Everyone in Hell’s Kitchen knows Amy’s Bread, its iconic turquoise storefront and signature loaves, pastries and cakes. The much loved bakery is celebrating its 30th year in business on 9th Avenue, and to mark the occasion we sat down with founder Amy Scherber, staff alumni and notable fans to hear their favorite memories of the iconic West Side eatery.
Thumbing through decades of photo albums documenting the bakery’s rise to prominence, Amy remembers encountering the building — previously the De Leonardis Fish Company, opened in 1890 — as she made plans to strike out from her restaurant career and form her own bakery. “I had gone around looking at spaces all around the city,” she said. “I lived on 55th Street, and kept walking back and forth looking for places and I’d see this storefront. It looked perfect to me because it had the bay window and everything else around it was all metal. At the time, the neighborhood was dangerous, so everyone gated up their store, and I just thought that looked so awful and depressing. This was the last beautiful place along the avenue.”
But not everyone agreed. “The people that I was going to try to borrow money from said ‘this is a terrible idea — this is a terrible location, it’s dangerous, blah, blah, blah,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘but I think it’s an up-and-coming neighborhood, and I believe we really need a bakery in the area. So finally they said, ‘whatever, go ahead…I guess.’”
The landlord Anthony Bitalvo, who had worked at De Leonardis Fish Co for years, wasn’t quite ready to give up the space, however. “He really didn’t want to rent it to anybody,” said Amy. “It was vacant for five years because he had his heart set on finding the right tenant and he also didn’t really wanna let go of it.” After the landlord closed De Leonardis, he preferred to sit and watch 9th Avenue from the bay windows of what would become Amy’s Pantry. “He had worked there his whole life,” she said.
Amy’s passion to carry on the storefront’s culinary legacy miraculously won the landlord’s trust, and he agreed to rent her half of the storefront. “I told him I lived in the neighborhood, and I wanted to continue the future of food in Hell’s Kitchen. I think he liked the idea, and he had a daughter slightly younger than me and he thought of me as someone he’d watch out for. So that started our conversation and the negotiation,” she said.
Once she had acquired the space, Amy and her small but mighty team got to work completing extensive renovations on the shop, which had fallen into disrepair. “It was totally run down,” she said. “It was a complete dive and had almost nothing but running water.”
After transforming the 650-square foot space from a crumbling facade into a French-style bakery, Amy and team hired lead employees to help launch the business. Toy Dupree, who joined a few weeks before launch and would end up working with Amy for the next 20 years, remembers the first day of business.
“I was standing behind the tiny retail counter that faced 9th Avenue at the front of the store when our very first customer walked through the door,” Toy recalled. “She looked at our beautiful selection of loaves, rolls and bread twists not long from the oven, that we’d been up all night baking, and then said in a very disappointed tone, ‘Don’t you have anything sweet?’ She left without even trying any of the bread. And that was the first hint we had that New Yorkers have a very demanding sweet tooth!”
Despite the lack of desserts, the first day at Amy’s was still a success, Toy added. “We did sell out by 11am that day, and that first customer did become one of our valued regulars — it wasn’t long before we started adding a few cookies, brownies, bars and other sweet baked breakfast goods to our production list.”
Word on the street spread fast. “We thought we were going to be a nice little neighborhood retail bakery with a small handful of select wholesale customers,” said Toy. “We found out pretty quickly that the business wouldn’t survive that way, plus the demand from upscale restaurants for our quality bread kept growing. We eventually ended up with almost a 50/50 split between wholesale and retail revenues — this turned out to be a blessing, as it made us more able to withstand fluctuations in the economy.”
Along the way, there were humorous growing pains as they navigated increasing their output within the confines of the tiny 9th Avenue shop “I remember one very warm summer morning about a month after we opened. As I was setting up the retail store, I heard a shriek of surprise then laughter and our dough mixer, Susan, started humming the I Love Lucy theme song in our small walk-in refrigerator,” said Toy.
“The scene that greeted me when I peered into the open cooler really did look like something only Lucy and Ethel could have cooked up. Great globs of creamy-colored dough were oozing out of the stacks of plastic dough boxes like rivers of lava. The boxes were tipping and tilting in a hilarious slow-motion rhumba to the rhythm of the fast-rising dough. It was a total mess! That’s when we learned how much heat is generated by a large mass of rising dough, and we had sadly underestimated the size of the walk-in we needed to do the kind of dough production we were doing.”
Amy remembers the early days of the 9th Avenue Food Festival, something the team at Amy’s started participating in before they even had the physical space in Hell’s Kitchen. “We had to make the bread somewhere else and bring it over here — and so it was not great, because we didn’t even have an oven to reheat it in or anything. But we survived the street fair!” she said.
After a short period occupying half of the De Leonardis Fish Co space, Amy knew it was time to expand, and she rented the other half to use as their bread kitchen, pastry kitchen, and eventually pantry goods retail store (currently closed to the public after COVID-19). Another Amy’s secret? A backyard patio garden that Amy and team renovated and used for staff meetings and meals.
As the space expanded, so too did the Amy’s staff — some of whom would go on to create their own New York baking empires. In addition to Connie McDonald — the founder of Levain Bakery who Scherber noted interned at Amy’s — Jim Lahey, creator of Sullivan Street Bakery, was an early hire.
Working at Amy’s was “my first adult, bread baking job that I ever had,” said Jim. Hired as a bread shaper, “I was living in Williamsburg in a loft with a bunch of people, baking bread between all these other jobs I had,” before applying to work for Amy. “To get the job, I just baked a bunch of bread for her,” he recalled, “ And the moment she saw the bread, she said, ‘you’re hired!’”
While Jim moved on to build his own brand decades ago, he maintains that there is a mutual respect and admiration between independent New York bakers. “Despite what people say about people in the baking industry being cut-throat — which they usually are — over the years she’s been very helpful, and as a fellow baker I’ve gotten wheat from her from time to time.”
High-profile industry alums aren’t the only fans of Amy’s, whose local regulars include former presidential and mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, who met his wife Evelyn Lu at the bakery for their first date. “We love Amy’s bread,” said Evelyn, adding that in 2005 “we went to the Mexican restaurant Hell’s Kitchen and then to Amy’s for dessert. Andrew picked it because he’d already been a long-time HK resident at the time but it was my first time! We ordered red velvet cake (and probably some other items). But when we celebrate the anniversary of our first date we often still go there and get a slice of red velvet!”
She said that Amy’s — where Yang was even spotted on the campaign trail — “has become our staple bakery through the last 17 years we’ve lived in HK, so our boys have grown up on Amy’s bread. Our family favorite is their pistachio twist. Also up there is the brioche toast. It’s such a special place for many reasons— happy 30th anniversary to them!”
The bakery is also special to the nearby Broadway community — and Tony-nominated actor Kerry Butler remembers discovering Amy’s during the run of her first Broadway show, Blood Brothers, in 1994. “I remember that they used to get Amy’s Bread cakes for everyone’s birthday in the show. So that’s how I found them, and I have been in love with them ever since,” she said, adding “every show has Amy’s cakes”. She has a yearly tradition of “always, always getting the pink cake for my birthday when I’m in a Broadway show” (Kerry recently celebrated her birthday while performing in Beetlejuice at the Marquis Theater).
Returning to the show after the pandemic shutdown, Kerry was delighted to hear that Amy’s was also back in business. “I was so happy that Amy survived,” she said. “That was the first thing I said to them” upon returning, she noted. “Because I knew so many places over here that had shut down, especially bakeries and restaurants.”
While there are some customer favorites that haven’t changed in three decades, Amy and her husband Troy Rohne, who has been running the company with Amy for many years, have kept up with changing times, expanding to locations in Chelsea Market, the New York Public Library, the City Museum of New York, the New York Design Center and Brooklyn Heights. They’ve also updated their logo to include their celebrated storefront, “which we added because it had become really iconic,” said Amy.
The bakery made its mark in other places, too. A regular customer who was the window designer for luxury clothier Paul Stuart commissioned the team at Amy’s to design loaves for the brand’s Holiday window display: “He decided that it would be cool to have bread heads on his mannequins for the Christmas season,” said Amy, “and he had this elaborate design for all of his windows” featuring mannequins with Amy’s Bread heads, complete with the character-defining detail of facial expressions, hair and mustaches.
Toy Dupree remembers other holiday traditions — including a communal holiday meal for staff and their families between Thanksgiving and Christmas featuring their own specialties: “There was always Jorge’s secret-recipe roast chicken, sweet potatoes, roasted Brussels sprouts, dressing made from our very own bread, gravy, homemade cranberry sauce, a huge mixed green salad with homemade dressing, and Molly’s pumpkin chiffon pie piled high with a mountain of whipped cream,” said Toy. “I so miss that pumpkin chiffon pie and the Amy’s bread dressing!”
Community has been central to Amy’s success over the years, said Toy: “The two best things about working at Amy’s Bread, for me, were the warm friendships we formed with our regular customers who lived in the neighborhood, and the positive family-like culture that developed among the employees, some of whom have been there now for many years. The energy for these two things to happen came, and still comes, from the love, respect and pride that Amy has for every aspect of her business. That love, respect and pride is reflected in the employees and passed on to the customers.”
That sense of community was most evident on 9/11, when “everything was in total chaos, but we kept the bakeries open so our customers could have a place to gather for comfort food and the company of friends,” said Toy. “We donated bread and sandwiches to the emergency response teams for days, and we took bread and pastries to the firehouses in our neighborhoods. We did what we could to be of service where we were needed,” she added.
There were lighter moments of community, too, said Toy. Bakery anniversary parties that were “like huge family reunions” and “filled with love and laughter.” She recalled: “One of my fondest memories is when we helped Frances Rehfeld, one of our very special regular customers, celebrate her 100th birthday by donating a triple layer Definitely Devil’s Food Cake to feed all of her friends and relatives who helped her celebrate at one of the local Hell’s Kitchen restaurants. She invited us all over to her apartment afterward to continue the party and she was still going strong when we finally left. She lived to be 104. I still have a little bumblebee pin that she left me as a remembrance.”
Toy — who, after two decades of work as the retail store manager, dough mixer, and executive pastry chef, as well as the co-author of several Amy’s Bread cookbooks — has retired to the Pacific Northwest, said her working experience at Amy’s was a formative one. “I started working with Amy when I was in my 40s. Prior to that I had spent 20+ years working in the corporate world of advertising and marketing, switched to a food service career and worked in several restaurant and catering kitchens. None of the company cultures in any of my previous jobs even came close to what I experienced at Amy’s Bread. ‘Nuff said,” she added.
“I know the pandemic upset much of what it took Amy years to create. But with sheer willpower, courage, a few loyal employees and the loyalty of her customers — she has survived.”