On November 26th, Allison and Matt Robicelli soft opened the first stand-alone location of their popular bakery, Robicelli's, on an unlikely block of Third Avenue in Bay Ridge. The bakery was born in the couple's first store, Robicelli's Gourmet Market, which also sold specialty goods and fancified sandwiches. They closed the market in 2009 to focus on selling wholesale (and raising their children), and for the last four years have been baking their whoopie pies, cult favorite cupcakes, and other baked goods out of Sunset Park's Hana Kitchen. Now, after after completing some finishing touches, they're ready to welcome public into the bakery.
The truth is that the couple's decision to open up another store involved a lot of soul searching about who they were and what they wanted their company to be.
"People were asking us to go to Greenpoint, we were looking at Park Slope, and there were a lot of realtors in Manhattan that had been emailing us for a long time," says Allison. "And I'm like, 'I don't even want to go look at the East Village.' We were looking at places we had no connection to."
Opening up a storefront again wasn't always the plan. The couple had been considering going the factory route, focusing on mass producing mixes, with a business plan that Allison described as "something out of a [freaking] textbook." The Robcielli's came to the conclusion that they would have lost something essential had they gone down that route.
This came to the forefront in their conversations with investors, when some asked them about their exit strategy. Allison was exasperated. They weren't building this business just to sell it. They wanted to build something lasting. "I want to watch kids grow up here," she told me. They wanted to make something that would become part of the fabric of Bay Ridge.
More importantly, their experiences aiding southern Brooklyn, Rockaway, and Queens after Hurricane Sandy cleared out a lot of the noise, giving them the space and perspectives they needed to reflect on what direction they wanted the company to move in.
"I think Sandy was the thing that brought out who we really were, because I was just incensed by the way native Brooklynites and New Yorkers were being treated," Allison said. "I realized, this is where we belong. We put good things into Bay Ridge, and we set out to cook for people like us."
The kitchen here is open, separated from customers by a half-wall. It's something that you don't see too often in New York bakeries. They hope that this will help demystify the magic of baking, and Allison is excited that people will be able to come in and see her and Matt shaping pie dough. (They have a very public love affair with pie.) They hope, too, that this will help demonstrate what separates their baked goods from those of others in that neighborhood that rely on pre-made mixes and low quality ingredients.
They'll be baking much more than just cupcakes, and Allison is excited by the chance to show off all the other great things they love to make. "We never meant to become known only for our cupcakes. It just sort of happened," she told me.
There will be cupcakes, yes, but also eggnog whoopie pies ($2.50), brown sugar mini bundt cakes ($2.50), molasses swirl coffee cake ($2.50), sea salt brownies and the Maltz brownies (the latter is made with chocolate, bourbon, and bacon; both $3.50), trail mix cookies ($2), sweet potato pie with honey whiskey butterscotch ($4.25), and more. Scones and muffins, which they were waiting to roll out until they got a good read on their breakfast crowd, should be available this week. In short, you'll find a litany of American-style baked treats. What's available will change on a more or less on a day-by-day basis, with an emphasis on seasonality.
Customers will be able to enjoy the scene and linger over a cup of Stumptown coffee ($2 for a small, $2.50 for a large) or hot chocolate ($3 for a small, $4 for a large), whether at tables up front or at the counters, which should be installed later this week, adjacent to the ovens. Next year, come warm weather, a backyard will open up.
Supporting the community is as important to the Robicelli's as French buttercream, if that wasn't already clear, which is why they'll be hanging up works from local artists like John Avelutto of The Owl's Head and Teri Brennan (whose photos appear in this article.)
"There's a big social aspect to what we're trying to do here," Allison said. She talked about increasing their nonprofit work, and holding food events where people can come and tell their stories. "We have to be part of something bigger—it's not just about baking some cookies or cupcakes and putting them in a box."
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats and Anatomy of A Smorgasburg Pop Up columns. Follow him on Twitter, if you'd like. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob, or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.