Robicelli’s Bakery- Don’t Believe the Hype

We had never heard of Robicelli’s Bakery until a couple of weeks ago when Gothamist published an article about its owners’ plan to close their NYC retail location and move to Baltimore to open a new one.

The premise of that piece was that New York City is too expensive and places too many onerous restrictions on small business owners so the Robicellis set their sights on the greener grass of Maryland. We were initially a little skeptical about such a dubious premise, but we didn’t think much of it and promptly forgot the whole thing. It didn’t seem like a story worth telling, really. Some people are going to maybe open a bakery somewhere in the city at some point in the future… so what?

Well, apparently this little ole blog was just about the only site on the whole world wide web that didn’t think this news was worthy of publication. All of a sudden the Robicellis are seemingly everywhere in the media including (but not limited to) Eater, Brooklyn Magazine, Mashable, Zagat, City Paper, and The Sun. Except, of course, it’s not all of a sudden.

The Press and Media page on the Robicelli’s website is enormous. Not only have they got a lot of press citations but when we look at the page we can’t help but call to mind one word: slick. But of course it’s slick. The whole site is, really. That shouldn’t be a surprise because when you click over to the about us page the first line identifies Allison Robicelli as a ‘PR director.’

That they need a PR professional working for them is pretty obvious. After all, these are people with a wholesale business and a cookbook to sell and another forthcoming. It’s less clear whether they are contracted with a PR firm or whether Allison really does do it all herself and if so what sort of training she has in that line. But the Gothamist article bemoans that the couple was working 70 hours a week. It seems to us that between their myriad social media feeds, giving interviews, writing a cookbook, appearing on the Food Network etc etc that virtually none of those 70 hours are Ma and Pa slaving over hot ovens in the family bakeshop as they would like the rest of us to believe.

The Robicellis are crying poverty to Gothamist, even saying publicly that they’ve cut their own salaries to pay staff. But this doesn’t square with what she’s told Brooklyn Magazine saying the couple just landed a major distributor and that their business catering weddings is booming. Besides, one simply doesn’t undertake a major relocation and start a new venture with no money. They’ve got the bucks. And if they don’t have the bucks they’ve got the financing.

The Couple complains that staff costs are rising, but as the Mashable article points out, NYC restaurants are having trouble attracting talented staff because they want to keep pay low! So these people come to Baltimore where they can pay employees as little as possible. There’s no chance they come to town and start pay at the $15 an hour that fast food employees are getting in NYC. Meanwhile, Allison had this to say to Mashable:

“Robicelli says teaching her staff business and management skills is not only important to their careers, but that it benefits her business as well and allows her to delegate major responsibilities”

So what she’s saying in effect is that she wants to pay her employees less and make them do more; saddle them with major responsibilities that are likely outside their job descriptions. As a union member, this does not sit well with us. What Robicelli and everyone else involved with the Mashable article fails to realize is that not every employee wants to own a business one day. Your own dream is not universal. But every employee does want an honest day’s pay for a full day’s work. The scourge of ‘shift pay’ and the underbelly of the Baltimore restaurant scene is seedy enough as it is. Perhaps Allison would better understand this if she were truly of the working class and not of the mercantile class. You can’t be Labor while you’re Management.

All the while the Robicellis are holding themselves up as ‘jobs creators’ for the city to the Sun. Our city has no shortage of low-wage, no-benefit service industry jobs but since Allison Robicelli wants to “make jobs, make people smile” we’re guessing they’ll let employees keep their tattoos uncovered and wear a Wye Oak t-shirt to work, which you sure can’t do at any other gimmicky dessert place like that great Casino-Jobs-Creator the Mallow Bar. (Oh wait… the Mallow Bar closed down after 6 months so we guess you CAN wear a band t-shirt to the unemployment line.)

Anyway, slogging through the rest of this Gothamist piece Allison complains about the utility ConEd being an expensive monopoly and calls it a ‘kicker’ of why they’re closing, as if BGE here in Baltimore weren’t also an expensive monopoly- one that is actively pursuing another giant rate increase in Annapolis. She then complains about other official red tape:

City agencies and the hurdles many businesses must leap over are another source of frustration. “We’ve gotten a bunch of fines from the Department of Sanitation because on alternate sides parking day, all the cars on the block double park in front of our shop. When that happens, nobody can get out and clean the garbage 18-inches from the curb so then Sanitation comes and they give a ticket to every single business on the block. All of us.”

The culture of fining small businesses and attaching expensive requirements for permitting and other work can make owners feel as though they’re ATMs for the city, from what some call excessive policing of restaurants by the DOH to the installation of a hand sink that cost the couple $10,000 after acquiring and hiring the necessary permits and persons to get the work done up to city code. “If you see some guy having an ice cream cart in front of his shop? Huge permit! Outdoor seating? Huge permit! If you decide you just want to have a bench in front of your store but somebody decides to pull it out a little bit so it’s a little bit over 18-inches off the front? Fine! Massive fine!”

She conveniently ignores that all of those ‘hurdles’ are present and often persistent in Baltimore. We have parking restrictions for street cleaning. You need a permit for outdoor seating. We like our restaurants’ employees to wash their hands in a proper sink and not pile up garbage willy-nilly in front of their stores. There are minor privilege fees for ‘a little bench’ on the sidewalk. Baltimoreans hate double parkers as much as everyone else does. Etc etc etc. If she thinks this city is a place where you can just hang your shingle and do whatever the hell you please she’s in for some disappointment.

The Robicellis, described in the press as ‘Brooklyn’s biggest boosters’ seem very eager indeed to bring their unbridled civic enthusiasm to Baltimore, describing the city in absolutely glowing terms when asked about their visits here. They would have done well to become familiar with someone like Michael Marx, who arrived on a similar wave of optimism and was a successful restauranteur here owning three places over the course of the last 16 years. Marx recently ran screaming from the city’s small business scene for many of the very reasons Robicelli cites above. As he told the Sun this Summer:

“I was one of the [city’s] biggest cheerleaders,” he said. “I came [to Baltimore] from Philadelphia. I chose Baltimore back in 1999. ‘There’s great opportunity here,’ I thought.”

He said the hardest part of dealing with the city was the lack of communication among the different agencies. “It’s never easier. It never got any easier,” Marx said. “Sixteen years of doing it, and it’s the same ineffective system.”

But if you don’t believe him ask any of the other scores of small businesses that have opened to fanfare and quietly closed in the last few years. Ask Anisha Jagtap whose Puffs and Pastries on the Avenue in Hampden was a very close analogue to Robicelli’s Bakery until it went out of business. Ask Chazz Palminteri, who came singing the city’s praises on a big PR blitz and flopped on his face in one of the biggest most prime restaurant spaces around. Ask Michael Mina who did the very same thing with Pabu and Lamill. As a Baltimore native, we’re understandably a little salty about New Yorkers ‘Columbusing’ the city and telling us how great they just found out it is when we’ve been living here our whole life. Hell, we’re looking forward to moving out of it, because as the Robicelli’s are about to personally find out choosing a safe neighborhood and putting your kids through school and generally being a middle aged person in Baltimore is really fucking hard work and exhausting unless you have a ton of dough, which we suspect the Robicelli’s do.

We would go on to argue that perhaps the best thing Baltimore does have going for it is that it is not New York City. The very same Gothamist article we’ve been talking about points an accusing finger squarely at luxury developers, and the Robicelli’s wistfully talk about how much they loved the New York of the olden days of 15-20 years ago and how the city they loved is gone. But in the Sun the truth comes out: it was ‘a developer’ who made them an offer to move here. The ‘kicker’ wasn’t ConEd or anything else to do with NYC. They’re being lured here by the cold cash of commercial real estate, probably by one of the usual suspects like Bozzuto or Beatty or Paterakis, who knows a thing or two about baking himself. And they want to pass this off as a love for the city and its so-called Authenticity. Bullshit.

As far as the good old days of pre-Giuliani NYC go, we’ve heard that song and dance before. These people have said publicly that they think they can reclaim some lost Gotham in Baltimore, but the city the Chop grew up loving is gone too, and Gentrification is strangling out the last of it.

With every 10 Light or Anthem House or Rotunda that goes up, and there are scores of them, we see higher and higher rents and more of the Manhattanization of the city. But that Manhattanization isn’t just reflected in $3500 rents and a fleet of Ubers crawling around the harbor, our city leaders are ecstatic about an actual rebranding with names like Ceriello, Season’s, Two Boots, Paulie Gee’s, and Dinosaur Barbecue going up on signs all over town. The mayor even cut the goddamn ribbon at a Shake Shack. They sell Yankee gear outside Camden Yards every time the planefuls of pinstripes land at BWI.

No, we don’t want to live in New York, or a miniature provincial version of it. We’re quite happy with our homegrown businesses. We suspect these itinerant bakers think they can come to town and be a big fish in a small pond. Perhaps they can. They certainly have the PR acumen to do it, and our media outlets have already demonstrated a willingness to refer to them as ‘beloved’ and print whatever they have to say absolutely uncritically. But their schtick steps directly on the toes of places like The Charmery and Diablo Doughnuts. Every Nutella lasagna they sell is one less cake sold by Duff Goldman or one less pie from Rodney Henry. Market share is a zero sum game, especially in little old Baltimore.

Which brings us to the final thing that just bugs us about these people. Not only are they doing the ‘fun-loving hipsters selling pricey desserts’ routine, which has already been done to death locally and reached its peak right around the time that food trucks started multiplying, but they’re doing it so much worse than all the people we just named. One glance at the Robicelli’s menu and social media feeds reveals them to be a couple of Hipster Guy Fieris (and as we all know Guy also came to town on a shining wave of PR recently). What else are we supposed to think of people who put prosciutto on a wedding cake or chicken on a cupcake? Sorry, but we couldn’t be less interested in shelling out $65 for a 10″ eggnog cake, even if it’s served to us personally by someone like Matt Robicelli who eats tacos on the toilet, has a celebrity chef’s name tattooed on his arm and lets Baltimore bums act as crossing guards for his kids.

Bottom line- we think these two are a couple of phonies. The Robicellis may brand themselves as “working class pastry” but when they get to Baltimore it’ll become clear pretty quickly where they fall in our city’s class strata and that working class people aren’t buying $30 pies. The real working class will be getting their Tastykakes and Little Debbies and shit at the supermarket, just like they always have.