How This Millionaire Baker Restarted His Business From Scratch After Starbucks Split

Pascal Rigo inside his newly reopened bakery, La Boulangerie de San Francisco. (Photo: Helene Goupil)

Baker and entrepreneur Pascal Rigo is working on a second rising of sorts. Dressed like he’s about to play tennis rather than step into his bakery — shorts, sneakers and casual shirt — you’d never guess he founded the La Boulangerie bread empire in San Francisco, sold it to Starbucks for $100 million, and is starting again from scratch.

Last week, the French-American reopened the doors of his first bakery. He also announced that he was joining Munchery, a service that delivers chef-made meals to your home. As “chief customer experience officer,” Rigo will be in charge of bringing in chefs for partnerships and creating his own recipes.

His goal, he says, has always been to bring good and affordable food to as many people as possible.

At 8 a.m. a few days after the reopening of the San Francisco bakery he originally started in the late 1990s, Rigo is busy tasting what’s coming out of his kitchen — a crunchy but flaky apple turnover coated in coarse sugar, a hearty slice of bread, a piece of a ham sandwich. He asks customers what they think about the food and wonders if there’s too much chocolate in his long and narrow pains au chocolat.

Bread baskets full of baguettes sit on shelves behind a dark-wood display case full of palmiers cookies, choux and, of course, croissants. The only noticeable change from the original incarnation in the posh Pacific Heights neighborhood is that now it’s called La Boulangerie de San Francisco, instead of La Boulange.

“It’s very simple,” Rigo explains when asked about the reopening, “I just want to make bread again — to do what makes me happy.”

In 2012, Rigo was running 20 wildly popular bakeries in San Francisco. When coffee giant Starbucks approached him about an acquisition, Rigo said that CEO Howard Schultz was the creative and intellectual partner he had been looking for.

“[Howard] is the type of person I can really relate to, because he has an understanding of how the world works, but he still has the vision for quality, a full respect for the customer and the employees,” Rigo said to San Francisco Magazine (http://www.modernluxury.com/san-francisco/story/the-steve-jobs-of-pastry).

He sold his company for $100 million and was named senior vice president to oversee the implementation of La Boulange products in 12,000 Starbucks locations.

He went from baking 250 croissants a day per bakery to overseeing the production of one million croissants per day for Starbucks.

The partnership lasted just three years.

Last June, a dream come true for any small business owner ended abruptly. Starbucks announced that it was closing all La Boulange locations and Rigo was leaving. When asked if he was surprised, Rigo says “yes and no.” He understands that closing the local bakeries made good business sense for Starbucks.

“It’s not their core business,” Rigo explains.

He, however, is proud of how he contributed to Starbucks. In the three years he worked with Starbucks, the company reported an 18 percent growth in food sales per year. “We installed one freezer per hour for the first two and half years,” he says as a benchmark of how quickly food sales were expanding in Starbucks locations.

When Starbucks announced it was closing the La Boulange bakeries in San Francisco, “I got 4,000 emails from people who were mad we were closing and 4,000 more when we reopened.”

“It’s incredible,” he says. “I think it created a little bit of buzz, we should close and reopen regularly,” he jokes.

Rigo says he decided to reopen his bakeries as soon as Starbucks announced the closures. The fact that he’s only reopening six of his 22 locations is intentional: He wants to stay focused. That way, he can make everything at the Pacific Heights bakery and deliver fresh food several times per day.

“It’s also not a bad thing to have to walk a few blocks to burn off that croissant so you can buy another,” he says.

On a sunny morning during San Francisco’s Indian Summer, Rigo is clearly happy to be back in front of his ovens. He raised his three children above his first bakery, in a home that’s been turned into his office.

Although Rigo is now in his mid-fifties and his kids are 20, 18, and 14 years old, the family still lives in San Francisco. “They grew up here, this place is a big part of their childhood, they were so excited that we were reopening,” he says of his children.

“We’re not trying to be a fine pastry shop,” he says of the boulangerie. “Seeing people eat and talk about the pastries they’re eating, that’s what it’s about,” he says. “It’s also about bringing customers a moment of happiness.”

While at Starbucks, he spent as much time as he could in the stores to talk to baristas and customers about their experience with the food, he says.

As he walks through the kitchen, he kisses an employee on the cheeks in the traditional French way and asks how things are going. She reminds him that he’s already kissed her hello this morning and things are still going well. He laughs.

Rigo looks like he’s done this all his life. And in a way, he has. Growing up in Bordeaux, he started an apprenticeship at his neighborhood bakery at the age of 7. Still, he’s nervous.

“I’m scared. I can’t assume that things will go the same way they went the first time,” he says. “But if I end up with one bakery and baking by myself in the middle of the night, that’s OK, too. I want customers to be happy,” he adds.

When the bakeries closed “it left this huge void in my life and for customers too,” he says. “This is what I love to do.”,” he says.

When asked about why he’s not working with Starbucks anymore, or the details of how he was able to get six of his locations back, he says: “I’m not interested in talking about the past, I want to focus on the future.”

Seeing how many people line up for their fill of almond croissants and the newly signed deal with Munchery, that future is looking bright.

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