Allison Robicelli (@robicellis) is the owner of the beloved Robicelli’s Bakery in Bay Ridge, NY.
By now, you might have heard about our very, VERY publicized breakup with New York City and imminent move to Baltimore, which, if we’re being honest, shouldn’t be a surprise to any small business owner nowadays. Rent, electricity, water, insurance—all of these expenses are going up at an unreasonable rate. Aside from the obvious side-effects on businesses, those changes also influence services like exterminators, plumbers, and distributors, who in turn turn the screws even tighter on restaurants. It’s a vicious cycle.
Even though everything is more expensive across the board, our industry still tries to keep prices relatively low, because we know that New Yorkers have less expendable income since the same increases are impacting their livelihood. For us, however, this means every year, margins become smaller and smaller. Math, in other words, is no longer on the side of small businesses here. Our support line is failing us.
TL;DR version: IT’S FUCK THIS SH*T O’CLOCK, BITCHES.
There’s more than enough listicles and think-pieces out there about leaving New York, and the counter arguments have devolved into “we have stoops and rats that eat pizza and it’s totally magic, trust us.”
Both my husband and I are lifers, with roots going back over 100 years. We’ve spent years being cheerleaders for our hometown through our bakery, but we’ve had enough. So now I add yet another listicle to the fray, but as someone who has had her whole heart owned by New York for her entire life; as someone who knew this day would come eventually, but is as surprised as anyone that I finally had the guts to pull the trigger; and as someone who if you told them six months ago they would be moving to Baltimore, would have said ‘Baltimore? Isn’t that where they shot The Wire?’
To understand my point of view—and the magnitude of the NYC restaurant crisis at hand—let me walk you through how NYC broke my heart, and why Baltimore stole it.
I. The road to breakup.
Running a business in NYC leaves you with no perspective.
I’m not a broad who freaks out over aging. I get exponentially more awesome every single year, and my thirties are absolutely fucking fantastic. But even though I feel otherwise most of the time, being told halfway to seventy means I’m probably an adult now, and need to get my shit together.
That’s harder to do when we all know small businesses, especially restaurants, are dying in New York. It seems every year we get busier, but when that happens, everyone decides they want a bigger cut. At this point in my life, I’m not supposed to be working this hard to be a revenue generator for utility companies or the government. I’m supposed to be allowed to keep some of it, because I fucking earned it.
Photo: Screenshot/Video Blocks
You’re virtually a slave to your work.
In my current situation, there is no sense of adventure. I want to travel the world, but whenever we’d do something as simple as leave on business for a weekend, we’d get phone calls from Brooklyn about silly things going wrong, like a woman receiving a cake that said “Happy Birthday Grandma!” on her 25th birthday. We’d have to wait for the slow months of summer to go out with our kids since we’re at the shop every weekend.
For years, I have heard countless people say, “Please open a Robicelli’s here in the UK/California/Minneapolis/Saskatoon!” And every single time I would say, “I’d love to! Make me an offer!” I meant that! I’d love to open anywhere on earth, as long as I have partners to support me, and who don’t expect us to do it all by ourselves like we are now. You have places all over the world copying our recipe trying to be “Tres Brooklyn”—why imitate us when you could have the real thing?
“We still want to take risks, but now instead of being able to play around and get our customers to try new things, we have to focus entirely on ideas that will make us the most money.”
Someone in Baltimore was the first person in seven years who stepped up and made an offer. We’ve got a real-estate partner, a business partner, and are now talking to people who want to run the operations. We’ve received emails from so many people who are stoked as shit because they know who we are and what we bring. Business districts are calling us, asking if they can open an outpost because they could use a place just like ours. Baltimore listened and responded in a way that New York didn’t and couldn’t.
Photo: Moxie Control
There’s an impending sense of doom with all the obstacles thrown at you.
Have you noticed that over the past few years that all everyone seems to talk about is how rents are going up? How every neighborhood mom-and-pop restaurant is turning into a bank or Duane Reade? How every restaurant is on deathwatch list before it even opens? I’ve been to so many pop-ups and been in so many beta tests only to see them disappear within months that I can no longer bring myself to talk to new entrepreneurs here because I know all too well how it usually ends.
There’s no joy in anything because we know we have lives that require working 60-hour weeks just to pay the rent on a shoebox apartment, with barely enough leftover to buy a movie ticket that costs a day’s salary. So many of us feel like we’re in a rocket careening toward a black hole of doom, but jumping ship would be cowardly.
Which led me to ask myself one easy question:
Why the fuck am I doing this? This is incredibly stupid! There’s a huge world out there where none of this happens!
The major hurdle I needed to overcome was where to relocate. Somehow it was fate that someone from Baltimore reached out to me, because it only took a single day for me to fall head over heels in love with it. This is how it happened.
II. Why Baltimore passed the test.
It’s got soul, and its cannolis prove it.
I was raised to believe that everything in New York is “the best,” and every other town in the world sucks at life. Art, music, food, pigeons, subway crazies, urine smells—all of ours is better than yours. End of discussion.
A thousand times I told myself I couldn’t move because I would have no access to the foods I grew up with. A friend of mine moved to Tampa, and if she wanted food she had to go to PUBLIX. Seriously! How the fuck are you supposed to get a decent sfogiatelle or pound of capiocola at fucking PUBLIX? Where are you getting schwarma, or dim sum, or plov? You’re not!
I fell in love with Baltimore almost immediately on our initial exploratory trip, but still it had to pass what I call “The Cannoli Test.” I’d find what was supposed to be the best bakery in town—in this case, Vaccaro’s in Little Italy—get myself a few things, and judge them harshly. If they were passable, I could probably find a way to live with it.
“Have you noticed how…every neighborhood mom-and-pop restaurant is turning into a bank or Duane Reade? How every restaurant is on deathwatch list even before it opens?”
These were the best fucking cannolis I have every had in my entire life. Better than Villabate, better than Rocco’s, better than the Alba’s of my youth. Everything I tried was obviously made on premise (a rarity in most bakeries nowaways), and I ate it in a Little Italy that is still full of actual Italians instead of tchotchke shops and greasy chicken parm.
This was the exact moment when I realized that everything I had believed my entire life was a lie. A horrible, disgusting, filthy lie that was keeping me from the cannoli of my destiny. But that will never happen again. Vaccaro’s, I am coming to make sweet love to you over and over again for the rest of my life.
Baltimore passed the cannoli test. (Photo: Yelp/Stacy N.)
You are encouraged to take risks.
Another business owner in Baltimore put it to me in the best way possible: If you have an idea, you can try it out, and if it doesn’t work, it’s not the end of the world. You don’t lose your house, you don’t have angry angel investors putting a contract out on you; it just runs it course, and you’re on to the next thing.
This was the exact reason why New York was great in the first place. Our food was interesting because we could try new things! Take chances! Immigrants could afford to come here and use their food as a way to snag a piece of that great American dream. Now that world shrinks a bit more every day.
“There is less time searching for exciting ingredients…and more time making dumb gimmicky shit like Nutella Lasagna. And then once everyone is done Instagramming pics of it and moved onto the next big thing, you have to come up with something else that will break the internet to keep the lights on.”
We still want to take risks, but now instead of being able to play around and get our customers to try new things, we have to focus entirely on ideas that will make us the most money. There is less time searching for exciting ingredients and finding a way to make them more accessible to the palate of John Q. Public, and more time making dumb gimmicky shit like Nutella Lasagna. And then once everyone is done Instagramming pics of it and moved onto the next big thing, you have to come up with something else that will break the internet to keep the lights on. New Yorkers don’t want to admit it, but outside of fine dining, the most exciting things in food aren’t happening here.
If New York is making our imaginations a financial liability, there’s no point in staying here. Otherwise, we should all just move to the suburbs. They have Targets there, too.
New York wants Instagrammable hits, not risk-taking. (Photo: Japan Culture NYC)
In Baltimore, they love their town and give to it like I gave to Brooklyn.
When the city’s red tape stalled the painting of some much needed crosswalks, a few residents went out and painted them on their own. When a local mechanic saw some kids hanging around watching what he was doing, he took them in and started teaching. It’s a place where “social real-estate development” is an actual thing (go check out luxury housing for teachers from the Seawall group, or the affordable live/create buildings for artists the AZ Group is working on).
There’s plenty of dysfunction in Baltimore—that’s a well-known fact—but Baltimoreans seem to understand that they have the power to change their community.
One thing I learned after I lost my first business when the stock market collapsed: When all the rules have failed to work, it means you get to write your own. Baltimore is an amazing town filled with incredible people writing a new story, and I want to be a part of that. It’s not even remotely the fetid portal to hell that everyone thinks it is. Baltimore is starting to grow again, and if you spent just day down there, you’d too see how amazing it will become one day.
Baltimore doesn’t need to be reminded to be weird.
It’s a sustainable version of what New York once was.
They have independent book and record stores, swing dance ballrooms and dance studios, even a store where this guy makes everything out of dead crabs—and not one of them feels like the end is nigh. When it comes to my world, chefs are able to experiment here without fearing for their livelihood, and they support each other in a way that is reminiscent of the early days of Brooklyn Nouveau.
Honestly, guys, Baltimore makes me feel like New York did when I was a kid. I can do, and be, anything.
“Chefs are not coming here like they used to. The ones I see leaving and opening elsewhere, are accomplishing things that would have been impossible to do outside of New York ten years ago.”
All this aside, I cannot being to express how lucky I have been to grow up in Brooklyn. Even back when the rest of the world called us a cesspool where the rivers of blood and decay flowed freely, I knew it was the greatest place on earth, because New York City was a place where you could think and create freely. That magic is what I’ve been watching die a bit more every year, and it’s killing me. Chefs are not coming here like they used to. The ones I see leaving and opening elsewhere are accomplishing things that would have been impossible to do outside of New York ten years ago. And that is terrible for my hometown, but excellent for the rest of America.
As a New Yorker, I’ve been selfish, elitist, and, perhaps, even a victim of Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe I’m not falling out of love with it, but just realizing that there is a world outside of it. A vibrant, beautiful country that has always admired our mythology, and now is building its own. Baltimore certainly is. And I, for one, can’t wait to be a part of that.