George McKirdy is hoping that if he builds it, they will come.
The chef-owner of Astor Bake Shop—another Manhattan to Queens defector—opened his chic business in what can politely be called a fringe part of Astoria, a corner in the northwest part of the neighborhood with light industry and few services.
He was introduced to the area by a friend who happens to own Hell Gate Social, the only bar in the area. McKirdy, whose career includes tours in the city’s finest kitchens—Butter and Café Boulud among them—was enchanted.
“It was always my desire to have my own shop,” McKirdy, 43, said. “My gut feeling was that this was the right spot for me and the potential outweighed the negatives.”
The challenges were steep: the chef created a business plan based on the unknown—a still-emerging residential neighborhood that didn’t have a history of similar services. The site required a costly gut renovation. And McKirdy was intent on serving French-influenced pastries in a neighborhood loyal to its baklava and cannoli.
“I didn’t want to gear down to the neighborhood. I wanted [the shop] to reflect something I wanted for a long time, and something outside the usual Greek and Italian bakery shop.”
Astor Bake Shop opened in June to favorable reviews. The renovation exposed the 19th-century brick walls, and features a marble-topped counter and custom tables made from reclaimed materials.
Light streams in through large storefront windows, and when you do turn your attention away from the simple beauty of the place, the pastries will perform their sweet seduction. McKirdy’s love affair with France is evident here.
Recently, the chef added a light brunch menu, also European-inspired with classics such as croque monsieur and seasonal tarts, sometimes featuring fresh figs or peaches picked from a neighbor’s yard. There’s dinner, too, and a newly minted wine and beer license with the lists still in development.
Residents such as Annie Leah Sommers, who’s been a customer since its opening, are keeping their fingers crossed.
“It’s a beautiful space, and a really good neighborhood place,” said Sommers, 41, a freelance editor. “It's extremely convivial and welcoming. It's obvious that he doesn't want to just make a buck, but that he really cares about his clients and providing them with a quasi home.”
12-23 Astoria Blvd., Queens
By the numbers:
Cost of renovation: $230,000
Monthly rent: $2,000
Square feet: 1,200 (+900 SF basement)
Employees: 6 full time; 3 part time
Years as a chef: 22