There are iconic New York foods—the slice, the bodega egg-and-cheese—and then there are the new guard items, like Dominique Ansel cronuts or Momofuku pork buns. Levain Bakery’s massive cookies—craggy and crisp on the outside, dense and gooey on the inside—fall in the latter category. For the first time, they’ll be available in a shop outside New York with the opening of Levain’s Georgetown bakery. The location is slated to open mid-September at 3131 M Street, Northwest (formerly Johnny Rockets) and will offer counter-service and delivery via Caviar and DoorDash for a range of items, from classic chocolate-walnut cookies served warm out of the oven to brioche breads and baguettes.
Founders Pam Weekes and Connie McDonald opened their first bakery in 1995—a tiny shop in the basement of an Upper West Side brownstone. Cookies weren’t on the agenda. The friends, who met while training for an Ironman triathlon, were focused bread. (Fans argue that Levain’s baguettes, boules, and walnut-raisin loaves give the cookies a run for their chips.) A year after opening, McDonald whipped up the kind of monster cookies she and Weekes enjoyed while training—triathlete-sized treats packed with semi-sweet chocolate chunks and hunks of walnut. It was a small batch of big cookies—just a dozen—but it changed their worlds.
“The neighborhood was different in ’95. It takes people a while to discover you. That was before the internet and even cell phones” says Weekes. “The next day, people kept popping their heads in, asking about the cookies.”
Two decades and seven New York locations later, Levain has built an avid following—and pre-Covid, regularly drew crowds of tourists and New Yorkers eager to cue in and around the shops. Still, Weekes and McDonald didn’t significantly scale up operations until last year when the company was acquired by private equity firm Stripes Group, which set them on the path towards national expansion. In addition to more bakeries, Levain is launching a line of smaller, oven-ready frozen cookies for grocery stores (coming soon). CEO Andy Taylor says the pandemic has curtailed some of the growth, such as a West Coast expansion, though the group is currently working on more Mid-Atlantic bakeries, including a possible second Levain in the DC area.
“The intention at the beginning was never to blow the growth out. A lot of equity companies come in and grow too fast,” says Taylor, who’s eyeing Bethesda and Union Station as possibilities. “We’re looking at two, three bakeries a year to maintain the quality of the brand.”
The Georgetown location’s menu will be similar to the flagship. Look for a range of chunky, six-ounce cookies including classic chocolate-walnut, dark chocolate-peanut butter chip, and oatmeal raisin. There’s also a nut-free, two-chocolate-chip and a gluten-free chocolate-walnut. Though the shop won’t serve thin-crust pizzas like in New York, the menu will span a range of other baked goods, including fresh blueberry muffins, chocolate chip-banana bread, bomboloncini doughnuts, and sweet or savory brioche buns. You’ll also find the full range of baguettes, boules, and other breads. Patrons can match their cookies with milk, both traditional and non-dairy. Mornings will also bring coffee drinks and cold brew.
Though grand openings aren’t quite as grand in the pandemic, Levain Bakery will mark theirs with something quite special. Pastry chef Paola Velez, who co-founded Bakers Against Racism and recently joined the team at Maydan and Compass Rose, is collaborating with Weekes and McDonald on a limited-edition cookie inspired by her Dominican grandmother. The chocolate chunk cookie, which takes cues from cafe con leche, is infused with espresso and cinnamon. It will be available for the first month after opening, and all proceeds from its sales will go towards DC youth organization Horton’s Kids.
“I like to put memories into food,” says Velez, a Bronx native who counts herself as a Levain fan. “Around noontime, my grandmother would invite over kids in the neighborhood—it didn’t matter if you were a lawyer or a mom, she’d invite you in to eat and have a cup of coffee.”
Levain Bakery Georgetown. 3131 M St., NW; 202-843-9340.