The story of the legendary UWS bakery and the family that built it

Posted on February 7, 2022 at 11:29 a.m. by West Side Rag

The original Grossinger is the day it closed in 1991.

By Lisa Radla

Born from a curse of broken eggs and a stroke of luck during the dark days of the Great Depression, Grossinger’s Bakery was an Upper West Side institution that proudly served Hungarian tradition and goodies for more than 60 year. Its closure in 1991 took with it decades of old world delights and a true family business, both rare finds in today’s world.

Herb Grosinger (no, not a typo; please keep reading), the son of the bakery’s founders, brings to life some of the special stories and people who have kept the business running for all these years in his new book, Breaking Eggs in New York: The Story of the Grossinger Bakery and the Family Who Built It.

The Grossinger parents and the Grossinger sons.

Herb’s father, Ernest Grossinger, came to America from Hungary in 1914 at the age of 15, forced by the threat of war and having to eat traffic, that is non-kosher food. Just before setting 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.

About ten years into his life in America, Ernest worked in different bakeries to do just about 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 was waiting for him just down the street.

Towards the end of the Depression, Ernest worked at a French bakery named Le Blanc at West 76th Street and Columbus Avenue, while the landlord struggled to pay rent. The frustrated owner gave the boot to Le Blanc and sold the business to Ernest for $800. The owner even offered to add the adjoining space, a vacant restaurant that became the site of the Cherry restaurant, but Ernest refused.

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, possibly including Herb, the couple’s youngest child, whose last name is spelled with an S like that of his brother Gene. Herb explained that the alternative spelling is the result of a compromise between Isabella and Ernest when choosing between Grousinger (the phonetic spelling given to the surname at Ellis Island in 1902, because Ernest’s father had an accent Hungarian-Yiddish) and Grossinger (the correct spelling.) So Herb’s grandfather was Grossinger, Isabella and Ernest were Grossinger, and Gene and Herb are Grossinger!

Grass and two cakes.

Breaking Eggs in New York is narrated by Herb, whose experiences span over half a century. He remembers worshiping at the West Side Institutional Synagogue on West 76th between Columbus and Amsterdam, and sometimes at a “very Orthodox” synagogue in a brownstone on West 73rd Street 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, aka Jack’s Optima Soda, for egg custards.

“Everyone knew everyone,” he said. Family shops were the norm and included a cobbler named Teddy, Bon Ton Meat Market and Hollywood Delicatessen. 72nd Street was home to four family bakeries: Cake Masters, Bloom’s, The Éclair and Royale Pastry Shop. Cushman’s, Lichtman’s and Party Cake were also scattered bakeries in the area.

“I felt like I was living in a small town in the middle of town,” added Herb. “Grossinger’s and other small merchants in the neighborhood have provided stability, reliability and some comfort.” Perhaps no more than Isabella Grossinger herself.

For Isabella, Grossinger “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 days, six days a week for 48 years. Even when she was absent, she was not. She had a rigged phone line ringing in the family’s apartment so she could take orders from customers at all hours.

Herb, Isabella (glasses) around 1980 with journalist Judy Licht at flagship store.

Isabella may be the original source of the adage, the customer is always right. “You don’t count. I do not count. The customer matters,” she said. According to Herb, the bakery was his favorite son; she was so dedicated to the business that two heart attacks couldn’t stop her.

When she died in August 1983, dressed in her blue uniform ready for another day of work, the neighborhood wept. As the New York Times put it, her funeral at the Riverside Chapel about a block from the bakery “was a neighborhood affair…She was just a 75-year-old woman who ran a bakery, but for friends and customers who gathered for her funeral yesterday or stood silently outside her store, Mrs. Grossinger was something more.

Businesses like the ones Isabella Grossinger cultivated are hard to find these days. Herb’s storytelling captures the feeling of a bygone era. Before social media, cell phones, and even credit card machines (the store didn’t have any until 1977), bakeries like Grossinger’s were part of the fabric of everyday life. They were daily stops for necessities like bread and pastries.

Herb continued his parents’ legacy for nearly 30 years. He ran the bakery alongside his mother after his father passed away. At that time, Herb was married, living with his wife and children in Brooklyn, and working as a stockbroker. He left Wall Street and became fully invested in the family baking business.

Grossinger’s under Herb’s management 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 home of Candi-O-Plastic.

But all good things must end. Amid a “tidal wave of runaway rent increases,” Herb and New York City Councilwoman Ruth Messinger have fought a valiant fight to keep commercial rents affordable for small businesses. The wave was too strong. Grossinger’s flagship store lease at West 76th was not renewed in 1991, as the owner elected to lease in Gap at the expense of five storefronts in total, including Cherry Restaurant and a clothing store named Putumayo.

The store near 88th Street remained open until 1999, its closure also commemorated by the New York Times. But, while the brick and mortar is gone, some of Grossinger’s tastes are not. Herb still sells cheesecakes, lemon ice cream soufflé 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 plans to turn his family’s story into a TV series or movie. Who would play it? He hopes it would be one of his favorite customers and once a Grossinger regular, Dustin Hoffman.

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