Volume 18 • Issue 32 | December 23 - 30, 2005

Tribeca’s sweet smell of success

Downtown Express photos by Jefferson Siegel
This is likely the last Tribeca holiday season for Simon Seaton, owner of Umanoff & Parsons, which plans to move to bigger place in East Harlem.

By Vanessa Romo

Umanoff & Parsons is the kind of business that doesn’t need a sign.

“I just followed my nose to get here,” said Michelle McCumiskey, 23, a first time customer at the Tribeca wholesale bakery. “It smells so good you can’t miss it.”

Huddling with two co-workers over the glass display case at the entrance of the bakery’s small retail space at 467 Greenwich St., McCumiskey “oohed” and “ahhed” over a decadent looking, 10-inch chocolate fudge layer cake. “That’s the one we’re getting. It’s our boss’s birthday today, so we volunteered to get the cake,” said McCumiskey, who works in recruiting at Citigroup’s headquarters a few blocks away.

“We’re waiting for them to write, ‘Happy Birthday, Janice’ on it,” she said, smiling and taking in a deep whiff.

But the seductive smell of sugar and cake that has been luring customers down cobblestone streets and up the metal steps into the gourmet bakery for 17 years will not be in the air much longer. This is likely the bakery’s last holiday season in Tribeca. In about six months, Umanoff & Parsons will be packing up its Chocolate Mud Cakes, Apple Brown Betty’s and blueberry pies, and heading north to East Harlem.

Although, it’s not unusual for these types of businesses to be leaving Tribeca — many Downtown print shops and manufacturing plants have been leaving for years — Umanoff & Parsons is in a unique position. Whereas most companies have been driven out of the area, out-priced by increasing real estate rates from property owners who find it more lucrative to convert buildings into condos, the gourmet bakery is moving because it has outgrown it’s current space.

“We’re definitely lucky to have the problem of expanding, if you can call it that,” said Simon Seaton, 40, the owner, president and C.E.O. of the bakery. “There’s just not enough room for us here anymore,” he said referring to the 6,000 sq. ft two-level building. “We’re definitely a success story.”

The move has been in the making since 2000 when Seaton first became a partner (he took over the business in 2001), after eight years as the company’s sales and marketing manager. “Right away I knew we had to move out of here to keep growing,” he said. The new facility, now under construction at 121st St. and Park Ave., will be 28,000 sq. ft., nearly tripling the company’s production and office space.

It’s a thought that makes Seaton, a tall and broad man with a warm face, smile from behind the desk of his cramped and cluttered office. It’s also good news for the bakery’s 45 employees whose workload is most intense during the holiday season. The busiest time of year for the bakery is from Oct. 1 to mid-January, but nothing compares to the pie rush for Thanksgiving. This year Umanoff & Parsons baked about 30,000 pies for the November holiday, beginning production more than a month in advance. And before the subway strike, Seaton said he expected to bake about 10,000 cakes between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

“This has been our best year ever,” Seaton said. He estimates the gross sales for the year to be at $3 million, a 6.5 percent increase over 2004 sales.

The figures are a far cry from the company’s humble origins. It was founded in 1977 by husband and wife team, Jane Umanoff and Bo Parsons. Together they baked and operated the business out of their Upper West Side apartment until they moved to Tribeca a few years later. The area was still predominantly commercial at the time, and few people had any inkling it would become the posh, residential neighborhood that has caused housing prices to skyrocket. “It was an ideal location for a business to grow in this city,” Seaton said. The easy access to Wall St. and New Jersey via the Holland Tunnel was also a benefit.

Business continued to boom, increasing steadily until 9/11. Like most companies in the area, Umanoff & Parson was greatly affected by the attack. Production was shut down for two weeks, sales slowed down and Seaton had to lay off a few employees. The company also lost a lot of its national accounts. “At that point, I decided to refocus our business plan, and concentrate on re-growing our Manhattan business instead of focusing on the national sales,” Seaton said. Up until then, most of the company’s growth had been at the national level and only 20 percent of sales were in Manhattan. It took several years for the company to get back to its pre-9/11 levels. Now the company, whose cakes, pies, tarts and quiches can be found at Whole Foods, Fresh Direct, Gourmet Garage and Zabar’s market, concentrates 80 percent of its market share in New York City and the metropolitan area and only 20 percent nationwide.

Although Seaton can’t wait for the move, and loves to talk about it, he’s also a tinge nostalgic about leaving Tribeca. “We’ve become an important business in the community and it is going to be strange not to be here,” he said, standing near the ovens, arms outstretched.

Not surprisingly, the building is slated for condo conversion once the bakery moves out. But Seaton, who said he’s friendly with the landlord is hopeful of maintaining a presence in the neighborhood. “It’s possible that we might keep a small retail space here so that the people who’ve been coming by for years can keep coming,” he said, “But nothing’s definite.”

Still he’s looking forward to the day his two oldest boys, ages 10 and 8, get out of school for winter vacation. “It’s a little tradition we have. They love to come down here and sell the cakes. They give people their personal recommendations and I think people like it.”


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