Bakers Journal

The Final Proof: Maury Rubin

June 12, 2008
By Final Proof

While Maury Rubin was building a second City Bakery in Los Angeles
(Rubin established the first one in New York City in 1990), and
encountering nothing but resistance to any “green” additions to the
building, he decided his next venture would be a completely green one.

While Maury Rubin was building a second City Bakery in Los Angeles (Rubin established the first one in New York City in 1990), and encountering nothing but resistance to any “green” additions to the building, he decided his next venture would be a completely green one. With walls made of wheat, flooring made from reclaimed Pennsylvania wood and countertops and shelves made out of recycled paper, that’s exactly what Birdbath, A Neighborhood Green Bakery is. We chat with Rubin about how he made it happen.

Maury Rubin on a stump-scavenging trip for tree stumps to be turned into stools at Birdbath,
A Neighborhood Green Bakery. New York City now has two Birdbath locations, with two more in the works in the city and one slated to open in Los Angeles.

Where did the inspiration for Birdbath come from?

Birdbath is really about running a food business and talking about the fact that we think about the environment, making customers part of the conversation. City Bakery is 17.5 years old, and has always been very quietly a very green business. We’ve always done recycling on our own dime, we’ve been composting food at our own expense for 10 years now, so we’ve always been engaged in being mindful of the environment. Then, in the past five years, you start to see evidence of the physical world falling apart around you and it made sense to build it into the moral of what the bakery should be in the first place. What’s different about Birdbath is deciding to really go there and make it part of what people know this business is about.

To really make it in their face?

Sort of. The idea is we want to be talking about it and we have a hunch that customers want to be talking about it too. People have totally embraced the environmental message of the business. The business is now about butter sugar, eggs and the environment.

How long did it take to build?

I had the idea for it in the summer of 2005. The Los Angeles location of City Bakery was being built in 2005, and building it was a sort of defining process for me because it was a disaster. The construction was very problematic and I had wanted to include a great deal of green building and everything about the process worked against me being able to do that. There was this frustration meter building in me and I was disappointed in the process and in myself for not being more adamant about it and I decided the next thing I built was not going to be sort of green it’s going to be 99 per cent green. It was a kick in the pants to myself.

Was it difficult to do?

It was fabulously doable. We researched it ourselves, built it ourselves, found everything on the computer. It was all very doable. It just requires the commitment.

Was it more expensive to build?

Because of the particular design it was not more expensive, but building green is anywhere from five to 25 per cent more going in. The truer answer to the question is, it depends on your definition of cost. Yes, there’s more money up front, but then the cost of the natural resources of the earth should be factored in here too. When you use green building materials, you’re extracting less from the earth. I think if you have a budget and you’re going to build a home or bakery or factory there’s some responsibility to make some decision to err on the side of, “this takes less form the earth, this pollutes less.” These materials will cost me more for the next six months but will create a healthier work environment for my employees.
I think the question of cost is a dated question. It needs to be about the total conditions created based on the materials used to build it.

When did you build the initial Birdbath?

We built it in the fall of 2005 in about three weeks. It’s a tiny little bakery. Size was a conscious decision. Part of the decision was we’ll make this thing smaller, and in building green, one of the things that has to change is the mindset that you should build bigger. The eye roller in environmental circles is the person who has built a 5,000-square-foot, eco-friendly home. There’s a scale that’s faithful to the idea of sustainability.

Now you don’t actually bake at each Birdbath location?

We bake at one of the bakeries, the first one we built is our commissary – we mix the dough there and we do the benchwork and cut it and stage it and then when it’s ready to go, some of the items we’ll bake onsite and send to the other Birdbath locations, others we’ll send to bake on location.

Where did the name come from?

I’ve been asked the question 500 times and I still don’t have a good answer. I had a bunch of different names I was thinking of and they all started with “B,” and “birdbath” was one of the names. I had some crazy idea to display all the pastry in birdbaths and one of the building materials I came across was made of shells of sunflower seeds, it’s a very cool low-energy manufacturing product, so suddenly we were looking to have walls made out of something birds ate, so I started to use the word “birdbath” to refer to the bakery and there was a quality to the way people used the word that I liked and it stuck.

How do the bakery products fit in with the environmentally friendly theme?

They’re organic, locally sourced, seasonal or all three. The products are really where it begins. I would not have the leverage to do anything involving the environment if I didn’t have pastry people are just crazy about. None of this is built on an ideal, it’s an ideal that’s built on the reality of we make great stuff.

It’s a simple bakery, it’s a very simple place, so we offer simple products: muffins, scones, and cookies, that’s the basis of it. We’ve started to do some sandwiches, but it’s all simple, straightforward stuff.  We’ve added some very environmentally friendly themes: What’s Your Carbon Footprint Cookie in the shape of a footprint, Save the Polar Bear Claws. In L.A., the same product is going to be Save the Whales Tails. We’ve also added some vegan products. I’m classically French-trained, so vegan for me was my own eye-rolling moment, but there’s an absolutely legit claim that the vegan diet is less burdensome to the earth, so we decided we should go down that road.

We have a very limited beverage menu, organic, fair trade, shade-grown coffee, lemonade, iced coffee, fresh, organic iced tea.

What about the ovens you use, are they energy efficient?

At this point, every piece of equipment we have we’re sticking with until it falls over. Anything new we buy is Energy Star. One of the things we did is we basically eliminated refrigerators. Fridges are the biggest users of electricity in a commercial kitchen, so we have one tiny under-counter refrigerator and a bunch of electric beverage dispensers instead. They cost us more than the refrigeration would, but they save us on electricity. To transport the beverages to each location, we use a cargo rickshaw. That’s probably as good an examples as what makes it a green bakery.

We’re also wind powered. It costs you about 10 per cent more, but you’re supporting something that’s so clearly beneficial to the environment. Ten per cent more might mean $35 a month more, so you’re talking about something like $500 more for the year. These are decisions I don’t put out there lightly to the baking community. It can be a tough business. I built City Bakery from the ground up and we’re solid, but I’m not swimming in cash. You do what you can, where you can. Small change is good change.

You have incentives for both staff and customers who embrace enviro-healthy practices?

We started off by having a 50 per cent discount for people who arrived by bike and then changed it to 25 per cent. Our hearts were in the right place, but our wallets couldn’t afford it. We added skateboards, and then people with baby strollers started asking for the discount, so then we made it if you come in on wheels. The idea is that people who take bikes would rightfully be taking taxis, and people who take subway would probably be taking subway anyway. We’re trying to do as much common sense practical good as we can and offer an incentive that might change behaviour – if you’re going to hop in the subway, a bike might become an option. It’s become part of the conversation.

We’re saying, “Look, we’re bakers, we’re citizens of the earth and it’s in trouble.” We’re trying to do something, we’re trying to get behaviour shifted a bit and get the conversation going a bit.

And have you?

Big time, we have created a conversation around Birdbath that’s very significant, we put a bunch of ideas in place that I know people have really responded to. We’ve totally struck a nerve.

See exclusive pictures of Birdbath, A Neighbourhood Green Bakery.

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