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

Croissants await delivery to stores inside the La Boulange Pine Street baking facility in San Francisco. (John Lee)

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Within those restrictions, he has put together an impressive set of menu options, packaged in clear plastic that fits into familiar Starbucks cases, with gaily colored labels: an impressively beefy and deep-flavored onion soup, an excellent turkey curry salad using Diestel Farms turkey he says he wants to be able to use in at least 1,000 stores (it’s antibiotic- and nitrate-free, and has a pure, strong flavor), little plastic pouches of sandwich spreads like red pesto and sun-dried tomato. Sandwiches are warm piadinas, fillings folded as with quesadillas into a wrap of the northern Italian flatbread, enriched with oil like pillowy flour tortillas, heated in the oven. Or they’re make-your-own, using fillings from plastic boxes in the cooler that have various cold cuts and sliced cheese and lettuce, with pouches of the spread of your choice, on slices of white or wheat bread that the server heats to order.

This is reinvented quick-serve food, tantalizingly within grasp of the dreariest little Starbucks tucked into a corporate corner: high-quality soups and salads, sandwiches you build yourself using good ingredients and as much or as little mayo or condiment as you like, on fresh-toasted bread. Cubberly says that everything is realistic for quantity and at decent prices—they want to keep lunches at an average of $9-$12 a head, sandwiches $4-$5.

The sandwiches are a marvelous idea and allow the kind of choice and un-soggy freshness that few quick-serve chains can match. But just unwrapping everything and methodically spreading one side of bread with an opened pouch of red pesto, as Rigo happily does in the test kitchen, takes up of a lot of counter space—space that’s always at an elbow-jostling premium in Starbucks. This is something most customers will need to do back at their offices, if a new series of table-space wars aren’t to break out across the country.

It seems too much, too soon, particularly because the soups and piadinas will be served warm, and threaten to waft the same kind of distracting food odors that led Schultz to say he would abolish breakfast sandwiches when he took back the reins of Starbucks in 2008, after a seven-year hiatus. (Those smells still waft in many stores; before he bought La Boulange, Schultz’s main achievement toward his promise to improve Starbucks food was to remove flavorings and artificial ingredients. The pastries remained awful.) In his office, Schultz makes clear to me that he intends that Starbucks never be confused for a restaurant. When I present this skeptical view to Rigo, he insists that this future is coming fast. It will be interesting to see which view prevails.


Part of that future is already here. Just before the Bay Area rollout of Starbucks’ new pastries, while the coffee chain’s management teams are testing La Boulange goods in a pilot store on Spear Street, in San Francisco’s business district, I try a fruity, not-too-sweet banana bread, infinitely lighter than any cake I’ve ever had in a Starbucks. I try a square of savory croissant filled with tomatoes and mozzarella, like a mini-pizza. I try a blueberry muffin with the distinct taste of honey and the barely discernible tang of yogurt, again far lighter than the usual Starbucks muffin, though with a bit of the overly aggressive blueberry flavor the standard muffins share.

Then, for the head-to-head trial, I go to a La Boulange store in the early evening, where I deliberately buy a croissant and pain au chocolat just before closing, and I go to another Starbucks down the street. The wait at Starbucks is about three minutes for the heated croissants—a wait I don’t think I’d like and wonder if millions of customers will put up with—and the store is nearly empty.

But then I break open the Starbucks croissant, fresh and soft, and the theoretically identical croissant from La Boulange. The La Boulange croissant is drying and already a bit stale, much harder to chew and less satisfying to eat. I see why Rigo says that the process he’s developed for Starbucks will change his own process at the La Boulange stores, where he plans to install ovens and serve many pastries warm.

Is aggressive muscling in on what was the territory of the handmade and the artisan the road to mass-produced hell? Rigo is doing all he can to preserve some soul in what is almost exclusively a soulless process. Still, skepticism is called for. All the new freezers, refrigerators and ovens will use a lot of electricity. And those individual plastic packages? Far less wasteful, Rigo says, than the unsold half-boxes of muffins and croissants that thousands of stores throw out at the end of every day.

Claims that big can be good, incessant talk about sustainability and relationships and corporate responsibility, grating greenwashing—all of it sets the teeth on edge of anyone in the local-everything movement. Anyone who can afford full-page ads about putting people first, or television commercials with idyllic scenes of farms and homemade Sunday suppers, has the resources to hide unsavory facts that don’t jibe with a carefully and expensively told story.


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