By Hayley Munguia
City Bakery has become somewhat of a Manhattan institution, known for its ever-changing seasonal menu and year-round hot chocolate. But most New Yorkers aren’t aware of the man behind the pastry: Maury Rubin, the producer/director-turned-bakery owner.
“I grew up loving sports and wanted to do something with radio, TV, or film,” Rubin said. “In college, I was the play-by-play announcer for the radio station—basketball, football, lacrosse.”
Rubin worked for ABC Sports for about five and a half years before a vacation to France in 1986 changed the entire course of his career.
“I took a pastry course purely for fun,” Rubin said. “I loved it. I became a little obsessed about it. I decided to stay in France.”
After working for a year as an apprentice at two bakeries, he returned to New York, where he “discovered that bakeries here were terrible,” and decided that he could create something better. So he did, and in 1990, the bakery was born.
“I started working on the bakery,” Rubin said. “I’d never run a business before. And the first thing I did was spend a lot of time in the Donnell — it’s not even there anymore — the 53rd Street New York Public Library just researching basics about how to write a business plan.”
But despite his relative disadvantage — most New York bakeries at the time were family institutions — Rubin’s experiences in France gave him a competitive edge that would put him decades ahead of the current farm-to-table trend.
“When I was in France, I went to the farmers’ markets all the time, so when I got back here I sort of connected and fell in love with the Green Market,” he said. “What I wanted to do with the bakery was attach it to a farmer’s market, because the thing about those other bakeries [is that] you went in to buy a fruit tart, and the fruit came out of a can. There’s just no way that the fruit wasn’t processed food.”
This initial differentiation came to define City Bakery.
“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 said. “Everything is seasonal. If it’s a wet, early season, and let’s say berries are impacted and there’s only a couple weeks of strawberries, then we’ll have strawberry tarts for two weeks of the year, and they’re gone. That’s it.”
The novelty of this concept spoke for itself, and it wasn’t long before City Bakery’s patronage started to grow, even if profits didn’t immediately follow.
“The first three years of the bakery, the business made not one dollar, and it was really remarkable to me, like, ‘Oh my god, people love us, we’re making really great pastries, people are talking about us. We’re working 80 hours a week, and we can’t make a dollar,’” Rubin said. “And that was when, in the fourth year, I decided I was going to make money this year or bust, and we made money. And that fourth year was the first year we made some money.”
And now, 20 years later, City Bakery has grown in both reputation and space. No longer at its original 1,900 square-foot East 17th St. location, Rubin decided it was time to scale up in 2001, when he relocated to the bakery’s current 8,000 square-foot space at 3 West 18th St.
But with no menu anywhere to be found, only the ever-rotating name cards placed in front of each plate of available pastries for the day, and with everything right down to the hot chocolate marshmallows handmade on-site (except for the dough, which is mixed at 18 W. 18th St., less than 100 feet away, for lack of space), City Bakery certainly remains true to its roots.
“I’ve always wanted to have a business that was a little bit off-kilter, a little bit enigmatic, a little bit just its own,” Rubin said. “And you know, I think City Bakery is still all those things this many years later.”