Big can make a difference, though. The La Boulange rollout might not help the cause of, say, animal welfare, as did McDonald’s refusal to buy pork from farmers who imprison sows in gestation crates. But it could show large-scale companies that have produced baked goods as mediocre as Starbucks’ that, with some tinkering and slowing down, they can produce dramatically better products.
More important, it can create demand for better food from millions of customers, who won’t want to go back to bad pastry—and will go to local bakers and restaurants that do what Starbucks and La Boulange do, but better, if only because they do it on a small, handmade scale, and can (and should) charge more for it. There might be casualties along this road, as there were when Starbucks first rolled across the land, bulldozing mom-and-pop coffee shops in its path. But now the third wave of expensive, worth-it coffee is flourishing in many cities, partly as a result of people understanding from Starbucks what coffee can be, and then wanting to go further.
The same can happen with sandwiches and pastry. A better croissant really can be good for all living creatures.
Corby Kummer is a senior editor at The Atlantic and author of The Joy of Coffee and The Pleasures of Slow Food. He has won five James Beard Journalism Awards for his food writing. Follow him @CKummer.