Acclaimed bread baker Pascal Rigo (right) discussing artisan breads at a Europain forum.

Acclaimed baker Pascal Rigo remembers the crazy days of his first baking experience in La La Land. During the early 1990s, he was baking artisan breads in Los Angeles where he started doing business with fancy hotels, crafting stylish sourdough loaves and delivering them in baskets. “Americans didn’t consume bread the way the way we do,” he recalls, with a nod to his home country of France. “I wasn’t trying to replace. I wanted to just add something else.”

Rigo was making fabulous breads in assorted styles and flavors, some with cheese or walnuts, and selling to restaurants and hotels, until he decided to open his first retail store in Southern California.

“I was so busy I would fall asleep at a traffic light when it was red,” he recalls. Soon he had opened three retail stores but later sold out to a major chain. “I sold the company to California Pizza Kitchen in 20 minutes,” says Rigo, who was asked to stay on as a consultant for months. “I stayed for six hours and drove to San Francisco.”

Fast forward to February 2018. Speaking at Europain in Paris, the baker who brought artisan breads to Trader Joe’s and Starbucks discussed how he remains as committed as ever to producing great-tasting organic breads at affordable prices.

Rigo said he walked away from a partnership with Starbucks in 2015 after helping the chain double its annual food sales to $3 billion in three years. Then he went on to introduce La Boulangarie retail bakeries in San Francisco. But now his eyes have turned back to his home country of France where he is embarking on a new style of small artisan bakeries to the Bordeaux region of France, where he grew up and first learned his beloved trade.

According to reports, France has lost thousands of bakeries over the past decade because of hard economic times. Now Rigo is seeking out closed boulangeries in small towns, hoping to fix the finances and reopen the stores.

“Today, I feel that I am a full product of a French education. I realized there was a real opportunity to open stores in France. We are going against the wave. We want to allow young bakers who don’t have the money to open stores. We will help with financing.”

As of early February, Rigo says that five such stores have opened in France, and a dozen more are set to open soon, including three in Paris. He envisions young bakers using their education to take new risks and try different methods to produce the most flavorful breads on the planet. “Just to say there’s a different way to imagine bakeries today in France, which is very traditional,” he says. “Everything is possible if you have conviction.”

Baking in San Francisco

Image courtesy of La Boulangerie de San Francisco
Rigo is best known for founding La Boulange, a small chain of Bay Area cafe-bakery shops that he sold in 2013 to Starbucks for $100 million and later opened under a different name, La Boulangerie. In January 2018, the first La Boulangerie de San Francisco outside San Francisco city limits opened in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood, occupying the former location of Pasta Pomodoro. This is the eighth location of the small chain. They “strive to bring a little taste of France to every customer every day. Using only the freshest all-natural ingredients, everything we serve is made daily from scratch, from the breads and the pastries to the sauces and the salad dressings.”

Rigo opened the first La Boulange location in San Francisco in 1999 and joined Starbucks as part of its acquisition of La Boulange from a management and investment group. At the time, La Boulange was operating 19 retail locations in the Bay Area.

Rigo and his team went from baking 250 croissants a day per bakery to overseeing the production of one million croissants per day for Starbucks.

“We installed one freezer per hour for the first two and a half years,” he says. “We stuck to our principles, offering great bread at affordable prices. Today, their products are clean, and I’m very proud of it.”

From 2013 to 2015, Starbucks grew its food business dramatically, and Rigo played an instrumental role. Still, he felt conflicted.

“The big frustration was that nobody knew about it,” he says. “I told Starbucks, ‘Let’s put food bars in all US locations and change them every three months and tell people about the food.’ They said no. I realized they are a coffee company not wanting to become a food company. I became unsure, and I sent a very nice letter to Howard.”

A year after announcing plans to close the La Boulange locations, Starbucks said it was partnering with Princi, a high-end Italian bakery and cafe founded by Rocco Princi in 1986. 

Early Life Lessons

Image courtesy of La Boulangerie de San Francisco

Born and trained in professional artisan baking in the Bordeaux region of France, Rigo learned early on about how to craft recipes from all over the world. This enlightened background in bread baking is one reason he is so passionate about encouraging young bakers to discover.

In 1991, at the age of 31, “I decided to go to the US,” he says. “There were too many great bakers in France that I figured the only way to make it was to leave.”

Once he arrived in San Francisco, Rigo discovered a small organic flour mill in Logan, Utah, that specializes in organic bread flour. “The raw materials for me was very important, to be able to work with farmers to process their wheat.”

Around this time, an upstart grocery chain called Trader Joe’s, then with 40 locations, was beginning to attract a loyal following of customers who were passionate about organic foods. “We decided to introduce Pain Pascal to Trader Joe’s, and it is still sold today at Trader Joe’s 460 locations. Initially, we had one small production point — only selling very premium organic bread. The bakery had to increase in size to meet demand. We grew extremely organically.”

As business grew, so did his desire to open a retail store. “That was the starting point. The problem is it worked very well,” Rigo says with a chuckle.

Here lies the essence of the ongoing friction within Rigo’s soul. He strives to excel at everything, but once it works out well, the size and complexity of the new operation conflicts with his internal desire to keep it small and local.

So when Starbucks founder Howard Schultz reached out to Rigo and presented the opportunity to “do craft bread at a big scale,” he agreed — but now understands the enormous challenge he faced.

“When you decide to say yes, you need to do it for good reason. I had no reason to sell my business, but this guy (Schultz) was extraordinary. Starbucks does 68 million transactions a week.”