Can Starbucks Do for the Croissant What it Did for Coffee?- page 3 | Innovation | Smithsonian
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Croissants await delivery to stores inside the La Boulange Pine Street baking facility in San Francisco. (John Lee)

Can Starbucks Do for the Croissant What it Did for Coffee?

The company is betting that it can replicate baking the pastry on a massive, industrial scale

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Between the one City Bakery and six smaller Birdbaths, Maury Rubin’s eco-friendly mini-satellites with interiors constructed of found and recycled materials, and deliveries on bicycle-powered rickshaws, Rubin bakes 500 croissants a day. And he doesn’t think it’s possible to make more and be any good at it. “There are exactly two things about croissants: how to make them, and how to make them consistently. It’s very hard to do something simple when you’re doing more and more of it all the time.”

I wanted to see how Rubin does it, so one morning I went behind one Birdbath location in the East Village, where he has his main production facility. It’s semi-industrial—emphasis on the “semi.”  There are big mixers and a “sheeter,” a machine that looks like an old laundry mangle with two ironing boards projecting from either side. These are standard for any industrial bakery. But at crucial stages, the process is all “eye and feel,” as Rubin says. Hector Gonzaga, who began work as a potwasher at City Bakery in 1993 and who has mixed the dough for the past 15 years, measures the liquid for the initial, butter-less dough, and judges with his eye and his hand how much ice he should put in to keep both the dough and the soon-to-be-added butter cold. He sections off the dough and roughly shapes it into big, flattened balls to chill before big, half-inch-high pats of butter are placed on top and the folding begins with a pass through the sheeter. After the first fold, Gonzaga transfers the dough onto a huge work table and leads several workers bearing long plastic rolling pins in what looks like a wild medieval flogging, to be sure that the nearly frozen butter spreads evenly and doesn’t “break into icebergs.”

The thought of losing Gonzaga—“I’ve had two rollers in the 22 years of the bakery,” Rubin says—makes Rubin involuntarily swallow.

Next comes the rolling and stretching of the cut triangles into the crescents that are croissants—all done by hand. And then there’s the last pass, the one that determines whether all that care results in a sodden, greasy interior—the baking. If the first five minutes are done at too low a heat, Rubin says, all the work that came before can be ruined, as I find out when I greedily grab a beautiful-looking pain au chocolat off a cooling tray. The outside looks crisp and browned and beautiful, but the pastry is too soft: the butter melted before the blast of initial high heat could convert its water to steam and force apart the meticulously folded and chilled layers of dough. The layers are indistinct; it’s a greasy mush. “You can never get those five minutes back,” Rubin says in anguish.

If an underbaked tray of pains au chocolat will gnaw at him for days, how can Starbucks hope to produce hundreds of thousands of good croissants a day at dozens of plants across the country? The La Boulange plan to oversee full baking itself is a step toward answering Rubin’s doubts. He would even, he says, welcome the possibility: “If every Starbucks had respectable pastry, you would raise the entire level of what people know about good pastry. Very quickly.” I ask if that would be good for him and his business. “A rising tide of pastry knowledge is very, very good for me,” he says. “It’s good for all living creatures.”

***

It all looks easy in Rigo’s own shiny new plant, where the smell of butter as you step through the heavy plastic straps after donning hairnets and booties is intoxicating. There are custom-built machines that would make Rubin weep, both because he could barely imagine they exist and because they would hasten the demise of lovingly trained artisans like Hector Gonzaga. Particularly a machine that squirts almost-frozen butter into a long, perfect, flat sheet over a long rectangle of dough and then, with unbelievable mechanical grace, folds the dough over the butter into continuous business-letter thirds. Anyone who has struggled to do this by hand will recognize this as a miracle of modern machinery.

As La Boulange makes use of the machine, though, it’s not the usual story of craft ruined by mechanization. Several key steps are still done by hand. In the most important sign of his philosophy, Rigo puts on brakes. “You can achieve an incredible result just by slowing down the throughput by at least a third,” he says. “It drives the technicians crazy.” Whether the “partner manufacturers” will take anything like this amount of care and be willing to adapt and slow down their longstanding practices is an open question.

That same question becomes more open in the test kitchen on the second floor of the La Boulange plant, just upstairs from a jaunty restored Renault deux-chevaux delivery truck. Here Rigo and Robert Cubberly, a chef Rigo met when he ran Le Petit Robert, a bistro next to the original La Boulange, are making soups, sandwiches, and salads they intend to be served in every Starbucks.

Cubberly has qualifications beyond having run a valued neighborhood restaurant: after selling his share in the restaurant to his neighbor, he worked in the kitchens at Google, pumping out, he says, 1,000 lunches in 90 minutes. For Starbucks offerings, anything hot must require no more than a minute in the same ovens to heat the pastries.

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