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Glaser's Bake Shop Keeps it Sweet for 108 Years

By Amy Zimmer | December 22, 2010 7:17am

By Amy Zimmer

DNAinfo News Editor

YORKVILLE — Every Sunday when growing up in Yorkville in the 1950s, Michelle Bonelli would make a beeline from church to Glaser’s Bake Shop where she’d use her 25-cent weekly allowance to buy pastries for her whole family.

Though Bonelli now lives on the Upper West Side, she returns to the 108-year-old bakery every holiday season for her sweets.

"It just has the feel of the neighborhood. It’s kind of like stepping out of the 21st Century and back in time," she said. "If you come Christmas day, people are lined up all down the block to get in."

Loyal customers have helped the shop on First Avenue near 87th Street stay in business since Bavarian immigrants John and Justine Glaser opened it on April 2, 1902. But the real secret ingredient to its longevity, said the founders’ grandson Herb Glaser, is that the family owns the building.

Glaser's Bake Shop
Glaser's Bake Shop
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DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer

"I don’t know how small businesses do it," Glaser said, noting that marshals recently closed down a Tex-Mex restaurant across the street where the rent reached $17,000 a month. "I couldn’t pay half of that."

Glaser remembers when Yorkville was full of working- and middle-class families and when it was easy to find Christmas Stollen, a German loaf cake made with rum, raisins and cherries that his bakery still sells.

"Now, there are more single people and more transients," he said.

As the demographics have changed, so have eating habits. "Portions are getting smaller. We used to sell bigger cakes for families," Glaser said. "Now, it’s cupcakes, brownies, cookies.

"Customers sometimes will ask us for sugar-free," he continued. "We sell a sugar-free apple turnover. But I won’t do a sugar-free cookie. If you’re going to have a cookie, have a cookie. Have one instead of a pound."

Though business seemed sluggish in the fall, the holiday pace has gone into overdrive, and the shop was packed on Tuesday afternoon. One man bought 27 gingerbread cookies; a female psychiatrist bought brownies as a gift for her hairdresser.

Carol Kaye, who lives nearby, stopped in for the black-and-white cookies — which Glaser’s is credited with inventing, although no one at the shop has ever confirmed that.

"This is the only place that makes them as good as I remember from my childhood," she said. "They use good ingredients."

Herb Glaser, who runs the shop during the day, and his brother, John, who does the night baking, have kept the tin ceiling, tile floor and wooden showcases intact. They’ve also kept the family tradition alive with John’s son, Tom, working at the shop this holiday season.

"It’s neat to have a tangible connection to your past," Tom, 24, said. "It’s weird to be working in the same store that my great-grandfather opened, to walk on the same tile he did." Like his dad, Tom started helping out at the age of eight, greasing the pans.

Does he plan to continue the family tradition?

"Business has sort of changed," Tom said. He remembers when his dad would make a 400-pound batch for the Stollen bread each night during Christmastime. Now it’s one batch for the whole month of December.

"It’s different when you have people opening Starbucks on every corner. People like to drink their breakfast rather than eat it," Tom said.

His uncle, Herb, had never intended to get into the business. He was planning to go to dental school, but while he was wait-listed, he decided he didn’t want four more years of college.

"I would have made more money as a dentist," Herb said. "But I love this. You don’t work 12 to 16 hours a day if you don’t."