mouth for customers as it entered a neighborhood full of long-standing family-owned bakeries whose culture and tradition passed down through generations. It took Rubin and investors four years to finally make a profit as their tarts became well-known. He spent more time in the kitchen and started applying more small business tactics to survive in an era pre-Internet. The next seven years that the business remained in its Union Square location created further profits.
The bakery established itself place for the common people, according to the founder.
“City Bakery is a quasi-public place, you know, anybody just walk in here, the price of a cup of coffee for two bucks, or it could be for two bucks to three bucks. It’s an old cafeteria style, and, you know, anybody’s welcomed, and whether you buy food or not,” said Rubin.
An original on the menu besides pastries, hot chocolate became a well-known product at the bakery because if the unique method Rubin used.
“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; the switch-over from just putting water into cocoa powder and instead using actual chocolate,” said the CEO.
Rubin noticed high hot chocolate sales during the beginning of The City Bakery’s first winter that declined later in February, he introduced the idea for a hot chocolate festival to take place the following February. So on a Friday night, Rubin invited customers to taste different flavors of hot chocolate such as Bourbon, banana peel, and Earl Grey. Eventually, popularity of the hot chocolate escalated into sales of 600 cups a day during winter and the festival becoming a tradition every year. Large homemade marshmallows started accompanying the cocoa in 1994.
A growing business forced the bakery to expand and seek a new location on 18th Street, where it remains today. The staff increased to 32 people to serve the 1400 weekday customers and 2500-3000 each day on the weekend that come from Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut, Europe, Israel, Brazil, Canada, and Japan in addition to New York City.
The success of The City Bakery led to an expansion of more locations and a chain of smaller affiliated bakeries called Bird Bath. Currently 134 people work in New York locations, a number that increased when Rubin decided to tap further into the Japanese market – the largest international demographic of the bakery’s customers – with two new bakeries there earlier this year.
Two decades into business, Rubin sees no reason to sell cupcakes like other bakeries or adding a restaurant. And no matter the other goods he chooses to sell, The City Bakery will always revolve around its original idea, the French pastry.
“The bakery belongs to New York City. It became an institution; it became something that people from all around the world come to. It has become part of the city in the most legitimate way and is part of this neighborhood in the best way, and it does, it belongs to the city,” said Rubin.