The Bread Winner
W42ST Magazine
May 1, 2017

What’s your Hell’s Kitchen story?
I came to NYC from Minneapolis in 1984 to work at the Howard Marlboro Group, a marketing company on 10th Ave - 38th St. My first apartment was in Murray Hill but I never felt at home in that neighborhood. On January 1, 1985, I moved to Hell’s Kitchen. The father of my boss at work, Julius Merl, owned an apartment building on 55th St - 10th Ave, and he had a small studio available for $363 a month. That block was one of the sketchiest in upper Hell’s Kitchen since there were only three small apartment buildings, and the rest of the street was filled with dark warehouses with no activity. Cab drivers used that street as their outdoor restroom because few people walked along there. If I came home late at night I’d need to watch out for the rats scurrying in and out of our trash cans in front of the building and I’d often have to step over crack addicts that slept in the vestibule. My upstairs neighbor and friend always had her frying pan ready to protect me from a potential intruder. 

So, marketing to making bread … that’s an interesting segue.
I left marketing after three years and went to culinary school, then worked in restaurants as a cook and baker. During that period I walked up and down 9th Ave all the time, dreaming of opening my own business. By the time I found the space that would become my bakery in 1992, I’d fallen in love with the old wooden storefront at 672 9th Ave, an old fish company that dated to 1890 which had been vacant for five years. It was falling apart but it had the classic look of an old grocery store. When I finally convinced the owner of the building, Anthony Bitalvo, to rent the space to me, I felt so lucky. I got the keys on March 15, 1992 and started to realize my dream. That June I opened to the public with a team of four women and the rest is history. However, it took years to get rid of the smell of fish!

OK, I’m guessing there 9th Ave has seen a few changes since then?
When I first opened, the drug addicts and prostitutes would smell the bread and reach into our gate to try to grab fresh bread off the cooling racks! In those early years, I’d finish baking at 4am and hop on my bike, riding uptown on the sidewalk as fast as I could to 55th St, since 10th Ave was too scary at that hour. Today, 9th Ave is much safer. But I love that Hell’s Kitchen has always been an international melting pot of food and that hasn’t changed.

What’s the best thing about the neighborhood?
In 1996 I moved up in the world to an apartment on W55th St - 8th/9th Ave, the block with the lighted trees at the holiday/winter season. I really love this block and it makes me smile when tourists take selfies there because it’s so magical. For me, Hell’s Kitchen has always had a down-to-earth feel, and that’s the best part of living here. It’s not too fancy but the locals know how lucky we are to live in such a convenient area where you can walk to so many great shows and restaurants, catch every subway, and be in Central Park in a few minutes. Another wonderful thing is Midtown West (PS 212), the elementary school my son attended on W48th St. The community of families and teachers that make up the school are incredible. Being part of this school for many years made me love Hell’s Kitchen even more.

And the worst?
I wish our neighborhood was cleaner and looked nicer. With the volume of people walking along the avenues, the trash cans are always overflowing. Many of the bike lane median spaces created for plants on each block along 9th Ave are full of weeds. Nothing has been planted there by the city and it looks terrible. My goal is to plant flowers in the median on W47th St for the neighborhood. Maybe it will inspire others to do the same.

Where are your favorite places?
For those of us on the upper end of Hell’s Kitchen, Westerly is the most amazing place to find everything for healthy eating. They have great organic vegetables, every grain and bean under the sun, a selection of meat and fish, huge dairy section, and quick and convenient service. For bars and restaurants, my husband, Troy Rohne, our son, Harry, and I enjoy Bar Bacon, Kilo, Kashkaval Garden, Tacuba for guacamole and tacos, Ardesia for drinks and snacks, and Ninth Avenue Vintner for a good selection of wine. The Japanese noodles are worth waiting for at Ippudo, and we love the classic feel at Le Rivage. It takes you back a few years!

Do you have a neighborhood secret?
There is a small garden behind Amy’s Bread. It transports me to another place in the midst of chaos and it is not open to the public. Don’t tell anyone …

What piece of Amy’s Bread deliciousness should we be eating in May?
I always suggest my favorite Amy’s Bread classic – a slice of chocolate devil’s food cake. A bite of this makes it all worthwhile.

BIO
Next month marks 25 years of Amy’s Bread deliciousness, occupying the same store on 9th Avenue since 1992. A Hell’s Kitchen institution, Amy’s is recognized as one of the best bakeries in the country.

Amy’s HK
Westerly Market, 8th Ave - 54th St

Bar Bacon, 9th Ave - 54th/55th St

Kilo, 9th Ave - 55th/56th St

Kashkaval Garden, 9th Ave - 55th/56th St

Tacuba, 9th Ave - 53rd/54th St

Le Rivage, W46th St - 8th/9th Ave

Ardesia, W52nd St - 10th/11th Ave

Ninth Avenue Vintner, 9th Ave - 46th/47th St

Ippudo, W51st St - 8th/9th Ave

Underwest Donuts, 12th Ave - 46th/47th St

- Ruth Walker