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Just off of Ninth Avenue is a small cookie shop called Schmackary's, and wow, what a crowd it continues to attract at almost any hour or day of the week. Stepping inside feels like being transported into a Norman Rockwell painting – familiarly and authentically American. The shop is neatly decorated with baby blue pinstripes and a wall of colored glass that separates the kitchen from the eating area. The vibe is calm, warm, and welcoming, just as owner Zachary Schmall intended it to be when he opened his first brick-and-mortar in 2012. Zach came to the city as an aspiring Broadway actor but began his career in marketing. In order to de-stress, Zach would come home to his apartment and bake cookies, often experimenting with different flavor combinations. His friends would try his creations and after a while, they began encouraging him to sell them. Zach took a risk, and eventually, what he had seen as a modest pipe dream became his livelihood. Hailing from the Midwest, when it came time to start his own business, Zach made sure that customers were his top priority. While I was chatting with him, he told me that his approach was first and foremost based on providing the customer with warm and personable service. On a daily basis, he makes certain that his staff is not "anonymous and apathetic, but rather people who others strolling in might want to have as friends. " Since his success stems from word of mouth and social media, Zach has shown that prioritizing the customer pays off. Zach credits part of Schmackary's reputation as a "hidden gem in the heart of Broadway" to the store's location a couple of steps away from the main drag. He loves his 45th Street address, especially because of his strong connection to the theater community, and wants to keep that same side street feeling as he makes plans to expand. He further explained, "Being slightly removed from the avenue bustle gives Schmackary's a more intimate vibe, whereas a main street location would feel more exposed and less familial. "Schmackary's, called "the unofficial cookie of Broadway, " offers a rotating menu of 45 different flavors of cookies. On one visit, I bit into the moist, but crunchy around the edges, Caramel Apple Crisp and was hooked. A coffee-crazy friend of mine, who had tagged along with me that day, said their coffee was top-notch – yet another reason to come back to visit Schmackary's. On a subsequent visit with members of the Manhattan Sideways team, they sampled several other amazing cookies, including The Monster filled with peanut butter, M& Ms, and raisins. And on yet another day when we were stopping by to take photos, it happened to be when Broadway Bakes was taking place - the annual fundraiser that Schmackary's holds for Broadway Cares, the nation's top AIDS fundraising and grant-making organization. During this week, some of the theater district's biggest stars volunteer their time to stand behind the counter and serve customers. When we showed up, the line was down the block. Little did we know that everyone was waiting to have their picture taken with Audra McDonald in exchange for a donation. A serendipitous moment as Zach brought us to the front of the line to meet her. Needless to say, everyone was quite pleased that I had taken them to this sweet oasis. Learn about Schmackary's vision to franchise throughout the US in the W42ST article, “After 11 Tasty Years in Hell’s Kitchen, Schmackary’s Broadway Bakery Sets Stage for Nationwide Expansion. ”

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Levain Bakery

If you do not already know of Levain Bakery, it is time that you did. Imagine my excitement to finally be on West 74th Street and able to introduce Tom and Olivia, members of the Manhattan Sideways team, to this exceptional bake shop that they had been hearing about for over a year. Knowing their love of anything freshly baked, gooey, and sweet, I had no doubt that this was going to be a special day. I have stood on the line to enter Levain many times with friends and family to purchase cookies. On this particular day, we were ushered inside and had the absolute pleasure of not only meeting the lovely ladies who have been baking their phenomenal cookies for the past fifteen years, but also getting to go behind-the-scenes to observe where the baking takes place. Unexpectedly, much of the history of this well-loved, independent Upper West Side bakery is tied up in athletics. Connie McDonald and Pam Weekes met while doing competitive swimming at the YWCA. Connie told us that when she arrived at the Y not knowing a soul, Pam warmly invited her to join her group. At the time, Connie worked in investment banking and Pam had a job in fashion at Norma Kamali. As their story goes, the two women, who had become fast friends, decided to train together for the Ironman. The constant physical strain left them very hungry, which inspired them to talk about opening a bakery. Whereas Pam grew up loving baking and "never had store-bought bread" in her house, Connie spent her childhood in a sweets-free environment and had done very little baking before meeting Pam. In 1993, Connie left her career and enrolled in Peter Kump's New York Cooking School. The two women started worked in wholesale at One Fifth Avenue, making bread for restaurants. They quickly started looking for a storefront, even though, as Pam said, "We had no money. " They were very close to opening on Avenue B and 3rd Street, but the deal fell through on the day they would have moved. Once again, however, they were led in the right direction by an active lifestyle: One of their friends was running in the park and then jogged along 74th Street on her way home. She spotted the vacancy, told the women, and in 1995, the two opened their bakery, naming it after a French word for a bread starter made with flour, water, and yeast. Contrary to what people may derive from the long lines continually wrapping around the block, Levain was not an immediate success. As Connie said, "When you start a business, you aren't immediately rolling in dough. " After several years of literally rolling in flour-filled dough, the two women admit that the bakery is doing very well. In fact, they have opened another location in Harlem and one in the Hamptons. When I asked if they had further expansions in mind, the women shook their heads. "We are very involved in everything, " Pam stated, mentioning that the bakery also does a high volume of mail order. Another shop would make it more difficult for the two women to be as hands-on. Also, as Connie commented, "We've never had a big business model – we just want to be a neighborhood bakery. "When we stepped outside to take some photos of the two women in front of their store, Pam broke away to look at the customers happily sipping Levain's locally roasted coffee around the doorway. "This is great – sometimes we forget how fun it is just to hang out here. " Connie nodded and added, "We used to hang out with the neighbors a lot more. " She described a day early on in their tenancy, before people came from miles around to sample the cookies, when the two women planted a tree and attracted a "block party" of passersby. As if summoned, one of their neighbors walked by as we were speaking to Pam and Connie and greeted the two owners. She was with her son, who had worked for Levain in the past, and so we witnessed a warm reunion. "I came in at the ground level, " the customer said, explaining that she was one of the first people in the door when the bakery opened. She then added, "These women are animal lovers of the first order. They give the dogs of the neighborhood so much love, and so stopping by Levain is a huge part of me and my dog's walk. "Connie and Pam told us that there are many customers who have been with them since day one. One neighbor, they said, came in on the first day they opened with his newborn, and now that baby is in college. "We love being on a side street, " added Connie, gushing about all the wonderful people she has met on 74th. Pam nodded, saying, "We are not cold or anonymous. " Despite the long line and the amount of press, Levain continues to be a warm, neighborhood - and, might I add, outstanding - bakery.

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Culture Espresso

Culture Espresso is injecting a little bit of funk, flavor and fine coffee into the midtown scene. The atmosphere is full of warmth, a touch of glamour - a chandelier - and offers a wall of windows that look across to one of the city's finest facades, the Colony Arcade Building, now the Refinery Hotel. Indeed, this coffee shop will satisfy anyone's need for an afternoon pick-me-up with some of the best baked goods we have tasted. Their colossal, homemade cookies that were hot out of the oven, oozing with dark chocolate and about one-inch thick were game-changers for each of us. In addition to the cookies, we were tempted by the collection of brightly frosted pop tarts. Unlike the typical childhood treat out of a box, these are designed for grown-ups with a flakey pastry crust and sophisticated combinations inside. We tried the pear, the cinnamon and the mixed berry. All three were simply splendid. As for the coffee, the folks at Culture Espresso see themselves as more than vendors and baristas. According to John, the owner, he is always searching for the perfect roast with "blind cuppings" (coffee tastings) each week. However, he finds himself continually coming back to Heart Roasters as the absolute best. As their website claims, the folks at Culture are clearly "curators, " and work hard to deliver a high-quality coffee experience each and every day. Their philosophy and genuine desire to please customers seem to be working well. On each occasion that we stopped by, the place was bustling with patrons lingering at their upholstered benches and high-top tables, while others departed with treats and caffeinated beverages in tow.