Orwasher’s is one of the miraculous New York institutions that has been able to stay in business for a century. Begun by a Hungarian baker in 1916, it has been continually churning out breads for the Upper East Side ever since. Recently, it has experienced a personal renaissance: Keith Cohen purchased the bakery from the Orwasher family in 2008 and has breathed fresh life into the store, adding artisanal breads, tweaking recipes, and rebranding the operation. Most of what made Orwasher’s special, however, has remained the same, including the old methods and techniques for preparing the breads.
While speaking with Steven Warnick, the retail manager, I learned that Orwasher’s has been in the same building for the entire time it has been open. Until 2011, when production finally outgrew the small facility, all of the baking had been done in the basement of the 78th Street shop. Though the baking now takes place in the Bronx, Steven assured me that the original oven still exists downstairs. It serves as a reminder of the bakery’s history. Although the Orwashers no longer have a hand in the business, the bakery is still a family affair: Keith’s father, Alan, assists in holiday decorations.
As I might expect from a store that has such a grand history, there are many long-lasting, loyal customers. Steven said that there are people who have been coming for almost fifty years, as well as many visitors who tell him that their grandparents used to come to Orwasher’s – and that would include mine! These customers can order many of the same loaves that were available in the early 1900s, including the challah, rye, and Irish soda bread. Today, there are also new additions, most notably the French baguettes – Orwasher’s had their baguettes rated #1 in the entire city, thanks in part to their imported French flour.
There is a whole wall of relishes, butters, and spreads, which are new since Keith Cohen took over. Although the breads remain the central focus, the doughnuts are another new popular item, especially with children. They can select the type that they would like and then have their filling piped in upon purchase.
In 2016, the first new Orwasher’s location in a century will open up on the Upper West Side, and Steven says that they may try to bake some new items like pastries in their larger facility. In the end, however, “We’re about the bread.”