This is Bari Musacchio, the owner of Baz Bagel and Restaurant. A sociology major in college, she says that the fact that she got into the hospitality industry was “totally random” since no one in her Jewish/Italian family was in food. But when her dad told her that she needed to get a job in order to live in his Manhattan apartment during summer break and that he had hooked her up with a job at Ceci Cela Patisserie, she obliged. She started working at the counter and enjoyed it so much that she continued working there, even when she had graduated college and could only work there one day a week since she had a full-time job. When she first started working at the French pastry shop, she says she didn’t really realize why she kept going back. She just knew that she loved learning people’s names and coffee orders, meeting different customers from the neighborhood and being able to walk anywhere and have to stop and say “hi” to someone she knew. In retrospect, she sees that it was during this time that she got “bitten by the food industry bug” because she loved the neighborhood feeling that the business provided. It’s the same atmosphere that she strives to provide in her cafe, which she describes as having a “Cheers vibe”. Everything from the restaurant’s design to the food to the music was deliberately chosen to make Baz Bagel a neighborhood place where every person feels comfortable and stopping in is just part of a customer’s routine.
It wasn’t until she started doing the accounting for the wholesale business at Ceci Cela Patisserie that Bari recognized that she could turn her love for the food industry into a professional career. She had always been very academic and liked being in a job where she was actively learning and continued to feel challenged. She enrolled in the French Culinary Institute (now International Culinary Center) because she felt that if she was going to commit to a career in food, she wanted to learn every aspect of the business. There she learned the basics of cooking and baking before becoming deeply interested in Italian food and wine (which she reveals is still a special passion of hers) and deciding to go to culinary school in Italy. She came back to New York for a few years after she finished her culinary courses, but later returned to Italy and worked there for a year because she loved the view of the culinary arts in Europe, “it was a whole different type of education”, she says. After returning from Italy the second time, she opened Rubirosa as the General Manager and worked there for about five years, helping to build it from the ground up. During this time, she kept noticing that there were no bagel shops on the Lower East Side, an area that she had lived and worked in for many years. Since she had grown up on Long Island, bagels were a huge part of her daily diet and she found herself traveling to the Upper West Side every weekend to get “good bagels” with her dad, which was a routine they had. She also kept remembering how often customers would come into Ceci Cela and ask if they had bagels and she would think “someone has to open a bagel place around here” because there was no routine available to their community. So in 2014, she started imagining spots in the area where she could open a bagel place and when a space opened up across the street from her apartment she decided to just take a look at it, thinking “maybe my bagel fantasy will come true”. Immediately when she walked in, she was able to envision how it could all work and decided to go for it.
Her family helped her in putting up the money to buy the restaurant but coming off of the success of Rubirosa, where they saw her work like it was her own place, they knew this endeavor was something she was extremely passionate about. Seeing the whole operation work is still one of the most rewarding parts of the business for Bari. She compares it to synchronized swimming, where everyone is moving on their own but working as a whole to create something masterful. The space she’s in has a 120 year old history. Originally an Italian deli and then a multitude of other things, it was an Italian restaurant for 10 years and then briefly a juice bar before Bari took it over. Her neighbor, Anna, used to work there as a girl when her family ran it as a luncheonette, which she showed Bari pictures of on the night that Baz opened, one of which now hangs on a wall in the restaurant. The space has been a part of the community for generations, which makes it even more special for Bari that she can continue adding to it’s history. Unfortunately the owners before her ripped out all of the original counters and fixtures so they had to bring back in the lunch counter and re-design everything. But she felt that bringing back touches of the original decor made the space even more charming and inviting. She was inspired by her trips to Florida to give it the luncheonette/diner feel rather than a grab-n-go bagel store because in Florida it’s normal to sit down, have some coffee and eat your bagel or breakfast sandwich at a table without rushing out. So she decided to create a Jewish diner that centered around bagels, even though grab-n-go may be faster and more efficient in New York. She loved the idea of sitting at a table and hanging out with friends while enjoying a delicious bagel and she wanted to create a place where she would want to hang out every day.
There’s a lot of nostalgia sprinkled throughout the restaurant, from the design to the menu to the packaging. All of the decorations in the restaurant are things that influenced Bari growing up, specifically musicians like Barbara Streisand, Carly Simon and Carole King, which were always playing around her house. Bari’s grandmother grew up on the Lower East Side and went to high school with Barbara Streisand so there was always a connection to her and the empowering message that she stood for. Bari wanted to tie these childhood influences (the influences of her grandmother’s generation) into the menu, so she took some recipes from her grandmother when creating it. Her grandmother has a recipe box full of recipe cards that she and her friends from temple wrote down and put together so she was a able to get a lot of authentic recipes for items like latkes, chicken soup, matzoh balls and matzoh brei. However, for the bagels, Bari created her own recipe. She did a lot of research into bagels (eating many different kinds) to see what she liked or disliked about them and even worked at a bagel shop in New Jersey for free in order to learn how to make them. Once she knew the process, she hired bakers to start making them and then tweaked the recipe to incorporate different elements that she liked from certain bagels until she found the perfect balance. With their packaging, Bari tries to keep the personality of the restaurant and bring it into corporate offices for catering or delivery orders. Catering is usually a side operation for other businesses but for her it’s become just as important as the retail business because every time she caters, she introduces her product to 100 people that haven’t seen it yet. She puts different images on their coffee boxes: one of her grandmother, one of Barbara Streisand, one of her cousin, Gary, in a pink suit for his prom, just to make it fun. She tries to find the joy in simple things and uses her packaging to make an impression and to keep a smile on people’s faces.
For Bari, the most rewarding part of the business is seeing people laughing in the restaurant every day and having a good time. It was really important to her that she create a space where you could “take a date, a baby or your grandmother” and each person would feel like there was something there for them. Which is why she’s not concerned with finding a niche or carving out a space for her restaurant in the food industry. She just wants to be “the neighborhood hang”, which she is, as evidenced by the customers that come into her restaurant seven days a week. She loves that she’s seen kids grow up in her store and takes pride in the fact that when a customer comes in, they’re able to forget about whatever’s going on outside the restaurant. But even though Baz Bagel is an established restaurant in the neighborhood, she admits that there’s an obstacle every single day. Which is why her advice to other entrepreneurs in the food industry is to keep with it, saying “as long as you’re prepared to deal with the challenges and control everything else that’s controllable, you’re gonna be fine”. Perseverance is the key to success for Bari, whose dad and sister both run their own businesses. She believes that the drive to succeed is in her DNA and her dad has taught her that running a business is a game of both “putting your head down and working hard” and “lifting your head up and selling”. So when so many things are going wrong and she wants to quit, she just keeps pushing through it, believing it will work out, which it always does.
As for the future of Baz, Bari says she’s enjoyed expanding “out the backdoor” with their catering and wholesales businesses rather than opening many doors with other locations. She enjoys the charm of having one location but there is demand for them to expand so she’s in the process of figuring out what that looks like. One thing that is clear to her is that whatever expansion they do end up doing, she wants to make sure that it doesn’t effect their flagship store, which is the heart and soul of her business. It’s the place that made her believe that her vision was possible and even today, after five years in business, Bari continues to say that she can’t put her finger on what it is that makes her restaurant so unique. But just like her first job at Ceci Cela, which made her fall in love with food, Baz Bagel and Restaurant is a place where there’s a constant friendly, community feeling and as Bari puts it, “something just feels special about this place”.
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