By Lisa Radla
Born from a curse of broken eggs and a stroke of good fortune during the dark days of the Great Depression, Grossinger’s Bakery was an Upper West Side institution that proudly served Hungarian tradition and treats for over 60 years. Its closure in 1991 took with it decades of old-world delectables and a true family business, both rare finds in today’s world.
Herb Grosinger (no, not a typo; please read on), the son of the bakery’s founders, revives some of the special stories and people that kept the business chugging along for all those years in his new book, Breaking Eggs In New York City: The Story of Grossinger’s Bakery and the Family That Built It.
Herb’s father, Ernest Grossinger, arrived in America from Hungary in 1914 at 15 years old, compelled by the threat of war and having to eat traif, i.e. non-Kosher food. Just before he set sail, he accidentally broke a basket of eggs carried by a woman. She cursed him in Hungarian. “You will always break eggs. Your children will break eggs.”
Roughly ten years into his life in America, Ernest toiled in different bakeries doing pretty much that. His first job on the Upper West Side was at G&M, an Austrian-Italian bakery at West 77th Street and Broadway. His big break awaited just down the street.
Toward the end of the Depression, Ernest was working at a French bakery named Le Blanc at West 76th Street and Columbus Avenue, while the owner struggled to pay the rent. The frustrated landlord gave Le Blanc the boot and turned the business over to Ernest for $800. The landlord even offered to throw in the space next door, a vacant diner that became the site of the Cherry Restaurant, but Ernest turned it down.
He opened Grossinger’s Bakery in 1935 at 337 Columbus Avenue. He and his wife Isabella moved into apartment 4A at 60 West 76th Street, above the store, with their three-year-old son Gene. Blanche, Ernest’s sister, lived on the third floor.
All would work at the bakery, including eventually Herb, the couple’s youngest child, whose surname is spelled with one S like his brother Gene’s. Herb explained that the alternate spelling is the result of a compromise between Isabella and Ernest when choosing between Grousinger (the phonetic spelling given to the family name at Ellis Island in 1902, because Ernest’s father had a Hungarian-Yiddish accent), and Grossinger (the correct spelling.) So, Herb’s grandfather was Grousinger, Isabella and Ernest were Grossinger, and Gene and Herb are Grosinger!
Breaking Eggs In New York City is narrated by Herb, whose experiences span more than half a century. He remembers worshipping at the West Side Institutional Synagogue on West 76th between Columbus and Amsterdam, and sometimes at a “very Orthodox” synagogue in a West 73rd Street brownstone behind the Dakota. He played stick ball on West 77th across from the American Museum of Natural History, before heading to Jack’s Candy Store, a.k.a. Jack’s Optima Soda, for egg creams.
“Everyone knew everyone,” he said. Mom-and-pop shops were the norm and included a shoemaker named Teddy, Bon Ton Meat Market, and Hollywood Delicatessen. 72nd Street was home to four family bakeries: Cake Masters, Bloom’s, The Éclair, and the Royale Pastry Shop. Cushman’s, Lichtman’s, and Party Cake were also bakeries sprinkled around the area.
“It felt like I lived in a small town in the middle of the city,” Herb added. “Grossinger’s and other small neighborhood merchants provided stability, reliability, and some measure of solace.” Perhaps none more than Isabella Grossinger herself.
For Isabella, Grossinger’s “was her validation and also her emotional salvation.” She lost most of her family in the Holocaust and, then, her husband Ernest in 1972. She worked 11-hour workdays, six days a week for 48 years. Even when she was off, she wasn’t. She had a phone line rigged to ring in the family’s apartment so she could take customer’s orders at any hour.
Isabella may be the original source of the adage, the customer is always right. “You don’t count. I don’t count. The customer counts,” she would say. According to Herb, the bakery was her favorite son; so fully dedicated to the business was she that two heart attacks could not keep her away.
When she passed away in August 1983, dressed in her blue uniform ready for another day of work, the neighborhood mourned. As the New York Times told it, her funeral at the Riverside Chapel about a block away from the bakery “was a neighborhood affair….She was just a 75-year-old woman who ran a bakery, but to friends and customers who gathered for her funeral yesterday or stood silently in front of her store, Mrs. Grossinger was something more.”
Businesses like the ones Isabella Grossinger cultivated are hard to come by nowadays. Herb’s narration captures the feeling of a time gone by. Before social media, mobile phones, and even credit-card machines (the store did not get one until 1977), bakeries like Grossinger’s were part of the fabric of daily life. They were every day stops for necessities like bread and baked goods.
Herb continued his parents’ legacy for nearly 30 years. He ran the bakery side-by-side with his mother after his father passed away. At that time, Herb was married, living with his wife and children in Brooklyn, working as a stockbroker. He quit Wall Street and invested himself fully in the family’s bakery business.
Grossinger’s under Herb’s leadership opened a second store in July 1981 at 570 Columbus Avenue and West 88th Street. For $15,000, he bought out Peter’s Bakery, the former site of Candi-O-Plastic.
But all good things must come to an end. Amid a “tidal wave of unchecked rent increases,” Herb and New York City Councilmember Ruth Messinger put up a valiant fight to keep commercial rents affordable for small businesses. The wave was too powerful. The lease for Grossinger’s flagship store at West 76th was not renewed in 1991, the landlord opting to rent to the Gap at the expense of five total store fronts, including Cherry Restaurant and a clothing store named Putumayo.
The store near 88th Street stayed open until 1999, its closing also memorialized by the New York Times. But, though the brick and mortar are gone, some of the tastes of Grossinger’s are not. Herb still sells cheesecakes, lemon ice cream souffle, and, of course, Grossinger’s famous praline ice cream cake, taking orders by phone and email.
He never thought of looking for a new location. Instead, he’s thinking of turning his family’s story into a TV series or movie. Who would play him? He hopes it would be one of his favorite customers and once a Grossinger’s regular, Dustin Hoffman.