THE $100 MILLION MAN is coming home.
Pascal Rigo reopened his original Pine Street boulangerie October 5, barely two weeks after it was shuttered by Starbucks, which in 2012 bought the maison mere and the 22 La Boulange cafes that grew from it. In the coming weeks he will also reopen five of the cafes, including the prime locations on Fillmore and Union.
For Rigo, it is a homecoming that rarely happens — a return to the place it began 17 years ago when he built his dream bakery and lived with his family above the shop.
“Nous voulons du pain” — “we want some bread,” he recalled his young daughters saying one morning after he brought a basket of fresh breakfast pastries upstairs. Perhaps the craving was genetic.
“For as long as I can remember, I loved fresh bread,” he said. “I just had this thing about it — the flavor, the smell, the texture. I was just fixated on bread. And not only bread. I was crazy about the bakery, too.”
His enthusiasm proved contagious. The neighborhood embraced the blue-eyed Frenchman in short pants and the meeting place his bakery soon became.
“From the beginning crowds spilled out the door,” noted local writer Carol Field, author of numerous books bread baking. “In no time the bakery became a neighborhood institution.”
Soon he added two restaurants nearby on Fillmore. Chez Nous and La Galette quickly became local favorites that also attracted fans from farther afield, and more restaurants followed. Eventually Rigo honed his strategy, closed his various restaurants and, with investors, began opening a consistent and colorful line of La Boulange cafes in key locations throughout San Francisco and beyond.
“For someone who thinks of himself as a baker at heart, Pascal acts like an entrepreneur,” wrote Carol Field, “an impassioned idea-man who can’t stop adding to the repertory.”
Starbucks came calling. They wanted Rigo’s magic and were willing to pay $100 million for it. His handful of cafes always seemed incidental to getting La Boulange pastries in thousands of Starbucks coffee shops. The boulangerie suffered, and locals complained, but food sales increased significantly at Starbucks outlets and corporate profits soared.
When Rigo announced in June he was leaving, Starbucks promptly said it would close the all 23 locations. Fans cried foul, but Rigo declared the Starbucks venture a success.
“We achieved what we wanted to achieve,” he told the Chronicle, “which was to have La Boulange in 12,000 stores.”
Almost immediately came cries for Rigo to take back the bakery and the cafes. It seemed a preposterous idea. Starbucks surely wouldn’t allow the competition, and Rigo had no reason to start over.
Except that he is a baker at heart. And the opportunity to return to the place of first love so rarely comes along.
“I just want to focus and bake,” Rigo said, “and make sure we go back to what we love.”
UPDATE: Pascal Rigo is joining Munchery, too. And the former La Boulange at 2043 Fillmore will become a test kitchen for Munchery, the startup offering home delivery of meals to heat and eat.