Sweet return: A post-COVID recovery is baking on Duane Street

The window table is back at Duane Park Patisserie. How much more proof do you need that COVID-era New York is coming off life support?

Not the two other tables that used to be inside the beloved Tribeca bakery. They are out at the far side of the curb now, where they may stay until next winter, in a plant-packed, glass-sided greenhouse that has become a sidewalk gossip-and-nibbling hub for the stroller moms, the bond jockeys and the few lingering artsy types who populate the highest-priced cobblestone-and-loft neighborhood on Planet Earth, just north of the lower Manhattan Financial District.

“You ask if New York is coming back?” said Madeline Lanciani, who opened her bakery in this spot 29½ years ago, when the nearby live-work lofts were a whole lot cheaper. “Just yesterday, I got a call from Citigroup.
They’re going to bring their people back in stages starting in July, pretty big stages. They asked me, if they gave me enough notice, could I make 6,000 Ring Dings for them to give away to each of the employees on two different days in July?”

The bakery owner didn’t hesitate a second. “Absolutely,” she said.

Before March 13 of last year, more than 60% of Lanciani’s business was catered events. Her perfect little pastries graced charity galas, tony weddings, stadium luxury boxes and events at many of the city’s brand-name museums, including Natural History and the Met. (The balance of the biz was freshly baked croissants, scones, pies, brioche and other subsistence for the walk-in neighbors.)

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“Overnight, the event business was gone,” Lanciani said. But as soon as she saw on the city website that food manufacturers, like bakeries, were considered essential, she limited her storefront lockdown to a grand total of one day. 

Her grown son and daughter, she said, weren’t too thrilled with mom staying open amid an exploding pandemic. “Do you want to possibly leave us as orphans?” she remembered her son asking.

“You won’t be an orphan,” she assured him. “Your dad is alive.”

“I listened to my kids,” Lanciani said. “But once I knew I was legally allowed to be open, I decided to do it for a lot of reasons. My own mental health. My own need to pay my rent. And this might sound corny, but after 9/11, we reopened as soon as we had electricity, even though people weren’t even allowed to come down here yet. This time, that went through my head again. It was someplace for our neighbors to gather and process. We put one foot in front of the other and stayed open for the people who were here.”

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She applied for the grants that were available. She sought understanding from the landlord. She relied on the loyalty of her dozen-plus longtime employees. And it all paid dividends.

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“At the end of the year,” she said, “my business is off, I’d say, only 45%. Only. I consider that a triumph. Sixty percent was gone. So I crawled my way back by pivoting and diversifying our product line. I started offering savories because so many other places were closed. We really ramped up our mail-order business with the Ring Dings,” her artisanal take on the midcentury vending-machine snack food, now in elevated flavors like dulce de leche, pistachio raspberry and strawberry shortcake. “In 2019, I shipped 434 packages. In 2020, I shipped 2,200. Of course, the small orders aren’t quite as profitable as 6,000 Ring Dings.”

But as the city creaks open again, the all-important big-order event business seems to be flowing again.

See: New York sees a rush of reopenings, including the end of the indoor mask mandate

Madison Square Garden emailed this week. Starting next Saturday, the new Smorgasburg waterfront food market in Jersey City will have a Duane Park Patisserie booth. Lanciani is buying new freezers and refrigerators. No one can guess the scale yet, but she’s getting ready for the post-COVID return. “It’s like when the director asks if you can tap dance. You say, ‘Yeah,’ and then you run out and take lessons.’ It’s a really exciting time.”

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People seem hungry for pastries and fun again.

Said Lanciani: “I just had a meeting with the chef at Tribeca Rooftop,” an upscale wedding-and-corporate-event space on Desbrosses Street, a steady client in pre-COVID times. “Next week, we have a tasting. He wants to see some new things. His sales team is starting to book events for the fall.”

Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City and a former newspaper columnist.

View more information: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/sweet-return-a-post-covid-recovery-is-baking-on-duane-street-11621624977

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