La Boulange appeared in 1999 in Pacific Heights, the richest neighborhood in the city, like a vision from Paris: a cheery, unmistakably French storefront of turquoise enameled wood, with pine trestle tables and bentwood chairs and French women helping you. And the pastry case! Shapely croissants, burnished square pains au chocolat, flaky half-moon apple turnoversblue with crimp lines incised on the rounded edge, pastel-colored button macarons, irresistibly rustic with coarse-ground almond meal to give shells texture. (I know people who drive 90 minutes each way just for a box of lemon macarons with lemon-curd filling.) There was even my own favorite—chouquettes, hollow cream-puff shells baked until crisp on the outside but like a popover within, sprinkled with big rock-sugar crystals that crunch wonderfully in the mouth. Marking this as a full-service bakery, there was bread: a brittle-shelled, soft-crumbed baguette that tasted of just flour and air, with the mineral tang of water rather than the sourdough tang Californians put into their baguettes; the enriched square white loaf called pain de mie, ideal for sandwiches; a slightly Americanized whole-grain loaf, light and flecked with a few seeds.
La Boulange was the real France. Not the best pastry you could find if you trekked down every street in Paris, but pastry and bread of uniformly high quality, in a place you would dearly love to have in your own neighborhood. Rigo also kept an eye on price. “I want people to taste my pastry,” he told me when I visited him one early morning at the original Pacific Heights store. “How can people taste my pastry if they can’t afford it? We don’t just want to sell to lucky people in life. We want to sell to everybody. We’ve got the cheapest baguette you can find”—$1.50.
It wasn’t long before several of the prematurely retired tech billionaires who litter the streets of Pacific Heights dropped in with offers of capital. Rigo did want to expand, but on his own terms. “It’s hard to stay genuine as you grow,” he says. That meant keeping control. He got the opportunity with a like-minded compatriot, Sebastien Lepinard, who after becoming a regular at the store became a friend. By 2011 the two men had opened 19 La Boulanges throughout the Bay Area, all of them with those Parisian jewel-toned enamel storefronts. Only the original Pacific Heights location did its own baking; the other outlets got their goods from a 20,000-square-foot central baking plant Rigo built near the San Francisco airport. “There are good chains and there are bad chains,” he told a business reporter. “We are going to be a good chain.” Rigo, then, was the right man for Schultz to call.
Starbucks, Howard Schultz tells me in his big, handsome, earth-toned corner office, “didn’t start thinking we’d acquire a bakery. We wanted to build an alliance with someone who understood the supply chain.” But then they tasted La Boulange’s “croissants, cookies, danishes, the breads ... It was all mouth-watering. When you meet a star, someone so stunningly capable and with so much insight, passion, and innovation—Pascal blew us away.” An emissary arranged a dinner, one that Rigo cooked in his own house to avoid the inquiring eyes of local business people. The main course was halibut—disastrously overdone, Rigo says, because, the conversation was so excited from “hello.”
The La Boulange plant may be close to the airport, but the company won’t be sending pastry by air freight. Instead it plans to work with other plants that already bake on an industrial scale to make and ship pastries to Starbucks all over the country. Showing another factory how to use the recipes and techniques La Boulange wants for its new Starbucks line means making them un-learn before they can learn. The La Boulange team plans to visit 70 plants once its team has identified which ones are in the right locations. Only by making onsite visits can they “look them in the eyes,” in the words of Nicolas Bernardi, the French-born manager of La Boulange’s marketing and product development, to see if the managers are the kind who “want to grow and learn” or the kind who are content to just “vomit products.”
In a very—very—unusual plan, each pastry will be fully baked and individually wrapped in a clear-plastic package and sent frozen to each store in boxes they call “cartridges.” (Standard frozen pastries and breads arrive unbaked.) Stores will defrost only what they need for a few hours of service, and heat each pastry in one of those breakfast-sandwich Turbo-chef ovens, to order. That’s right: every single pastry and piece of bread will be served warm. It’s a huge change. And it requires a staggering amount of sheet metal: Rigo says the introduction of his pastries into 439 Bay Area stores last April required “the largest refrigerator roll-out in the history of the world.” Guinness might not agree. But it’s a lot of appliances: by the end of next year, Starbucks plans to have La Boulange products in at least 3,500 stores all over the country. That’s a lot of croissants.
The glory of a croissant is the dough, not the filling—though of course there are the batons of chocolate and the almond paste in twice-baked croissants studded with flaked almonds people love (and that are often a way of masking stale or boring croissants). A true croissant has tang and texture. The butter stays in the pastry, not on the baking sheet or your placemat. The flakes stay on each piece you break off, not on your lap. Perhaps nothing in the baked-good kingdom is as deeply satisfying as a warm croissant with a tender, airy interior and a crisp exterior.
Croissant greatness is given to few. City Bakery, in New York City, makes croissants that are high, wide and handsome, with the right balance of flake and integrity, bread and air. And the ideal medium-scale bakery of the kind Rigo and his team want so ambitiously to recreate all over the country is in the East Village of Manhattan.