Monday, March 04, 2013

Bakery Intervention: The Maury Rubin Interview, Part 1

Now that the Hot Chocolate Festival is over, you might think that City Bakery's owner Maury Rubin would have some time to waste.  What he has instead are five micro-bakeries--the Birdbaths--to attend to now, in addition to the mother ship on 18th Street near Union Square in Manhattan.  I cornered him in a closet--a chocolate closet--and we talked for about ten minutes before an urgent bakery matter came up.  I learned that he doesn't like the word foodie. He prefers food-informed citizen.

Port Hot Chocolate--2013 festival finale

Emily: I could start by asking you when you opened this place—about 20 years ago?

Maury: December 8, 1990.  Where were you that day?

E: I was in grade school, on the Upper Eastside, I think. Unless it was on the Upper Westside.  Where were you that day?

M: I was at City Bakery.

Right.  And what were you doing?

That first day, a little bit of everything.  And ask me what I’m doing today.

I will. But what I actually want to ask you is…

Alright, go ahead, your interview, I’m sorry..

No, it’s ok. I do want to know what you’re doing today.  But I also want to know what was going on around here on December whatever in 1990. What was happening in the food scene back then?  Were there foodies?

The use of the term foodie came to be the blight on society that it is, I’d say, not in significant number prior to 1993-4-5, somewhere in there.

So what was the relationship between the average New Yorker and food at the time that you opened this bakery?

Well, to stick to my little piece of real estate in New York city in answer to that question: Greenmarket, which today is a multi-million-dollar enterprise, a four-day-a-week activity, and a verifiable New York thing to do... Greenmarket was a day-two-a-week thing, roughly a dozen farmers, nobody had ever heard the word “heirloom” in front of anything, let along tomato or potato. Greenmarket was a sort of curiosity in the neighborhood. It had not yet found its trajectory. The food business in NYC was a very different creature because Greenmarket wasn't what Greenmarket has become--in the way that it plugs into so much of the restaurant and retail food business in New York. And I’d say that New Yorkers then were their fabulous food-informed selves, but to be a food-informed New Yorker in 1990, pre- ... basically pre-internet, pre-food-blogosphere, pre-Food Network, was a very different level of being a food-informed citizen.

And so what did you offer that was part of that education?

A lot.

What were you doing that first day so that people walked by and said “I’ve never seen that before”?

That’s true, that’s actually exactly what happened.  In one way, physically.  Because 17th Street was the ugly duckling street of Union Square, it was the last street to really turn as Union Square was becoming the sort of powerhouse valuable destination in New York City that it is.  It wasn’t even, it wasn’t really a restaurant neighborhood yet. It wasn’t a fabulous sort of professionally creative neighborhood yet.  In Union Square in 1990, there were two professions that filled up this entire neighborhood: architecture and photography.  Because the buildings were big old early-1900s buildings and they had big floor plates and it was cheap space and architects needed cheap space and photographers needed cheap space. Now, all those people have moved on and moved out.  But what City Bakery did that was a sort of moment in food time was it put in place a new model of what a neighborhood bakery might be.  We had lunch.  As simple as that might sound, or as obvious as that might sound today, bakeries did not routinely have sandwiches and salad and soup. City Bakery had a little tiny lunch menu.  It was a five-foot table, 30 inches deep.  We had a tuna salad sandwich, mozzarella and tomato sandwich on focaccia, we had two homemade pizzas, two salads, and one soup—tomato soup. And that was it, that was our entire lunch menu.  And that lunch menu, modest as that sounds, was a sort of bakery intervention.  So that became the start of what I would say is now the de facto model.

Maury Rubin

You've done a lot of things that changed the picture since 1990.

Yeah, that’s just one of them.  The day that City Bakery opened, it was the last breath of many generations of family ethnic neighborhood bakeries that were becoming extinct. So German, Italian, French, Jewish, all of those bakeries were on their last legs, and they really had been making the same baked goods for probably 50, 75, in some cases longer, that many years. One way to describe what they did was they worked out of cans.  If you went into a bakery in 1940 or 50 or 60 or 70 or even 80 and you bought a fruit tart, the chances were really incredibly good that that fruit came out of a can. So one of the things that City Bakery did is it changed forever the idea that a bakery should work with canned fruit. And we went to Greenmarket and we got whatever was in town that day. That’s what we could use, that’s what we made, and that was our menu. And what wasn’t in town was food that we didn’t have.  So if you came in, and you had a strawberry tart and it was the end of July and you loved it, and you came back three weeks later and you said “where are those strawberry tarts?”, we might say strawberry season’s done, but we’ll see you in May.

And as the business grew, you grew into the space, too...

Well we weren’t here on 18th Street.  We were…

On 17th Street. In a similar post-industrial space?

Is this post-industrial?

I would say so.  Exposed pipelines...

Um, it was a little similar.  It was a little starker, actually. It was a little more minimal.

It sounds like.  I mean, I’m going to skip ahead a few chapters.  It sounds like the business grew, the space grew, real estate became more expensive, the products became more expensive. And that was in large part because of what you instigated. But then you also changed with it, and you have a more high-end business now, more space, more customers, more competition, and the cycle just keeps moving.  You’re introducing more and more things.  And one of the things that you introduced was… This place where we’re standing right now is called The Chocolate Room.  And it was called that before there was a business of the same name in Brooklyn, right?

Better for me not to comment about that.  But, yeah.

When did this closet open?

I started the Chocolate Room actually, literally, in a closet on 17th Street.  It was a little experiment.  And then when we moved to 18th Street, which was April of 2001, I built this. I treated myself to the add-on den which is the Chocolate Room.

So this all started when I was in college and just moved to this neighborhood. How would you describe the chocolate knowledge of New Yorkers in general in 2001?

Um. The Chocolate knowledge… can we, can we take a break, is that ok?

And with that, Maury was off to take care of a bike-messenger-baked-goods situation.  He did, though, come back to the closet, to finish the interview.  Stay tuned for Part 2...


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