Producer Profile: Slice of Life: Sarabeth’s Bakery
This 16-year-old bakery, in a bustling New York City market, feeds a handful of restaurants and a steady line of local patrons. Sarabeth Levine, an energetic septuagenarian, continues to gain speed, just like the brand that has borne her name for 30 years.
Chelsea Market, one of Manhattan’s trendiest food-centric destinations, has been home to Sarabeth Levine’s 4,400-square-foot wholesale and retail bakery since 1998. Reminiscent of her original bakery cafe, it pumps out a repertoire of baked goods—from muffins and bread to cheese straws and creme brulee—for all Sarabeth’s restaurants in New York City and a handful of wholesale clients such as online retailer Fresh Direct, whose orders can consist of 20 cases of scones and 20 cases of biscuits. Amid the foodservice activity, Sarabeth’s serves breakfast and lunch items to a steady line of market-goers, fulfills mail-order catalog requests, and caters the occasional last-minute lunch for some of the businesses located in the building.
Specialty Food Magazine visited Sarabeth’s Bakery in Chelsea Market to witness firsthand a typical day at the bustling bakery.
Morning ritual in a nutshell
Levine takes five seconds to observe the kitchen, its vibe, and who is working, and to greet the staff before heading to the office. Throughout the day, Levine says, “I go where I’m needed. I do everything from recipe testing to paperwork to laundry. If I’m not needed in the kitchen for production I’ll work on recipes for my new cookbook.”
Skilled Leader, Team Player
“Every day is different and you never know what to expect,” says Levine, donned in her kitchen whites, standing over a chocolate tempering machine waiting to dip a batch of orange-apricot sandwich cookies. “Yesterday I was doing the laundry in the back room.” Levine says she prefers to wash everyone’s whites herself than subject them to the harsh chemicals of a professional service.
Levine is present and working at the bakery daily, typically arriving by 8:30 a.m. “If I come in later than 9 a.m. everyone asks me what’s wrong or if I am OK,” she jokes.
Though she is the boss, Levine floats around her production area more like a tournant, a pair of spare hands gliding through the kitchen, willingly lending assistance to others where needed. This roundsman approach has created a brand with longevity but also fosters a work environment with loyal employees like Marcelo Gonzalez, her head pastry chef who has been baking by Levine’s side for more than 30 years.
“Marcelo and I have an unspoken dialogue,” says Levine. “It’s like a dance we do. We know when to help each other without having to exchange a word.” Levine says she is lucky to have such a dedicated, hardworking staff by her side. Several of her bakers have been with her for well over a decade.
Setting the Pace and a Positive Mindset
A team of eight fulltime bakers staff the production area, working in two shifts, 4 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. to midnight. Pickups for the restaurant take place daily at 4:30 a.m. (An additional staff of nine run the retail operation and office.)
Throughout the morning, the team produces an array of regular items, like cheese straws (some 500 a day), as well as banana muffins, lowfat bran muffins with berries, and popular English muffins with a unique recipe and distinct shape.
On this day, Levine’s decision to dip cookies ensures Gonzalez and his team will not fall behind in production. She also makes sure to melt some extra chocolate to have ready for his next project, finishing a batch of heart-shaped dulce de leche sandwich cookies—a recent popular creation of Gonzalez’s.
Levine sees the project would go faster with her help, so she quickly creates a paper cornet, fills it with melted chocolate, and jumps on the assembly line to add a chocolate drizzle to the assembled cookies. When finished she notices her design doesn’t match the others.
“Someone new did the drizzling, it was his first try,” Gonzalez says, assuring her that the staffer will get to where he needs to be. Shirking what might have been disappointment, Levine says, “This is what we do here. We create, teach, learn from each other, and share our ideas and passion for baking. It’s just how we work.”
With Valentine’s Day a few days away, Levine’s team has also made a batch of heart-shaped seven-grain bread. “Aren’t they cute?” she says, pointing to the rolls sitting on a counter in the kitchen. Though Gonzalez and Levine like the taste—they silently gesture to each other that butter would be in order—she seems on the fence about their destiny for the day. “We just might have to get some turkey for turkey burgers or egg salad and make sandwiches out of them for lunch,” she muses. “They won’t just get by on their cuteness. We have to make sure they taste good, too.”
A Philosophy of Focus
While Gonzalez finishes the last phase of the dulce de leche cookies, a light sprinkling of sea salt, Levine shares her thoughts on today’s culinary scene—which she says is an amazing homage to food, but not which she totally understands.
“[Food] has become very tweaked. I don’t really get it,” she says, referring to herself as more of a purist who likes to indulge in a great vanilla ice cream rather than frozen treats spiked with hot chile peppers. “I can handle a little salt in my chocolate, but I’m not sure these new flavors work.”
Levine attributes her success to staying true to herself. “We have not ventured away from the concept of the kind of baking I have done from the very beginning,” she explains. “It is real, done from scratch, and not separate components—you can taste everything I do in one bite.”
There is always a temptation to do more to keep up with the trends and the times, Levine admits, but she refuses to veer away from her own classic style. Long-standing menu items include English muffins, palmiers, scones, and chocolate marmalade cookies.
Levine’s attention to detail is evident beyond the kitchen. Entering the retail area of the bakery, she begins tidying shelves and straightening packages of granola that had been shuffled around, something she does every morning on the way in before even taking off her coat. “I’m like Superman with X-ray vision,” she says, darting her eyes around the shop. “I can always see something out of place or spot a dirty rag that needs to be put in the laundry.”
When creating new offerings, she often builds on what’s successful and will keep the product for a testing period, during which its fate will be decided. “Most new items remain popular for about two weeks,” Levine notes. She says if interest wanes after that point, they take it out of the case and move on. “You can’t get attached to things. That philosophy has helped us stay in business.”
Creating a Bakery and a Brand
Sarabeth Levine could have been a dentist. But a secret family recipe for orange-apricot marmalade changed her path to create a wildly successful baking empire.
Starting with that recipe in 1981, Sarabeth Levine and her husband, Bill, opened a tiny bakery-cafe on Amsterdam Avenue in New York City’s Upper West Side.
“I was very close to going to dental school, but this recipe got to me first,” recalls Levine, whose first retail clients included the likes of Balducci’s, Macy’s, and Bloomingdale’s. When marmalade production moved from her apartment to the cafe, equipped with a 40-gallon steam kettle, business grew, and Levine started making oatmeal, eggs, and French toast for the 15 or so patrons she was able to squeeze in at one time.
“You could not get a [nice] breakfast in the early ’80s unless you went to a luncheonette or were dining in a hotel,” Levine says. “I knew I had something special—something that people wanted.”
Within the next five years, she opened up two more Manhattan restaurants bearing her name. Ten years later, Levine was approached by a management group to license her name and expand on her successful restaurant concept.
“Never in my dreams when I first started in 1981 did I think I would ever be in the restaurant business,” she says. “We started out taking baby steps and the steps just kept getting bigger and bigger and we got more adventurous.”
Levine acknowledges that a larger presence and multiple locations has its trade-offs. “You can’t be everywhere all the time,” she says. “Our restaurant partners and team are the keepers of the brand and they do an amazing job.”
Today, the Sarabeth empire consists of 12 licensed restaurants—including two in Tokyo—with more to come; a jam factory in the Bronx pumping out more than a million jars of jam each year; 17 sofi Awards for products that range from creamy tomato soup to the orange-apricot marmalade that started it all; and a bakery-cafe in Manhattan’s Chelsea Market, with baked goods funneled to each restaurant.
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