Mai Warshafsky was enjoying a day off at the public pool when the dream of an imaginary café came to her. She’d always been a home baker, spending her off days bustling around her kitchen in a meditative state, whipping up marmalade-filled, yellow corn muffins and light, airy cakes covered in grapes and anise seeds for family and friends.
That day, she recalls reminiscing over the ubiquitous Royal Dansk Danish butter cookies that come in the blue tins; she wanted to create something equally nostalgic. “I decided that’s exactly what I wanted to do,” she told me. “But I was going to do it my way.”
She was working at Jack’s Wife Freda at the time and inspired by a popular menu item: rose water waffles. “It’s a flavor traditionally used in a lot of Middle Eastern desserts,” she said, so she tinkered with the recipe for a shortbread in that style, which contains just flour, butter, sugar, confectioner’s sugar, pure rose extract and salt, according to the cookie’s label. The rest of the flavors stemmed from that first inspiration.
The big win was when the creative hoped to get some feedback on her product and brought a batch of rose water and lavender-coconut shortbreads to a staff meeting at the restaurant, and owners Dean and Maya Jankelowitz immediately loved them.
“I’ll buy 100 right now! Let’s just sell them at the restaurant,” Dean said, becoming the first Café Warshafsky customer. At the start of 2017, the business became Warshafsky’s full-time venture.
“Shortbread cookies in exotic flavors!” Warshafsky chuckles at the tagline of her flaky, buttery nostalgia-laced cookies. Café Warshafsky shortbreads come in five flavors: rose water, lavender and coconut, orange blossom and sesame, black currant and anise and Earl Grey, nestled inside simple white paper bags printed with the Café Warshafsky logo. Two gloved magician hands uphold the brand’s cursive name and whimsical ribboned roses that almost appear to have faces.
Corresponding with Warshafsky over email, you half expect her to be a sprite, some magical creature mixing up shortbreads in a treehouse on the outskirts of Manhattan. But the baker, business owner and artist shirks the artist’s identity, despite her Hunter education and studio art background, and takes after her immigrant mother and second-generation father who met as Manhattan salespeople; she’s cordial, creative and hardworking.
Warshafsky has always had one hand in the kitchen and the other in the printmaker’s studio, since her first job bussing tables as a 16-year-old. As an art student, she said, “I was etching at the Art Students League during the day and then I would go to my job at Balthazar at night. I’m used to having a passion project and then having to make the bread and butter.”
She considered being a full-time artist when she first moved to the city, but in the end was surprised to discover it wasn’t what she wanted. “Doing what I do now, I’m actually really happy,” she said.
Even until the end of 2016, she could still be spotted flitting between tables at Estela when not baking and packaging shortbreads, making deliveries or working on a new box design for shipping the cookies to her client base that includes fans living as far away as San Francisco, Portland and Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Now she’s working on partnerships upstate and all over the country. She’s grown Café Warshafsky to a team of three (counting herself), and now accounts are coming to her. “It’s a really nice change,” she said, and she largely attributes her growth to having hand-picked influential wholesalers complementary to her brand to sell to from day one.
Café Warshafsky has a clear and detailed vision, one that Warshafsky hopes will one day become an actual physical space, a shop in New York with wallpaper, cloth napkins, tableware—an entire hand-illustrated decor. With the release of limited-run, copper plate etchings she’s created—a fork twirling a bite of spaghetti, a spoon shedding a tear, knives standing as soldiers at attention, a chair taking a rest and two candles as lovers—Warshafsky is one step closer to realizing that dream.
She says it’s “a likeness to Beauty and the Beast’s castle under a spell or Alice in Wonderland’s psychedelic trip. These miniatures draw you into their little world.”
Warshafsky drifts out of her sales persona and gets a bit starry-eyed when she describes the little world she’s creating. “It’s something very tangible, and it’s a gift, and it comes in this box, but it gives you this sense of wonder,” she says. “It’s sort of dreamy and romantic, and it’s fantasy. I’m trying to put that in a cookie, for people to really feel like they’re part of this funny but magical world.”