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“Have you seen the muffin man,” the childhood rhyme goes, “who lives on Drury Lane?”
The real muffin man we’re talking about may or may not have once lived on Drury Lane, but he definitely did business in Chelsea. He was Samuel Bath Thomas, founder of Thomas’ English Muffins. His muffins are famed for their “nooks and crannies” — the ridges and small depressions in the muffins’ texture.
Thomas came to the U.S. from England in 1874. In 1880, using a recipe he had brought with him, he set up his first bakery at 163 Ninth Ave., which today bears a plaque announcing as much. Thomas originally pitched his new product to hotels and restaurants, rather than to the general public, according to the “Daytonian in Manhattan” blog.
He initially delivered his muffins by pushcart, and later on by horse-drawn delivery wagons. Of course, these wagons didn’t look the aristocratic-looking coach pulled by a team of horses that the Thomas company uses as its logo to this day.
Business prospered, and in the early 1900s, Thomas set up a second bakery at 337 West 20th St. While this is a quiet residential street, and the small building is across the street from St. Peter’s Church, bear in mind that zoning restrictions didn’t exist then.
However, this mid-19th century building once housed a foundry on its lower levels, according to the Daytonian blog. Thomas renovated this same area within the house so it could be used for a bakery. This house today bears an elaborate plaque identifying it as the “Muffin House.” After Thomas died in 1919, his family incorporated the company.
Let’s fast-forward to 2005, which is when Mike Kinnane and Kerry McInerny bought an apartment in the same building on West 20th Street. The following year, according to a New York Times article written at the time, Kinnane removed a radiator, pulling up some of the floorboards in the process. He then saw what looked like a large empty space.
Soon afterward, he decided to cut a hole in the basement bedroom wall near an apparent opening and discovered the long-unused bakery. Bear in mind that the building’s historical connection to the Thomas’ company and its muffins was already well-known.
An executive from George Weston Bakeries, which then owned the Thomas’ brand, came to the site to determine whether the oven could be moved to one of its present-day plants. But it couldn’t be done — the oven appeared to be built into the house — and it remains in the basement.
The Muffin House continues to be a desirable residence, as evidenced by a recent online ad for a duplex co-op apartment there. The building’s past is mentioned as a selling point.
And what of the Thomas’ brand today? It’s gone through several ownership changes. The overall group, now known as Thomas’ Breads, is a division of Bimbo Bakeries USA, which also owns Entenmann’s and Sara Lee.
We don’t know what Samuel Bath Thomas would have thought of some of the current varieties of English muffins, such as blueberry, maple french toast or cinnamon raisin. Thomas’ Breads also makes bagels nowadays, and we don’t know if Samuel ever encountered them, since they were largely confined to the city’s Jewish neighborhoods until the 1960s or so.
But he would have been proud that his muffins continue to be a New York favorite after more than 150 years.