“Is the food still lousy?” a friend once replied when I texted her to ask if I could bring her something to eat from Starbucks. She wasn’t (just) being snide. She was reflecting a truth universally acknowledged: you could customize your drink any which way in every one of Starbucks’ 11,000 stores in the United States but you couldn’t get a decent muffin or scone or slice of cake to go with it. And the croissants! Big bready things, pre-softened and pre-staled by their plastic-wrap imprisonment, with an unpleasantly greasy feel on the tongue, zero flakiness, and a strange and unwelcome sweetness in place of the wheaty, slightly sour flavor a real croissant should have.
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“Even Starbucks, with all its size and cash, can’t get a respectable piece of pastry into its store,” says Maury Rubin, owner of City Bakery, maker of what I think are the best croissants in New York City. “Not that they don’t know better. But that’s the beauty of great pastry. It doesn’t want to travel. And it wants to be made in small batches.”
We were discussing the news that had electrified anyone who knows good pastry: last June, Starbucks paid $100 million for La Boulange, a San Francisco bakery with pastries and food that people definitely find respectable. The goal was nothing less than serving La Boulange-quality croissants and other pastries to Starbucks’ 40 million customers in its 8,000 company-operated stores in the United States. Sandwiches, soups and salads wouldn’t be far behind.
Starbucks had bought other companies before: Tazo tea, Teavana, Ethos water, Evolution Foods. But they make packaged goods, which can be shipped in bulk cartons and even sold at supermarkets. This was a new kind of gamble, far more audacious than single-serving coffee machines or bottled Frappuccinos. Starbucks, which had become Big Coffee and said it would never get into the food business, looked to be taking a hulking first step to becoming Big Bread. It wouldn’t be easy. Frappuccinos and Evolution juices get stacked on pallets and have long shelf lives. Fresh baked goods go stale, fast. Good ones, as Rubin pointed out, are hard to make on a large scale. Maybe impossible.
And thus Starbucks’ gamble raises a larger question: Are decent baked goods only the province of the artisan, and beyond the reach of a giant corporation, however committed to craftsman-themed propaganda? Or could Starbucks lift pastry and decent-food awareness to the level it raised coffee consciousness?
Purists can and will argue for hours about the influence Starbucks has had on American coffee, but there’s no arguing that more people now pay more attention to coffee, and know good coffee from bad, than they did before Starbucks. With this one, large purchase Starbucks had the potential to do the same for pastry and bread. And Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ CEO and mastermind of its growth, tells me in his office in the company’s Seattle headquarters that he has found the man who can make the leap.
Pascal Rigo is a hardy, bluff, athletic, French-born baker who says he’s on record as telling a French newspaper in 1996 that living the American dream would mean baking for Starbucks. He declared this very un-French seeming ambition seven years after coming to America and 16 years before getting a call from Schultz.
Why would someone who grew up as the very definition of an artisan baker—an apprentice starting at age 12 in a bakery in a Burgundian village, baking the villagers’ Sunday roasts and hunters’ quail—be drawn to mass production, and with a brand the French surely associate with invasive American hegemony? In a word, scale. From the start, “I would look at something,” he says, “and think of multiplying it by 100,000.”
Rigo has the jaunty air and open smile of a man who expects to like you and you to like him too. He came to America on something of a lark, to help sell Burgundy wine. But soon enough he settled into the business he was born for. After building large-scale bakeries in northern and southern California and winning coveted customers like Thomas Keller, of the French Laundry, and contracts to supply Trader Joe’s, Rigo opened La Boulange in San Francisco, where he could live a larger-scale version of the village baker he grew up training to be: living over the store, waking up when it was dark, befriending the neighbors, welcoming regulars.