By Libby Cathey
The winter wind pierces across Fifth Avenue on a Monday morning, but smells of melted chocolate, baked breads, and diner-style eggs heat 3 W.18th St, as locals, tourists, and city nomads share refuge inside the The City Bakery. Liquid chocolates fill deep, ceramic mugs on cafe tables, while to-go customers cradle classic, blue “City Bakery” cups between their hurried hands. Behind The Bakery’s devoted workers, loyal customers, honest products, and delicate pastries, sits a single man with a self-made story.
Maury Rubin, founder and owner of Manhattan’s “The City Bakery” attributes his success to being a constant student of the bakery business. Over the past 23 years, Rubin’s bakery has become a New York landmark for its hot chocolate, baked goods, and for the story visitors become part of when visiting the iconic destination.
Before dreams of running a bakery, Rubin worked as a two-time Emmy Award winning television producer and director at ABC Sports. As the play-by-play sports announcer for his college radio station, Rubin was hired to assist legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell and moved to New York after graduation.
In 1986, approaching his sixth year at ABC, Rubin took a vacation to France that would lay the foundation for The City Bakery. In the countryside of Lyon, a simple baking course ignited Rubin’s obsession with French pastry. He spent the next year as an apprentice in pastry shops across Paris before returning to New York.
“When I got back to New York, I discovered that bakeries here were terrible…I was sort of shocked and appalled and disappointed,” Rubin said. “I thought ‘Wait a second, I can do this better.’”
With little business experience and only one year of apprenticeship under his belt, Rubin devoted his time between visits to the library and experimental sessions in the kitchen, strengthening his business and baking crafts. He spent the next three years creating an updated model of the classic American bakery.
After designing his business plan, he gained the confidence of six private investors and began searching for the bakery’s location. Inspired by the farmer’s markets of France, he purchased a 1900 sq.ft. space on 17th St. and 5th Ave. because of its close proximity to the Union Square Green Market. Rubin praises this “incredible, invaluable, good first decision” for the bakery’s longtime success.
With local products, warm pastries, and an optimistic staff, The City Bakery opened at 22 E.17th St. in 1990. With a simple interior design, Rubin’s idea was to create a “bare canvas” so customer attention was on the pastry.
“It was all about the pastry, it was all about the color of the pastry, and the design of the pastry. And everything was about clearing all visual clutter away, so anyone who would walk in would focus on the pastry.”
Officially in the food industry, Rubin and his team faced a grueling path ahead. His bakery hours were upwards of 100 a week, more demanding than when he worked in TV. He immersed his thoughts in creative ideas for The Bakery’s product and people, but it was difficult to maintain good products, customer service, and successful marketing, while earning a monetary profit.
The first three years “the bakery didn’t make one dollar,” but in his fourth year, Rubin switched gears into business. With its existence on the line, The Bakery had its first profitable year in 1994 and has earned a profit every year since.
“I moved my head into this place of “you got to figure out how to make money because as much as people love your product it’s not going to matter, so I think in the fourth year I sort of came to work as a small business person for the first time.”
Both a business difficulty and catalyst for The Bakery has been its menu. While farmer’s market products are fresh, they are also inconsistent, so prices often fluctuate and certain products are unavailable. However, Rubin said the key to the Bakery’s success is its continued partnership with local farmers.
“We built a unique reputation in the sense that no bakery before city bakery had worked completely off of the farmers market, seasonal menus, organic.”
Rubin credits his everyday experiences for allowing him to turn The City Bakery into a profitable business. Through unanticipated issues and organic solutions, Rubin and his team developed a unique business plan for the neighborhood bakery that could.
“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…you learn how to make profit and roll it into something that is more valuable by doing something else.”
For eleven years The City Bakery stood at 17th St. until business demanded a bigger space. The move to 18th St. fostered growth in square size, seating, food selection, and customer support. Rubin highlighted the importance of his first eleven years in the neighborhood. When The Bakery first opened in 1990, the buildings were empty and the 5th Ave. storefronts were last generation businesses. “It was a completely different and uninvolved neighborhood,” he said.
But as The Bakery expanded, the neighborhood grew. Farmer’s markets in Union Square have doubled over the past decade. With a bigger base supply, Rubin buys from the same families he did twenty-three years ago, except “now it’s their children I’m buying from.”
Rubin catered to the developing neighborhood by serving lunch and offering easy take-out and sit-in dining. The Bakery averages 1400 people on weekdays and the number doubles to 2500 on weekends, reaching up to 3000 customers on a Saturday in winter. It’s become a destination bakery, especially during hot chocolate season.
“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. That’s the sort of moment in time, like, change in hot chocolate civilization.”
One quiet February in The Bakery’s early years, Rubin created the Hot Chocolate Festival as a promotional event. He handed out invitations to customers for a Friday night hot chocolate tasting including flavors such as banana peel, cinnamon, earl grey, bourbon, and cold hot chocolate.
“We sold more hot chocolate than anybody who’s ever made hot chocolate. And in New York City, we’ve sold thousands of cups of hot chocolate a day. In winter, our average number is almost 600 cups of hot chocolate a day. People walk in the door — if they know anything about City Bakery before they’ve ever been here, it’s the hot chocolate.”
Rubin’s oversized, famous marshmallows are also homemade and have been featured in the New York Times alongside Martha Stewart’s. Though the two-dollar marshmallows take over a day to make and cannot be preserved long, the melt-in-your-mouth, gooey sugar loafs are the perfect addition to the warm, creamy, chocolate drink.
The everything bagel was fresh, doughy, and pungent, coated in seeds. Room temperature, diner-style eggs came on the side, and though I normally take my eggs fried on a bagel, I can’t help but feel at ease inside the quaint Bakery. Pretzel croissants, fruit muffins, and oversized cookies cover both counters of the central bar and tempt customers towards a second trip. But all it takes is a cup of hot chocolate with a marshmallow atop for a proper first visit.
The bakery isn’t packed, yet all types of people are sitting in and taking out. A pair of young businessmen meet for breakfast. Four friends leisurely sip coffee in a cozy, corner booth. Students with laptops and headphones sit at the second floor bar and overlook the open air cafe.
“We’re a little bit of like a quasi-public park. It’s an old cafeteria style, and, you know, anybody’s welcomed, and whether you buy food or not,” Rubin said.
Rubin admits that The Bakery’s future is uncertain. Without an apprentice and with big business buyouts increasing around the Village, he’s nervous about how his retirement might unfold. But until then, he dedicates The Bakery to the citizens of New York.
“I think 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. It became an institution, it became something that people from all around the world come to. It belongs to the city.”