Red Gate Bakery opened in December of 2019, two months before Valentine’s Day and three months before the pandemic hit. This year, during the East Village bakery’s second Valentine’s Day rush, they’ll offer a Red Velvet bread, heart-shaped Linzer cookies, and the strawberry Oreos that landed them on a Forbes list of best Valentine’s desserts in New York City.
For bakeries like Red Gate, Valentine’s Day is one of the biggest holidays of the year. In 2018, Americans spent $23.2 million on cupcakes alone during the week leading up to V-Day. This year, that could look very different due to COVID.
After “a great fall and winter,” Red Gate’s owner, Greg Rales, says he’s “expecting a little bit more” business during Valentine’s. “Since people started filtering back into the city after Labor Day, things picked up again, which we’re very grateful for.”
But other bakers are less convinced. Business at Sugar Sweet Sunshine, a Lower East Side staple since 2003, has been down 35 to 40 percent, according to co-owner Debbie Weiner. “People were, in the beginning, gung ho about supporting restaurants and small businesses” by ordering delivery, she said. But as the pandemic progressed, they were less and less inclined to do so, and orders began to slow. “I think that also had to do with the fact that nobody thought that this was going to be going on for a year,” Weiner said.
“The reality is that we’re probably not going to do what we did [pre-pandemic] on any level,” she anticipated. “Because we don’t have that corporate business, you know… We don’t actually know what to expect.”
Zeke Mendell, co-owner of Betty Bakery in Boerum Hill, says that the prediction of a slow holiday might not be accurate. “I suspect we’ll probably have a smaller Valentine’s Day than normal. But we thought that about Christmas and Thanksgiving and got overwhelmed.” With people staying in, they were drawn to single servings of their favorite sweet treats, meaning more of Betty Bakery’s single-serve pies sold over the holidays in 2020. “We probably did the same, roughly, maybe a little bit better in revenue. But only because it was a lot of these little pies, as opposed to the bigger ones.”
For Valentine’s, Betty’s Bakery is keeping the same strategy in mind. “We’re focusing more on cupcakes and smaller items that people can take away rather than a big fancy cake, or boxed goods that you would share.”
Other bakeries, like New York institution Magnolia Bakery, ship nationwide and internationally. Red Gate just recently started shipping nationwide, and the response has been “really great,” according to Greg. “I think being able to reach as many people as we can when people aren’t going outside as much, obviously, has been pretty clutch.”
Sugar Sweet Sunshine has been focused more on local deliveries, even with apps charging 30 percent fees. “A lot of people were like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s so much money,’” Debbie explains. “But honestly, for me, I looked at it differently. Because I was like, ‘Well, before I was on these platforms, I was getting no delivery.’ You know, at night, I couldn’t deliver. And I would take 70 percent over zero, any day of the week.”
Workers at bakeries are included in New York’s initial phase of vaccine distribution, and Greg, Debbie, and Zeke are looking forward to the completion of their employees’ vaccinations. “We’re very grateful that the vaccine has become available to all of our employees here, and we’re all one dose in now,” Greg explains. “We’re very excited about that.”