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The Steve Jobs of Pastry

Nina Martin | July 18, 2012 | Food & Drink Lifestyle Story Restaurants Reporters Notebook City Life Eat and Drink

Pascal Rigo is in a very good mood, and who could blame him? We’re sitting on the deck of his Pine Street headquarters above La Boulange, the bakery that made him rich and famous—though perhaps not as famous as he would like—on a glorious May morning that he might have imported from the south of France. At 52, he resembles a cross between Daniel Craig and the pre-Rabelaisian Gérard Depardieu, dressed in his usual sneakers, Lacoste shirt, and loose-around-the-waist shorts. In front of us are plates of striped bass, baked to moist perfection in a salt-andherb crust, then drizzled with a delectable tomato-parsley salsa. “C’est bon, non?” he says happily, sopping up the juices with chunks of baguette.

Around him orbits a galaxy of employees who seem almost as giddy as he does. There’s Alain Bourgade, the hunky Ducasse-trained chef de cui sine who’s working on Rigo’s second cookbook, a step-bystep guide that extends the La Boulange brand beyond breads and tarts while promoting a subtly populist agenda. There’s the photographer whose job it is to make even complicated dishes like this whole bass in herbes de Provence dough look Sandra Lee simple. Several young staffers drift by to discuss this afternoon’s job fair at the San Francisco Centre, which is expected to draw dozens of applicants for positions at the latest La Boulange, under construction in the old Emporium dome. Rigo’s marketing manager brings printouts displaying carryout containers and labels for a new line of desserts based on pâte à choux and meringue, for which Rigo wants something a bit more refined than the standard packaging—special but not stuffy. “The colors should be bright,” he says. “Fun!”

And he lets rip a laugh that has nothing to do with meringues, mini-profiteroles, fuchsia tissue, or anything else we’ve been talking about for the last two hours. It’s the laugh of someone who is exceedingly pleased with the way things are going, though he’s not at liberty to tell me why. A man with a grand secret, which he believes will not only transform the way America eats, one not-toobig croissant at a time, but also show his adopted city that much of what it thinks about food is, frankly, garbage.

A few days later, the secret is out. Starbucks announces that it’s purchasing La Boulange for $100 million, putting Rigo in charge of revamping baked goods for the Seattle giant’s U.S. cafés (up to 11,000), and partnering with him to grow La Boulange from a Bay Area chain of 20 bakery-restaurants into a national fast/casual eatery with potentially hundreds of outlets. The deal—a tacit acknowledgment by Starbucks that its current selection of mega-scones and other bloated fare is “terrible,” as Rigo puts it in an unguarded moment—means that he and his team will be supplying food to tens of millions of customers a year. “It’s like being in charge of one-third of the bakeries in France,” he marvels.

The sale had been in the works since last November, initiated by Starbucks and solidified over dinner with its founder and CEO, Howard Schultz, at Rigo’s Noe Valley home. (Rigo overcooked the halibut, but the pastries were a hit.) “In La Boulange, we’ve found a company that shares our passion for reinventing and elevating an entire product category while doing it in a socially responsible way,” Cliff Burrows, president of Starbucks Americas, says in an email. “We see an opportunity to bring the artistry of the French bakery to the U.S. marketplace in a similar way that Starbucks brought the romance of the Italian espresso bar to many American coffee consumers for the first time.”

Yet the local reaction has been a good deal less enthusiastic—snide blog posts, scathing online comments, signs at a neighboring store calling for a boycott, plus a media-launched investigation into La Boulange’s employee healthcare practices. This is pretty much what Rigo has come to expect from San Francisco’s foodie class, with its petty jealousies, elitism masquerading as purism, and knee-jerk bias against even homegrown entrepreneurs who turn a profit by selling to the masses. (Note to blogosphere: Those are my words, not his.) It’s a culture Rigo has been navigating for 17 years, not always with patience or tact. “You know, the grumpy people, they are going to be grumpy about two stores, they are going to be grumpy about anything and everything,” he says.

“It’s funny,” he adds, describing their attitude. “Funny because I think they are ridiculous.”

Beneath the bluster, though, Rigo has to feel some genuine pain from his critics’ barbs. Back when he opened his Fillmore shop in 1999, selling the thick-crusted levain and campagne that he’d learned to bake as a bread- and soccer- obsessed kid in Bordeaux in the 1960s and ’70s, it was a coup de foudre—love at first bite, lines out the door. San Francisco was having a French moment, a reaction against the vacuous grandiosity of the dot-com era; yet the most basic and sustaining of French foods—a freshly baked baguette in the traditional, rather than the thinner-crusted, slightly Americanized Acme or Semifreddi’s style—was surprisingly hard to find. Bay Bread (as the first bakery was called then and the parent company is called now) filled a void San Francisco didn’t know it had, one that became more gnawing after the dot-com bubble burst and the whole city needed a crash course in the virtues of the simple things. Thanks to La Boulange (the name dates from the early 2000s), the simple life soon included pain au chocolat, tarte aux pommes, housemade strawberry jam, chewy, custardy morsels called cannelés, and mini-sandwiches that did not make you feel like a glutton or a spendthrift.

At first, as Rigo began growing his empire— to Polk Street and Hayes Valley, to the Tassajara bakery in Cole Valley, to eight stand-alone restaurants, including Chez Nous, Le Petit Robert, and Galette—critics and diners raved. He was smart, inventive, and great at spotting talent, and he’d managed to replicate the delights of a Parisian café with hardly a faux note.

But in San Francisco, there’s a fine line between an acceptably, even admirably, successful food entrepreneur and an evil destroyer of small businesses and hardworking artisan Everydudes. In the mid- to late 2000s, as Rigo sold off or shut down the restaurants and began expanding the La Boulange concept to suburban enclaves in Marin and the far East Bay, the backlash began. “I have nothing good to say about that asshole, other than there’s a certain karma that he’s now a Starbucks employee,” one person who’s had business dealings with Rigo emails me. This spring, the Arizmendi Bakery co-op chain mounted a petition drive to kill a planned La Boulange in the Inner Sunset. (The city approved it anyway.)

It didn’t help that by now, you could find a surprisingly delicious loaf at Trader Joe’s, making genuine-tasting French bread a supermarket affair—and La Boulange’s offerings that much easier to take for granted. Which is exactly what the snarksters did. Apricot tarts out of apricot season? Tre`s uncool. (Rigo responds with a rant about the seasonal/locavore/organic police, though he too uses many organic ingredients: “So that means, if you live in Chicago, you eat potatoes for six months? So we’re going back to 500 years ago? I don’t think so. We’re going to be—what, 5 billion people more. You think organic is going to solve our problem? I mean, in France we say, ‘Fuck, no.’”) Bread from a chain, when you could score an amazing loaf from the likes of Tartine? Another rant: “[San Francisco] is the only place in the world where a bakery will make money by having bread at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. And it’s what—40 or 50 loaves, and each one costs seven bucks? It’s good, yes, but to call it a bakery”—Rigo’s voice drops to a whisper—“ it’s bull-sheet. A bakery should make a loaf of bread that everybody can afford all day, not something that you need to line up at 4 o’clock and pay seven bucks for. That’s the complete opposite of what a bakery should be.”

To the skeptics who insist that it is impossible to maintain craftsman quality at industrial output, Rigo just scoffs, because—here’s another secret revealed—he’s actually been doing it for years. Even before Bay Bread opened its first retail bakery, it was already much bigger than most people knew. By this spring, the company’s wholesale and retail operations were a $60–75-million-a-year business supplying products to everyone from Whole Foods to Apple to Olive Garden to Trader Joe’s (yes, that loaf) to La Boulange’s own bakery-cafés.

Think about it. Though food sales generate $2.22 billion annually for Starbucks, they could bear part of the blame for the company’s stunted growth and stagnant stock price in recent years. Do you really believe that a corporation with that much on the line would take a crazy risk by entrusting virtually its entire food operation to a provincial chain 1/550th its size? As the French would say, “Fuck, no.”

The fish devoured, Rigo tells me to meet him in the church parking lot down the street, next to La Boulange’s ancient Citroën Deux Chevaux delivery truck. It’s a charming relic, not much bigger than a very large tin can, with the company’s logo in Nutella brown on a background the same beige as one of his vanilla macarons. But it’s Rigo’s SUV that we end up driving down 101, a French-from- France radio station, piped in via Sirius, warbling in the background.

He makes a detour past an unlovely concrete lot in the heart of Hayes Valley (“and they want to know what color I’m going to paint my store!”). Then the conversation turns to family— his wife of 18 years, Virginie, who has been deeply involved in the business as its accountant, and his three children, ages 10 to 17. Rigo drives the youngest, Oscar, to school in San Mateo every day before heading to the company “commissary” nearby. Much of his business has been structured around his family—for years, they lived above the Pine Street bakery— but now that the children are older, Rigo says, “I’m ready to go for it a little bit more.”

Rigo started on this path at the precocious age of seven, when he convinced the baker in his Bordeaux village to give him a job. (“I used to get upset when someone else was sent to buy the bread.”) But as the middle- class son of a diplomat turned bureaucrat and the grandson of a wine broker, he forsook the classic apprenticeship for business school, working with a traditionally trained master baker on nights and weekends to perfect his skills. After graduation came jobs at big French manufacturers that made baked products for Europe and the Middle East—a primer in largescale production that still resonates.

His first entrepreneurial venture was a graphic design company that made customized labels for the wine industry on a very fast turnaround. After a couple of years, a major advertising agency swooped in with an offer he and his partner could not refuse. The experience taught him two things: First, it feels good to cash out; and second, make sure you’re not in France when you do. “When you’re a successful entrepreneur in France,” Rigo says, “you have two things: envy—constantly having to justify yourself, your idea, the money you make—and taxes. When you sell your business, you give 70 percent, 75 percent to the government. So I said, ‘I’m not going to open another business in France ever again. I’m going to California.’”

He landed first in Los Angeles, where he quickly acquired an influential supporter (Michel Richard, chef of late-’80s hotspot Citrus) and dozens of demanding clients (Wolfgang Puck, Joachim Splichal, and Thomas Keller, then chef at the Checkers Hotel) drawn by the kind of thickcrusted, rough-hewn loaves that were beloved in France and virtually impossible to find here. After selling the L.A. business in 1993, he headed to the Bay Area and did more or less the same thing over again, partnering with top restaurants, investing in a Utah flour mill, and buying the bakery facility that would eventually become the commissary complex. When an investment group sought to buy him out in 2008, he instead formed a partnership with a French financier and began the La Boulange expansion in earnest.

The commissary—actually a series of warehouses in an unmarked office park near SFO—is a testament to how Rigo’s ambition has been hiding in plain sight. (Or maybe the local food media has just been too distracted to notice. Cue another rant: “The smaller you are, the longer your hair, the more tattoos, the more surf, basically the more out of the norm you are, the more press you get,” Rigo says.) Like La Boulange itself, it’s a deceptively modest, highly efficient operation. The first building seems nearly empty of people except for three casually dressed French guys huddling over computers, no doubt plotting for the moment, a few weeks hence, when Starbucks executives will fly in from Seattle for strategy sessions and taste tests.

Scattered here and there are brochures for a new line of La Boulange puff pastry for Whole Foods and an unbranded “Chef’s Line” for large res- taurant chains and hotels—versatile culinary building blocks (a croissant shaped like a hamburger bun, “chocolate melting cake batter”) that can be used to create high-quality fare for Middle America (a lobster sandwich, a seared tuna burger, chocolate truffles or mousse).

This kind of production requires a real factory, not a picturesque little operation with terra-cotta pavers and photos of French presidents hanging on the walls. Hundreds of employees (the company’s pre-Starbucks workforce is about 900) work nearly round the clock making pretty much everything La Boulange serves, including jams mixed in gigantic copper vats and roasted chicken for sandwiches. Many of the company’s wholesale products are made here as well, or at two Southern California plants. (The Fillmore bakery supplies Rigo’s finicky restaurant clients.) Though he won’t confirm that he does the bread for Trader Joe’s, I recognize the packaging that is ubiquitous at TJs throughout California.

At one point, Rigo stops to examine a new machine that can whip out 6,000 baguettes an hour. He rigged it slightly so that it produces just twothirds that number, leaving employees to shape the dough by hand so it has a comforting, human irregularity. The machine that makes cookies has been tweaked so that each buttery shortbread wafer seems rolled and cut by hand. “If you use automation the right way, it’s wonderful,” he says. “It’s still artisanal, but you have better consistency, and you can be a purveyor on a much larger scale.” When Starbucks’s Burrows calls Rigo “visionary,” this is what he means.

Rigo recalls what his marketing professor told him back in Bordeaux: “You can sell Americans shit, but it needs to be always the same.” Maniacal laughter. “So I figure if I sell a great product and it’s always the same, it should work, you know? And if you can sell a great product that’s always the same but has the artisanal spirit”— by which he means it’s imbued with the technique, the training, the soul of the craftsman—“I think that’s what our niche has become.”

Then he jokes portentously, “Well, it’s the truth of today—maybe it’s not the truth of tomorrow.”

Toward the end of a long day of eating and not telling me about Starbucks, Rigo and Nicolas Bernadi, his Stanford-educated VP of sales, marketing, and business development, are hurrying through the Men’s Store at Bloomingdale’s, pausing only to fondle some orange and navy espadrilles by Ralph Lauren. Then out the mall entrance and past a row of shops to the Westfield dome.

It’s a vast and alienating space, with the cupola hovering overhead like a UFO and weird little Astroturf parkettes anchoring one end. Migraineinducing music blares from every direction as job applicants fill out forms and conduct speed interviews with La Boulange staffers. In the center of the space, hidden behind blueand- orange-painted plywood, is the still-in-progress La Boulange du Dome. The Italian-made food cases— sleek and modern, nothing like the ones at the other cafés—are in pieces in a nearby hallway, waiting to be installed. Rigo looks dazed. “It’s not us,” he mutters to himself, shaking his head, clearly nonplussed.

We’ve just come from a late lunch at another new La Boulange, a café at the Metreon with an irresistible terrace that opens onto Yerba Buena Gardens. That restaurant shares the patina-less quality of some of the newer downtown Boulanges—toohigh ceilings, too-white subway tiles, ersatz chalkboard menus instead of the smudgy real thing. But, also like the others, it has a relaxed charm even when it bustles with contented-looking diners—mostly office workers, convention goers, and tourists who seem delighted to find a more–than–decent meal in this pricey city for $10 or $15, dessert and Orangina included. “This is what I’m proud of,” Rigo says, “not selling to French restaurants, not to Pacific Heights, but to the PG&E secretary, to the tourist from Nebraska or Michigan or whatever. Normal American people who come here and say, ‘Whew, I cannot pronounce the name of this stuff, but I love it.’” The question is: Will customers feel that way in a discordant space like the dome?

Though the Dome café predates the Starbucks deal, it seems symbolic of the dangers that the merger could bring. Rigo has had his share of partnerships that didn’t turn out as planned; most recently, there was the doomed deal with the small pastry chain Miette, which ended after barely a year, with Miette cofounder Meg Ray lamenting to a blogger last year, “They just want to make money.”

La Boulange’s suddenly higher profile has also fed embarrassing stories about its failure to comply with San Francisco’s healthcare law. A post- Starbucks segment by CBS5 News cited several unnamed employees who claimed La Boulange had never offered them mandatory healthcare benefits. (In a statement, a spokeswoman placed much of the blame on a third-party administrator, which made a “clerical oversight” that kept essential forms from being filed with the city. The error, she said, had since been corrected. City officials promise a full investigation.) One thing is certain: If Rigo thought getting community approvals for his Inner Sunset location was hard, he’ll face a lot more pushback now. Says Phil Lesser, a spokesman for the Mission Merchants Association, Rigo can forget about expanding into certain progressive neighborhoods where “a Starbucks bakery [is] politically a no-go.”

Ultimately, though, Rigo’s greatest challenge won’t be pacifying San Francisco’s restive community groups; it will be supplying Starbucks’s vast needs without sacrificing the quality that won him the deal in the first place. Eventually he may be responsible for three-quarters of the megachain’s food offerings, much of it sold under the La Boulange brand, so there’ll be no hiding if the results disappoint. Artisanal quality—or even just artisanal spirit—at this scale “has never been done,” Rigo says, sounding a little awed but mostly “superexcited” (a word he uses again and again).

One possible plan: Instead of outsourcing production to numerous suppliers managed by a gigantic centralized operation (the current Starbucks system), he may clone the small-scale South San Francisco commissary factory around the country, making everything in-house and distributing regionally. The new offerings— debuting at eight San Francisco Starbucks branches later this summer, rolling out to the rest of the country as soon as the middle of next year—will be “homey,” “soulful,” and “supercomforting.” The quality will be high enough to make up for the calories. The croissants will be served warm. At least, that’s the goal.

To deliver on this promise, though, Rigo will have to change not just Starbucks’s food but its food culture. Part of that will be convincing people there that not everything has to be identical to be consistent or pleasing—in fact, that “homey” and “imperfect” go hand in hand. He’s counting on CEO Schultz to be the intellectual and creative partner he’s been searching for all these years. “[Howard] is the type of person I can really relate to, because he has an understanding of how the world works, but he still has the vision for quality, a full respect for the customer and the employees. He thinks he can change the way corporations work so it’s not only about profitability. To me this is super-interesting, to see how he acts every day, to follow his leadership,” Rigo says.

Of course, it’s much too soon to know how this bromance ends. But when I visit the now-finished Dome in early July, the signs are hopeful. The obnoxious music and Astroturf are still there. But the cafeÅL itself has become a glamorous, even sexy oasis—a place to sip champagne, nibble a lobster roll, share a petite sundae or cream-filled choux-choux with a friend. True, it bears little resemblance to the other Boulanges. But its appeal is undeniable.

It’s not clear that any of this will matter to the chain-haters and food snobs of San Francisco. There’s a lot riding on the notion that excellence can only be achieved on a small or micro scale. Just imagine what might happen if Rigo proves them wrong.


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