In 2013, a friend and I decided to try our luck and see what all the Cronut hype was about. We arrived at Dominique Ansel in Soho at 7:30 a.m.: A decade later, I couldn’t tell you what flavor Cronut we had, but I do remember the roughly 40 customers in line, a handful of those who even brought folding chairs.
Croissant innovation has continued: These days, though, waiting in lines for the next it-dessert has become my job — particularly since bakeries increasingly have as much status as hot restaurants, in part because more people can afford a luxe pastry than a four-course tasting menu.
Any New Yorker will tell you that lines in general are almost never worth it. In a city with a plethora of dining options, there’s always somewhere else to go. Onetime hip bakeries like Sullivan Street Bakery, Magnolia Bakery, and Arcade (RIP) may have long existed in the city, but in the last three years, something new has been happening, making more people take interest than ever before. Even the James Beards are paying attention: 2023 is the first that it’s adding an outstanding bakery category to its awards list.
Pandemic pop-ups pushed the needle for bakeries. When COVID closed restaurants, pop-ups exploded as a way to fill that niche. Baked goods — a combination of take-out-friendly structures and a salve in a sad time — were ready for the taking.
“I think people were looking for a little bit of pleasure or just a pick-me-up — a little bit of light in all of the darkness,” said Autumn Moultrie, co-owner of microbakery Back Alley Bread. “Microbakery” is a term that’s come to refer to online operations, as opposed to a physical location; Back Alley Bread, which began in 2020 on Instagram, signed on to open its first storefront this week at 53 Rockaway Avenue, between Sumpter and Marion streets, in Bed-Stuy.
Though some reports have suggested that pastry chefs are going extinct at NYC restaurants, in truth they are just evolving. Fandom has outlasted the onset of the pandemic, she says: “Pastry places are becoming the destination, not the afterthought, or just end of the meal.” Moultrie says that for Back Alley, the secret to its success was staying nimble, and not just pigeonholing its goodies into one niche — selling angel donuts, Frito pie, and Jamaican patties all under the same roof.
If bake sales now hold a form of social capital, the rise of the trend in recent years can be attributed in part to bakers like Natasha Pickowicz. While her events, which began in 2017, were by no means the first, they pulled together pastry friends from nearly every top bakery in the city — making it not only a community event that raised around $8,000 on its first go, but a scene unto itself.
“When I first started the bakes sales it was at a time when it felt like pastry wasn’t getting the same kind of love or appreciation that the savory chefs were; it was treated as a secondary category,” says the author of More Than Cake. “So it felt kind of radical to me to be able to bring together pastry chefs and bakers specifically and celebrate and honor the amazing work that they were doing. There were so few opportunities for us to even come together as an industry to network and be around each other’s work.”
Pickowicz says our definition of what we think of as bakers, is expanding beyond the person who’s working in a restaurant or in a physical storefront, and along with it, who gets to participate in these types of events, beyond just institutional voices.
Since the start of the pandemic, one can regularly find lines at new bakeries like From Lucie, L’Appartement 4F, Lysée, Librae Bakery, Bạn Bè, and Lady Wong. It’s not only bakeries focused on viennoiserie that are taking the lead: The Vietnamese American Bạn Bè had a waitlist before it opened. Bakery pop-ups, in which treats are dropped like something from the streetwear brand Supreme, have become a calling card for bakeries ahead of their storefront openings. (ALF Bakery, which opened last week in Chelsea Market, sold gift bags of its bakery goods in anticipation.)
On a recent weekend morning, for example, I arrived 30 minutes early to a pop-up for Radio Bakery ahead of the opening of its Greenpoint location at the end of April. I was already the seventh person in line. Less than an hour after showtime, all 300 pastries had sold out, says Kelly Mencin, co-owner of Radio.
Not unlike a streetwear drop, prices have increasingly reflected the demand. The average fancy croissant price has gone up some since 2019 — to, anecdotally, $6.50 at trendy spots. In 2022, for example, CNBC reported that egg prices had, on average more than doubled in price for grade A eggs; this March, the price for consumer eggs reportedly dropped by 11 percent, but that still places them as a high-tier item, much more expensive than they were prior to the pandemic — a 36 percent price increase, year over year. In September 2022, the price of butter was nearly $5 per pound and some experts have suggested that price may not come down.
“I think that was the main reason we were having such a hard time finding a brick-and-mortar and finding finances — everything got so expensive. The butter we were using went up as much as 40 percent from when we first started,” says Moultrie, who adds that they weren’t really able to buy in bulk due to the limited space, unable to compete with discounts restaurants can receive. “We can’t order, you know, 50 bags of flour at one time. Where are we going to put it?”
Increased prices are not only due to inflation, but also changing attitudes about baking as a profession.
Carla Finley of Apt. 2 Bread, an Instagram bakery that sells items like focaccia out of her Brooklyn apartment, who previously worked as a rep for pastry ingredient sales, says she is in support of pastries costing more. They have a short shelf life, and take an extraordinary amount of time and labor, she says. “[Bread] is a little different from cakes where you can charge hundreds of dollars. But even still, I try to emphasize recognizing that it’s a product that I’m making alone and it takes a lot of time, so there is a higher value in that,” she says. She tries to convey that to her audience but adds that there may be “an ideological jump because we’ve been trained to think of prices of pastries reflective of what they are at coffee shops that get theirs from wholesalers.”
For Pickowicz, it feeds a larger discussion around pay transparency in the industry. Though pop-up bakeries, even those that draw lines, may not be beholden to the same storefront rent, to run a pop-up out of someone else’s space is in a lot of ways even more of a “crazy grind,” she says due to having to build out a new kitchen from scratch, in addition to different costs associated with one-off events. “A lot of times with pop-ups you’re getting something bespoke, something that may not ever exist ever again…. Thankfully, guests do feel more gracious and generous with the understanding that this isn’t a normal restaurant scenario.”
Either way, the hype puts more pressure on smaller operators. “Whenever something is hyped up, it’s hard to live up to people’s expectations of a product they’ve never tried before,” says Ashley Coiffard of L’Appartement 4’F, who adds that they’ve gotten their fair share of bad reviews. Though the bakery sells other things, its croissant cereal has been what catapulted it to fame — and it’s also been a pain in the ass to keep up. The process takes four days, and works just like regular-sized croissant production, only on a miniature scale; then they’re dehydrated for 10 hours. “After a lot of sleepless nights in the beginning, it was definitely tempting to take it off the menu,” says Coiffard. She adds that they can only produce five to 10 boxes a day, despite suggestions that they are intentionally creating a scarcity of product to keep it a luxury item.
Lucie Franc de Ferriere, who opened From Lucie in the East Village in early 2023 after pandemic-born social media success, said some people genuinely like lines because it makes them feel a part of something. “There’s excitement to feeling like you have the exclusive cake that everyone wants,” she says, adding that the lines provide free marketing and she’s grateful for it. But she wrestles with what her bakery, even in its short time of being open, has become. “It puts on a bit more stress on my employees and staff. The lines make people more impatient,” she says, adding that they’ve tried to implement time-saving measures like pre-boxing cakes. What started off as a casual business for her has gained pressure she never asked for: “Occasionally people are like, ‘Oh, you know, I’ve wasted that amount of personal time waiting for this pastry,’” a dynamic that can set the bakery up for failure no matter how good it is.
“I think my cakes are great and you know, they’re all my personal recipes that I work hard on, but I’ve never claimed to be the best cake in New York City,” she says.
These days, the wait times have gone down some and she’s enjoying having a From Lucie customer base that’s happening more organically through the neighborhood than primarily fueled by social media.