A Q&A with Judith Norell, Proud Owner of Silver Moon Bakery

A version of this story was first published on the 102nd/103rd Street Block Association Blog.

By Caitlin Hawke

Silver Moon Bakery, a pearl of a shop, does both food and volume — a delicious selection of breads and pastries and a line of customers straight out the door in most any season. It also adds in an artisan’s touch passing on the bread and patisserie craft to apprentices. That’s a lot for one little storefront.

Judith Norell is the artisan-entrepreneur behind Silver Moon Bakery, or SMB as she refers to it, on the northeast corner of West 105th Street and Broadway. She sends out a warm newsletter with what’s coming out of the ovens and what’s in the planning for upcoming feast days and holidays of all denominations. Just like she was your next-door neighbor. Because she is. She is a Bloomingdaler of longstanding. And now she’s the owner of one of the oldest Mom & Pop purveyors around, though many still think of her as the new kid on the block.  But she’s endured.  And that’s not nothing!

I have long admired Judith as an entrepreneur, a businesswoman, a second-careerist, a neighborhood champion and an emblem of the Mom & Pop potential to rebound on our avenues.

SMB anchors the charming, unchanged historic building, that is captured over the years in these shots below. Judith was able to open SMB because her then landlord, Georgia Stamoulis, became her partner. To this day, Georgia remains Judith’s partner, but Georgia’s brother, Michael Rose (who owns Broadway Cellar) is the current SMB landlord. To Georgia and Michael, we owe a word of thanks for keeping this vibrant bakery right where it belongs, bespoke for their special, low-lying corner of Broadway.

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Suvganiot in large and small sizes 😋 #Delicious

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I caught up with Judith a while back for the Q&A you’ll see below.

But before we dig in, what can we all do if we value this sort of shop and feel it enhances our day-to-day?

Help make her bottom line! Buy treats. Grab sandwiches. Get lattes. Order your special event cakes. Thank all her employees for keeping on keeping on, for their attention to quality, for their fondness for neighbors and those who come from other areas to indulge.

So, in 2018, my wish for us all? Honor thy Mom & Pop.

If we let down our guard, they’ll pave paradise and put up a parking lot (under a modern luxe condo).

Q&A with Judith Norell, proprietor of Silver Moon Bakery

Caitlin Hawke: When did you establish Silver Moon at the corner of 105th and Broadway…a corner that is perfect for you?
Judith Norell: We opened on November 8, 2000.

Caitlin: How do you keep it fresh?  SMB hasn’t aged at all….
Judith: Well, we paint once in a while and put in new countertops, so SMB looks better. But, seriously, I love to travel, and whenever or wherever I travel, I talk to bakers and taste. So I find new ideas from the interchange of different cultures.

Caitlin: Where does the name come from?
Judith: My original thought was to call it Silent Moon Bakery after a Zen poem about the Buddha who, like the moon in the sky, silently illuminates everything.

Caitlin: Artisanal bread baking is a second and illustrious career for you after your work as a professional harpsichordist that I read about here, here and here.  How long did you think you’d be in the baking game when you started SMB?
Judith: I never calculated.  My choices have usually been approached as “an adventure” — I do it with my full heart, but, like an adventure, it may succeed and may not.

Caitlin: How has business evolved for you as your reputation has been more and more burnished over the years?
Judith: I don’t really know how to answer that question. We opened, and still are, an artisanal neighborhood bakery, and in spite of any publicity we have received, we rely on our immediate neighbors to keep us open. Personally, being an Upper West Sider for many years, I am familiar and comfortable with the political and social attitude in our neighborhood.  This means – at least in my experience – open criticism when things are not perfect, complaints about “high prices” (although in 17 years, our prices have increased much less than most other food items have. Check out our local supermarkets and compare their prices with those of 15 years ago). I personally have not profited financially from our increased reputation, but have tried to benefit our employees whenever things got a bit better.

Caitlin: What is important to you in business as part of your life view?  
Judith: To try to create a harmonious work atmosphere, and to realize that the most genius person can’t do it alone, but relies on everyone working with him or her to be successful. People spend at least a third of their day at work, and it should be as pleasurable or at least benign as possible.  I speak from experience; during my apprenticeship in a bakery, the owner didn’t know how to talk to those working for him; he was not a mean man, but like many of his generation, started as an apprentice, which meant abuse by his boss, and that he passed on to others when he had power.  He would never praise, only denigrate or criticize; the first time he did this to me, I was sure I would be fired, but, no, it was just his way. If he didn’t say anything, you knew it was great.  He also talked down to many of the immigrants from other societies who worked for him, many of them former teachers, doctors, etc., with more education than he had.  So when I started SMB I vowed that it would be different, no fighting, no shouting or screaming.  (We’ve had a few incidents but they basically resolved peacefully.)

Caitlin: What is the main challenge you face as a small business on Broadway?
Judith: Rent, rent, rent.
There is absolutely no protection for businesses from the whims of a landlord regarding commercial property.  In our case, when Silver Moon opened, our neighborhood between W. 96th and W. 110 Streets was a neglected area.  Below 96th Street were many co-ops, and fancier stores.  Above 110th Street was Columbia University and all its potential customers.  Our neighborhood was the black sheep, drug-infested side streets, etc.  Now that has all changed, and the landlords are often doubling the rent. Academy Florist, in the neighborhood for over 100 years, had to move because rent was doubled.  Bank Street Bookstore took over.  Henry’s swallowed an enormous rent increase.

Caitlin: So what is the key to SMB’s sustainability?
Judith: I have always believed in “mom & pop” shops, i.e., small, personal stores where the customers are known and catered to.  Too many businesses in our society care only about the bottom line.  I started Silver Moon Bakery because I love to bake, and also love to communicate with people.  Our counter staff, our bakers, almost everyone knows our customers, many by name, many by their favorite items, coffees, teas or sweets.  I think that, plus my passion for searching out new products, rather than just being another business, is the main key to our sustainability. In fact, SMB is my culinary playground.

Caitlin: We are living in a period of ever-widening economic disparity. Much has been made of this topic in the context of housing in New York.  And one hears more and more about the loss of Mom & Pop businesses.  You are one of the most successful examples — and I think of you as a relative newcomer (despite that you’ve already been here for 17 years!) who seems to have the key to Mom & Pop success. Is that true?
Judith: No! See your question about main challenges.  There are many people who would love to live and work in their own community, even here, on the UWS.  But rents are prohibitively high.  Look at the many vacant stores on Broadway – the landlords are waiting for a bank or a chain drugstore who can afford to amortize by having many branches, little labor or production costs, and a high profit margin.

Caitlin: Could you give readers an insight into how commercial rents work in this city?
Judith: There is no limit to what can be charged on commercial property.  At one period, there was a form of commercial rent control, which expired in 1963. An article in the Fordham University Urban Law Journal discusses this:

“Expiration, Renewal, and Erosion of Commercial Rent Control
Although the legislature originally envisioned that the 1945 laws would expire in 1946, it reenacted them repeatedly until 1963, when it finally allowed the laws to expire. Throughout this period, the legislature embarked upon a program of gradual decontrol by amending the laws generally in accordance with the recommendations of the New York Temporary State Commission, which was created in 1948 to study the rental sector. Thus, what was originally a relatively strict system of commercial rent control was effectively weakened by the legislature’s amendments. In 1963, after a series of unsuccessful court challenges by landlords, the legislature allowed the two commercial rent control laws to expire.”
[Source: Fordham University Urban Law Journal, Vol. XV, 1987, p. 664]

Caitlin: Do you have any protection from lease to lease?
Judith: No, there is no protection.

Caitlin: How long is a typical lease?
Judith: It can be anywhere from 8 to 15 years.  Ours was originally 10 years, with a 5 year extension. The current lease is for 7 years.

Caitlin: If your rent were to double from one lease to the next, what would your next move be?
Judith: I don’t know. We cannot afford higher rent, since our profit margin is quite low and the two ways to reduce costs are not acceptable:  I will not reduce the quality of our ingredients, or the pay scale of our employees.  We would probably look for another space, but the cost of moving our ovens and equipment might be so high, it would be unrealistic to move.  In that case, we would have to close.

Caitlin: In addition to being a business owner, you are a longtime neighborhood resident.  What do you think about the climate on Broadway?
Judith: It’s terrible.  Chains typically charge more and pay employees less than neighborhood stores. Compare Suba’s prices with Duane Reade’s — and Mr. Suba’s employees know their customers. The quality of neighborhood life decreases, becomes more impersonal.  Empty storefronts are depressing and destroy neighborhoods.

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The art of Challahs 💛#onlyatSilverMoonBakery #beautifulpicture

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Caitlin: Are there still commercial deals to be had on Amsterdam or above 96th Street?  
Judith: I have noticed the new dining corridor, and hope the small restaurants succeed. So I think Amsterdam Avenue will attract diners, but I don’t think residents west of Amsterdam will readily go there to shop.  When I first looked for a place to have a bakery, the manager of the old Gourmet Garage at 96th and Broadway told me: “people will not travel more than a few blocks at most to shop. But to dine is another matter.”  I never forgot that.

Caitlin: What is your understanding of the term gentrification?  Was Silver Moon’s appearance the product of gentrification?  Will gentrification be the demise of businesses like Silver Moon?
Judith: When I moved to 105th Street and West End Avenue, the neighborhood was considered dangerous — not West End, but the side streets. I actually took a few self-defense lessons before moving in, and learned to walk in the middle of the road when coming home at night.  At that time I shopped at a used childrens’ clothing store on Broadway, bought sashimi from the little Japanese grocery shop on 105th off Broadway, drank café con leche at the Latino restaurant on Broadway & 108th Street [La Rosita], got my videos and dvds from Gary’s Movie Place, and my vegetables from the Korean greengrocer between 105th and 106th Street.  All were small, neighborhood places.  What became SMB was Loretta’s Lingerie, which had red flocked carpeting in the windows.  I moved in because I was a musician, the rents were low and the walls were thick enough so that my practicing wouldn’t disturb others.  Most of the musicians in my building who became successful moved out to more “gentrified” neighborhoods.

Now, with many old buildings co-opted by the landlords and newer buildings being offered as condominiums, median income has shot up as new tenants came in.  Even rentals are now called, “luxury rental residences” in some cases.  This is my understanding of gentrification – more money flowing into the neighborhood, the quality of life changing, goods becoming more expensive. The mix of working class, artists and middle class which existed when I first moved here, has totally changed.  The druggy side street tenement apartments are now being rented to young, professional couples, and what was once a multi-cultural mix of Latino, Black and Caucasian has disappeared.

Caitlin: What would you like to be doing in five years?
Judith: I would like to travel more, explore the world — and visit bakers and learn their ways of baking! Listen to music, hike, be with my grandchildren, meditate more and relax.

Caitlin: In 10 years?
Judith: The same!

To join the SMB mailing list, send Judith an email and she’ll add you: info@silvermoonbakery.com.

FOOD, NEWS | 27 comments | permalink
    1. Karen says:

      Wonderful interview! Thanks Caitlin! And thanks Judith for your wonderful bakery! Please never move!

    2. Veronica says:

      Its been about three years since I was last in the Silver Moon Bakery. The service was poor, the manager was rude and Judith who I spoke with was dismissive. Why would anyone want to go back?

      • Sean says:

        I’ve been in there. The service is fine. The product just isn’t very good. I had a muffin and it was kind of stale. The coffee was blah. It just isn’t very good and costs more than it should really.

        • GGomez says:

          I disagree with both of you. I buy bread there regularly. it is always fresh and delicious and the service is good and friendly.

        • SilverGem says:

          I’ve been going to Silver Moon for years and never recieved rude service. As far as the product, their baked goods are high quality and delicious! No idea what these two disgruntled commenters are on about.

        • UWSHebrew says:

          Exactly my view of this place. Have not been to Silver Moon in years, but I am a regular at La Toulousaine. Best fresh-baked pastries in the area, period. Plus I love the owner, she has suffered so much since her husband’s passing.

      • Jsc says:

        Agreed. Great baked goods if you choose well, but wretched service. Don’t ever try to pre order for the holidays either. Wish I could love it but I just can’t.

    3. JS says:

      Many thanks to West Side Rag and Silver Moon Bakery!

    4. Kayson212 says:

      Sheesh, is this a story or an advocacy piece? I expect WSR editors to note the difference.

    5. Eileen Donohue says:

      I am so glad you published this interview. SMB is a gem. I support the bakery and will buy even more now that I know what Judith has at stake. I love their gluten free bread and blueberry muffin. Absolutely amazing!!

    6. Johnny UWS says:

      A good start to supporting Mom & Pop shops would be passage of SBJSA which has languished for years in city council. And of course although this article toned a bit like a sponsored page, make purchases at you Mom and Pop shop. Think about steering clear of CVS, DR, Lowes, Home Depot, Starbucks etc and others and try to support locally owned shops, not just for doing good but for keeping uniqueness and character of neighborhood.

      http://takebacknyc.nyc/sbjsa/

      • Woody says:

        I think all these pleas to support ‘Mom & Pops’ are dumb. You can’t just use every opportunity to throw in that sentiment when it doesn’t apply to the business we’re talking about. A food establishment is not the same as a DR, Home Depot, or Lowe’s.

        If Mom & Pops did such a good job at meeting the needs of shoppers, they wouldn’t have to worry about competition. Chains that do a really good job of having better selection, prices, return policies, and operating hours. The owners of Mom & Pops might not even be local residents but spend their earnings where they live outside of the city. There’s a better chance than an employee lives locally than the owner. It’s the local employees that all businesses employ that spend locally.

        A perfect example is Laytner’s – why would I shop there for a limited selection of pricey products when I could do much better at Bed Bath & Beyond?

    7. Rebecca says:

      Thank you for this profile of Judith and Silver Moon Bakery. It’s important to frequent local Mom and Pop stores if we want them to stay in the neighborhood. Neighbors, please walk a few blocks out of your way to frequent these shops and businesses. I will now start buying my bread and challah at Silver Moon!

    8. Sylvia says:

      This is such a fantastic interview! I loved the questions, and I learned so much form the answers. From this article I came to understand the focus to meet preferences of customers, commitment to make quality products, and understanding to create a good work environment for employees that Judith of Silver Moon Bakery has made that allows her company to succeed for so long. Also, she benefits from her positive relationship with her landlord. It was a great read for me. Thank you!

    9. David Morris says:

      Here’s a Q:

      What happens when a customer orders a strawberry shortcake, pays $100 for it, picks it up, takes it home, and at the birthday party, discovers that it was made with a sponge cake, not shortcake. Specifically, my question is why doesn’t Silver Moon bakery take any responsibility or offer any kind of refund, or even an apology? And, why doesn’t the bakery employee chefs who know the difference between sponge cake, and short cake?

      • Wikipedia says:

        “Though today’s shortcakes are usually of the biscuit or sponge-cake variety, earlier American recipes called for pie crust in rounds or broken-up pieces, which was a variety still being enjoyed in the 21st century, particularly in the South.

        Some convenience versions of shortcake are not made with a shortcake (i.e. biscuit) at all, but instead use a base of sponge cake or sometimes a corn muffin. Japanese-style strawberry shortcakes use a sponge cake base, and are a popular Christmas treat in Japan.”

      • SilverGem says:

        A refund or apology because you aren’t familiar with different bakery cake styles!? Get a grip. This is pretty much the definiion of “entitlement”. Would it be so hard to simply enjoy a 100-dollar strawberry shortcake? There’s no satisfying some people . . .

      • Smithe says:

        Your primary problem is paying $100 for a strawberry shortcake…

    10. Sherman says:

      “There is no limit to what can be charged on commercial property”.

      Not quite.

      There is a limit and that limit is whatever a tenant is willing to pay for this space. A landlord can only charge what a tenant is willing to pay – not a penny more.

      If SMB’s lease expires and another business is willing to pay a higher rent than SMB it might be unfortunate for SMB but that’s life.

      I wish folks would stop ranting about the evils of “gentrification” and greedy landlords. Times change. Get over it.

      • Hal Beck says:

        Sherman,

        It’s about time somebody stood up fr greedy landlords. They’re the last minority in America it’s still OK to hate.

    11. Alex says:

      Thanks for featuring this terrific local business. Silver Moon was one of the reasons I moved to the area, literally. Their bread is fantastic.

      I’m surprised that there was not more commentary on SM’s bakers and staff. Some have been there for as long as I’ve been coming, and they are lovely, friendly, and patient.

      I will disagree with Judith’s assessment of the neighborhood 16 years ago, though, when I moved here. It was hardly just “druggy”. I think of it as very similar to now: mom-and-pops struggling against chains; shady corners down the block from glassy condos. Hardly more romantic then.

    12. Julia says:

      Having lived at WEA and 103rd from 1972 to 1982 and then again since 1997, I think she is vastly overstating this being a “dangerous” neighborhood in 2000. My daughter was 13 at that time and we had almost no restrictions on her walking around with friends. Careful, yes, but nothing like the earlier period.

      Another good small pharmacy is Valley on Amsterdam between 101 and 102. Owner is Ramesh. 212 678 0084 Suba is closer but I found they never started filling an RX until I arrived to pick it up.

    13. SilverGem says:

      I have always loved and patronized Silver Moon Bakery. After reading this interview, I love it even more! I hope it will still be around for many years to come!

    14. Caitlin, thanks for taking the time (because we know you do this for love not money) to conduct this interview and I’m glad WSR picked it up so it gets the wider audience it deserves.

      I’ve loved Silver Moon since it opened. The baguettes are terrific. Just last week, I bought two cakes and brought them to an upper east side dinner party. Everyone loved them even with Magnolia cupcakes at the same table.

      The article was also a great reminder that Commercial Rent Control was a thing! There’s no reason it can’t be a thing again.

      My one issue with Silver Moon is that I sometimes – from the dark recesses of my brain – call the store Silver Palate Bakery… A true Upper West Side conflation!

    15. Scott says:

      So she looks back fondly on the days when she had to walk in the middle of the street for safety reasons? Ahh, the good old days!

    16. Maura says:

      I shop at SMB with some frequency. I have never met a rude employee. Baked goods can be more expensive than other shops but are worth every penny. I recently visited friends in Woodstock. They requested that I bring ‘that apricot bread’ or maybe ‘the fig bread’ they’d tasted at my home. I brought both [apricot/hazelnut and fig/pepper]. Then they sheepishly added, ‘and maybe something sweet’. I added maple walnut scones, almond croissant, moon cakes, longevity cookies, and an apple tart. Living near Woodstock offers my friends art, eateries, and interesting shops, but there is no Silver Moon.

    17. valerie says:

      I agree with some of the earlier comments. I live in the neighborhood and while the shop is convenient, I’ve found the service at times to be lacking and other times to be poor. I’ve witnessed rude behavior on the part of staff to customers. I decided sometime ago to shop elsewhere.