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Pascal Loses Wager

Starbucks will close La Boulange, which is sad, but not surprising. 


In 2012, when Pascal Rigo sold San Francisco’s La Boulange, there was one question on everyone’s mind: “Can you keep your baking bona fides after you’ve sold out to Starbucks for a cool $100 million?

Today, the verdict is in: Nope. Too bad about that, too.

Buried in the middle of the celebration of the Warriors first championship in 40 years was the news that Starbucks would be closing all 23 stand-alone La Boulange pastry shops and the two manufacturing facilities that serve those locations. Some current employees may be offered positions at nearby Starbucks stores. But Rigo is out, finished in his job as a vice president.

Although the brick-and-mortar La Boulange stores will be closing, Starbucks hinted that it will retain the branding for its in-house pastries. “ Based on our ongoing evaluations, Starbucks has determined La Boulange stores are not sustainable for the company’s long-term growth. The La Boulange brand will continue to play a significant role in the future of Starbucks food in stores, and the company looks forward to serving delicious La Boulange food at its Starbucks retail locations in San Francisco and across the U.S. and Canada.”

It is really too bad, though, because the brick-and-mortar La Boulange stores were always pretty good. Coffee served in bowls. Those nice free little pickles. The cute colors on the walls. The people who worked there were always gracious. As far as it goes, it was great!

But it went too far. The La Boulange pastries in Starbucks won’t be missed. As Eater SF put it, “Unfortunately, many customers gave a lukewarm reception to the mass-produced goods”  Or, as one Twitter wag had it, they were “overpriced garbage food.” Our humble opinion? They were not so great. Terrible cheese Danishes, blueberry scones with like two blueberries in them, and croissants made with industrial solvent. And we eat one of those practically every day for breakfast.

The lesson here is clear: Never scale. Never ever scale. You can make a good croissant; you can make a million croissants; but you can’t seem to do both.

A million good croissants was always Rigo’s goal, though. From his first shop in the Filmore in 1999, Rigo built La Boulange with grandiose ambitions in mind. By 2012, the company’s industrial-scale bakery was doing $60 to $75 million a year. In its Peninsula production facilities, La Boulange had a machine that churned out 6,000 baguettes an hour. They supplied food to Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and even Olive Garden. His goal has always been high quality mass production. That’s a tough task—probably an impossible one. So there’s always this interestingly weird tension at work between the two competing impulses. But think if it had succeeded. Or, as we put it in 2012, “There’s a lot riding on the notion that excellence can only be achieved on a small or micro scale. Just imagine what might happen if Rigo proves them wrong.”

He didn’t though, sadly.

There’s not fault here, really. Have you ever tried to make a croissant at home? We have. It was mediocre. (Okay, actually it was terrible) and time consuming, expensive, and messy. Now try to make six hundred million croissants a day and ship them all over the country. Good luck! Like Taylor Swift, CBS comedies, or the public education system, being mediocrity at a very large scale is an enormous accomplishment. It’s also still mediocre. The number of things that, like Pixar Beyoncé, are both excellent and mass-scalable are limited to, well, Pixar and Beyoncé.

So here’s to you, friend Pascal. You tried, it didn’t work, and that’s okay. May your next bakery be a small one. 


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