A Brooklyn Bakery Named for No One
It was a peaceful late Sunday morning at Mrs. Maxwell’s Bakery in East New York — but not for long. Services at the Brooklyn neighborhood’s churches were about to conclude. “We got crowd control ropes, so we’re ready,” said Jenny Laruy, 57, who works the counter. And then a procession of cars and minivans began to stream into the bakery’s parking lot. Doors slammed, and an army of well-dressed women in hats headed purposefully for the door.
“Here we go,” Ms. Laruy said.
You may have spotted it on Atlantic Avenue on the way home from Kennedy Airport, a blocklong, bright red beacon among the endless string of collision repair shops. You won’t find Cronuts or salted caramel macarons here; instead, generations of families line up to order birthday cakes, quinceañera cakes and tiered wedding extravaganzas with names like Florentine Flair. A note on the cake catalog subtly invokes local realities: Food stamps are “not accepted for edible decorations.”
LaToya Haynes, 27, was picking up three strawberry cheesecakes. “My grandma’s mom came to Maxwell’s, my grandma, my mom, and now I come here, too, with my daughter,” she said, as her 6-year-old tugged at her hand.
George Jograj, 74, who bought the bakery in 1984, revealed that there never was a Mrs. Maxwell. When the business was established in 1928, he says, it was called Essential Cheesecake and served a primarily Jewish clientele.
Then he dropped a bomb: “Junior’s cheesecake recipe was stolen from Maxwell’s, from an employee here who went to work for Junior’s.” He raised an eyebrow. “But he didn’t have the whole recipe, so our cheesecake is really better than theirs.” Alan Rosen, third-generation owner of Junior’s, replied via email, “I asked my 79-year-old father, Walter, and he said, ‘No such thing ever happened.’ ”
During World War II, Mr. Jograj said, the bakery secured a contract to supply the troops stationed at Fort Hamilton with poundcake, and the management decided to change the name to Maxwell’s, inspired jointly by Maxwell House coffee and the local high school, W. H. Maxwell Career and Technical Education. The owners tacked on “Mrs.,” he added, “so it seemed like there was a little old lady back there making the cake.”
By late afternoon, the place was packed with boisterous families, and the two cashiers were moving purchases briskly along the yellow Formica counters.
Frankie Camacho, 43, flipped through a book of cake designs. “I’m from the motorcycle club the Unknown Bikers, so we do a lot of events, and always get the cakes here,” he said. “You buy a big sheet cake with cheesecake filling, they’re perfect.”
A couple in workout gear wandered in, talking to each other in hushed tones. Richard Brodsky, 61, and his wife, Jodi, 57, both avid runners, had just returned from a race, and passed the bakery. “I said, ‘Jodi, we have to stop,’ ” said Mr. Brodsky, who had not been inside Maxwell’s since the Nixon administration, when he was an architecture student at Pratt. At the time, there were few places for students to eat, so he set up a small snack shop on campus and sold rolls and pastries from Maxwell’s.
“When I was coming here, it wasn’t this big,” Mr. Brodsky said, “and they certainly didn’t have the parking lot. I used to park across the street and run across traffic with these big bags.”
Perhaps still feeling virtuous from his run, he declined to buy anything. “I just wanted to take a look around,” he said. “Maybe we’ll just get some coffee.”
Five minutes later, Mr. Brodsky stepped up to the counter. “I’ll have the crumb, and a carrot slice,” he said.