Bay Area food industry vets Pascal Rigo and Nicolas Bernadi are hoping to change that in the next few months.
In 2018, the pair leased the building with the hopes of making it one of the locations for La Boulangerie, the post-Starbucks, slightly renamed rebirth of their popular La Boulange cafes and eateries. They’d hoped to open by the end of 2018 in the space that once housed a Der Wienerschnitzel and a Burger Chef before it was Gira Polli.
For a variety of reasons, they’ve shifted gears and are now targeting it for the second location for apizza, a concept focused on simple, affordable food. They hope to open early here in the second quarter of 2020. Apizza opened in Sept. 2019 at 2043 Fillmore Street in San Francisco.
Bernadi says apizza is built around the mission that “everybody should have the right to eat products that are healthy and they can afford. We believe in apizza for everyone—for every taste, every budget, every day.”
The concept’s quest for affordability demanded an overhaul of every element of the business, Bernadi says. “We’ve been working on this concept for more than two years. We learned so much from that experience with Starbucks. We now know that it’s possible to make extremely good food at scale.
That overhaul included leveraging centralized food manufacturing by leaning heavily on their 70,000-square-foot bakery near SFO, where all of the dough is produced and delivered to each location frozen before adding toppings and baking the pizzas; minimizing the amount of equipment at their restaurants and thus minimizing training of staff; and using pre-cooked sous-vide meats, among others.
Bernadi says all pizzas are served in compostable packaging to minimize costs and environmental impact.
“We moved tons of the complexities of the operation and put that burden on ourselves and our food partners,” Bernadi says. “We’ve simplified as much of the operations as possible.”
Bernadi says he and Rigo are trying to innovate their way through the array of modern obstacles facing food-serving businesses in the Bay Area, particularly labor and real estate costs. “The ones that are going to be successful are that can build stores with less money, a smaller footprint and less-skilled labor,” he says.
The menu starts with customers picking a 9-inch pizza or one folded in half; then either an organic wheat, organic sprouted wheat, or gluten free crust; and then a pizza, including pepperoni, la royale with cheese (cheeseburger), roasted veggie, bbq chicken and more, along with a number of substitutes, including impossible meat.
Apizza will also have unsweetened fruit puree drinks in a variety of flavors, as well as sparkling or still water instead of a traditional soda machine. They’ll offer discounts to customers who bring their own cups. Apizza will serve dessert from Loving Cup, the frozen yogurt company from Mill Valley residents Liz and Dez Fielder that La Boulangerie bought in Sept. 2018.
It’s the latest chapter in a whirlwind journey for the Bordeaux-born Rigo, who worked as a baker in a number of restaurants in Paris before moving to Los Angeles in 1989, first baking bread for an old friend, the chef Michel Richard, and later for some of the best restaurants in LA, according to the New York Times.
Rigo eventually grew the business to 23 La Boulange locations and then sold it to Starbucks in 2013 for $100 million, as the Seattle coffee conglomerate sought to use Rigo’s baked goods expertise to improve its offering. Within two years, Rigo left the company and Starbucks closed all La Boulange locations, reversing its announced intention to open hundreds of La Boulange locations around the country.
In a twist, La Boulange’s sale to Starbucks also gave birth to the growing retail side of Equator Coffees’ business. Equator had been the coffee roaster for La Boulange’s 19 locations for 13 years, so the Starbucks takeover gutted 12 percent of Equator’s revenue and inspired founders Helen Russell and Brooke McDonnell to begin opening their own cafe, starting at Proof Lab in Tam Junction and now a thriving chain that spans eight cafes in the Bay Area and a robust catering business.
La Boulangerie started with the original Pine Street location in September 2015, followed by spots on Fillmore Street, Union Street and in Cole Valley, Hayes Valley and Noe Valley. A pair of locations in SF’s Financial District followed, and then in the Rockridge section of Oakland, a first in that neighborhood for Rigo.
Bernadi says he’s extremely optimistic about opening a pizza in a town full of them.
“Everybody eats pizza, and we appeal to every kind of demographic in a way, particularly those seeking delicious, nutritious food at a fraction of the price of many others,” he says.