102-year-old Orwasher’s Bakery is preserving NYC nostalgia while adapting to the times

September 12, 2018

There’s a good chance that if you’ve walked into one of Orwasher’s Bakery‘s Manhattan storefronts over the past decade you’ve assumed the 102-year-old business is still family owned. But the original Orwasher family sold it in 2007 to Keith Cohen. The likely confusion comes from Cohen’s dedication to maintaining the mom-and-pop feel of his Upper East and West Side locations, along with the vintage recipes for New York staples such as rye bread, challah, and sourdough. But he’s also used his business smarts to make some well-received updates, including a major expansion of the wholesale business, a new line of wine breads in collaboration with Long Island-based vineyard Channing Daughters, a formula for the perfect baguette (he even traveled to Paris to learn the art!), and, perhaps most impressively, the addition of the elusive New York bagel.

6sqft recently visited Cohen at the two-year-old Upper West Side location to learn a bit more about his journey as master baker and proprietor of one of NYC’s most beloved old-school businesses and get a behind-the-scenes look at where the magic happens.

Orwasher’s outdoor cafe on 81st and Amsterdam

The original Upper East Side location of Orwasher’s opened in 1916 on East 78th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues by a Hungarian immigrant named Abraham Orwasher when a swatch of Yorkville was known as “Little Hungary.” The Orwashers used family recipes for the high-quality rye, black, and grain breads of their homeland, baking them all in a basement brick oven and delivering the loaves by horse and carriage. Thought the Upper East Side location looks small from the outside, there were, literally, millions of pounds of dough being mixed there. Doing a quick calculation, Keith estimates that this amounted to more than 10 million loaves of bread over its 103-year history. Today, Orwasher’s churns out between 9,000 and 10,000 loaves a day!

After remaining in the Orwasher family for nearly 100 years, the business was sold to Keith in 2008. After taking over, Keith, of course, wanted to perfect the product, but he also focused on the interaction with the customer base. Though he has a staff of 95 employees, Keith can still be found every day bouncing between the wholesale bakery, visits with wholesale customers, and at the individual stores. You’ll also find him from time to time at one of Orwasher’s roughly 20 farmer’s market locations, an arm of the company that Keith felt was very important to expand to enhance the family feel. His son even ran one of the markets as a summer job.

He describes the vintage East Side store as “an oasis.” When you walk in, “it seems like you’re going to a country store in Vermont.” But even though the 1,200-square-foot West Side location on the corner of 81st and Amsterdam is a bit more modern, the customer base is quite similar. A lot of people used to travel across town and now have a store closer.

The third location of Orwasher’s is in the Whole Foods in Fort Greene. “Besides the fact that Brooklyn is hot, there is a longstanding tradition of Jewish style bakery in Brooklyn,” Keith says of the decision to expand into the borough. It also led to a local distribution partnership with Whole Foods where you’ll now find Orwasher’s breads in the majority of the NYC stores and even the larger tri-state area.

This distribution arm of the business was one of Keith’s big pushes when he took over. “It was a natural attrition from the new breads that I was trying to bring from the store that lent itself very well for wholesalers.” Orwasher’s now distributes to over 100 different places, including Chop’t, Fresh & Co., and Milk Shop. Keith is especially proud of his partnerships with Danny Meyers’ Union Square Hospitality Group and Stephen Starr’s restaurants. For the latter, the burger at a restaurant in Aukland and at the Dutch here in Soho is served on an Orwasher’s bun.

The mixer weighs 3,000 pounds! But it’s on wheels for movability.

For the past six years, the wholesale operations have operated out of a large, state-of-the-art facility in Hunts Point in the South Bronx. When the baking transferred to the Bronx from the Upper East Side, Keith and the staff ensured that the store didn’t miss a day of baking. “We moved in on a Sunday night to Monday, so we baked everything super early for Monday delivery, we moved, and then we started baking again.” During the move, Keith was amazed at how much equipment came out of that basement. “It was a tractor-trailer and a half full of stuff, between the equipment, the racks, the boards, the flour, you name it.”

In terms of the actual products, Keith’s biggest contribution has been the wine breads. He partnered with Christopher Tracy of Channing Daughters winery on the North Fork, and now every fall they rebuild the starts for the bread based on the growing season of the grapes. “Grapes are loaded with natural yeast,” he explains. He also partnered with Brooklyn’s Sixpoint Brewery to create an ale loaf.

But when it comes to bread, New Yorkers still love their old standbys. “Hands down, it has to be the seeded rye bread,” Keith says when asked what their most popular item is. “But I’m really proud that we’ve gotten to the bagels and re-created and old-school New York bagel.”

During a 10-day stay in France, Cohen trained with baguette experts in mills, making 500 to 1,200 baguettes a day!

When asked if he thinks the New York City water makes all the difference in the baking process, Keith surprisingly said no. “If I did before, I don’t now. I went to France to learn how to make baguettes correctly and to also import the flour. And the baguettes here are just as good as anything that they were making in Paris. So the water is out of the equation; it’s not even close.”

Depending on the time of year, you’ll see specialty items pop up on the shelves. For example, in February, they do a chocolate bread and in October, a pumpkin bread. For the high holidays, their signature is a sticky bun babka, “taking the gooey and nutty filling of a sticky bun and integrating it into the traditional form of a babka. It is outrageously addictive,” says Keith. For the Rosh Hashanah that just ended Orwasher’s had lines out the door at both Manhattan locations and produced 1,000s of turban challahs that were sold at the retail stores and to wholesale clients such as Zabars.

He does admit that it’s not quite as easy as it seems. “Baking, to me, is like golf. It’s just as challenging and few people can master it. Even the best golfers in the world can play terribly depending on the course or the weather. Baking is the same way. You can have a great loaf one day, and the next day it’s horrible. It’s the little nuances that make it different than cooking.”

Another addition Keith made is dinner service at the UWS location. Diners will able to enjoy a “calm, friendly atmosphere” with a reasonably priced glass of wine to go along with pinsas that use the same dough-making practices as the breads. Keith is also getting creative with how the bakery can translate to dinner; he’s currently working on the perfect puff pastry for an elevated pigs-in-a-blanket. He’s even procuring authentic Chinese hot mustard and duck sauce to go with it. Some other sharable plates you can expect to see on the menu include a simple ciabatta with za’atar dip, a runny cheese and baguette, and a salmon crudité.

Keith considers himself very nostalgic. He even keeps in his back office the antique cash register his grandfather, a kosher butcher, used.

But one thing Keith never wants is to become referred to as a chain. “It’s multiple locations. A chain, to me, means somehow there’s no soul. There’s no personal connection. Which for every single store, depending on how we hire, and everything else, I want people that have the personal connection to that customer.”


All photos taken by James and Karla Murray exclusively for 6sqft. Photos are not to be reproduced without written permission from 6sqft.

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