Rigo says he hopes to open La Boulangerie, the slightly renamed rebirth of La Boulange, at 590 East Blithedale Ave., the former home of Gira Polli, and a Der Wienerschnitzel and Burger Chef before that, by the end of 2018. The prominent location at the corner of East Blithedale and Camino Alto will also serve as a test site for a number of new initiatives for La Boulangerie.
“We had a number of opportunities in Marin, but Mill Valley is just the cutest little place we could hope to be,” says Rigo. “It has everything that we could want, and the new, larger footprint gives us the ability to try some things that are brand new for us and that we think people are going to love.”
Rigo was mum on specific new menu items for now – “I can’t wait until I can talk about it,” he says.
The updates also include “a much more current digital customer experience,” as the Mill Valley location will be the first La Boulangerie to integrate mobile phone app-based ordering and an app-based loyalty program, according to Leah Donnelly, the company’s marketing director.
“This will also be the first iteration of La Boulangerie kind of grown up,” she says. “It’s definitely going to have an updated look and feel. It will have a great flow for the best customer experience. And there will be lots of bike parking.”
The news of the Mill Valley location and the burst of new initiatives being tested here comes on the heels of the July announcement that James Park and Michael Staenberg, co-owners of Denver-based fast casual restaurant Garbanzo Mediterranean Fresh, “made a substantial investment and acquired an equity interest in” La Boulangerie. Donnelly says Park and Staenberg bring strong operational expertise to complement the product quality and branding expertise of Rigo and longtime partner Nicholas Bernadi. “It felt like a natural pairing,” she says.
The Garbanzo investment will propel the chain’s “even broader expansion, at an accelerated clip” that will go beyond the Bay Area, Donnelly says. Mill Valley will be La Boulangerie’s ninth location since Rigo began reopening the patisseries under the new moniker.
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’s quest for the perfect flour for his bread brought him north to the Bay Area, as he met the family who owned Giusto’s, a milling business, and ended up buying not only their flour, but also their commercial bakery, the Times reported. Baking gluten-free breads and baked goods at the former Giusto’s facility for about 40 grocery stores in California, Rigo’s Bay Bread Group opened the La Boulange chain soon after, starting in 1998 with a location on Pine Street in San Francisco.
The business grew to 23 La Boulange locations when Rigo 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 seven cafes in the Bay Area and a robust catering business. La Linea is La Boulangerie’s coffee roaster.
Donnelly says Rigo hatched his plans to relaunch his chain of patisseries soon after the Starbucks sale – “he never stopped the conversation with Starbucks about that,” she says. “To have this brand come back was good for everyone involved. And what’s a better end to that story than Pascal going back to the roots of the brand and making it a real success again.”
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.
Mill Valley’s up next, a crosstown revival of the La Boulange that opened in the Strawberry Village shopping center in 2006.
“The reopening of the Boulange concept is heart-warning for everybody,” says Rigo, who is also in the midst of building a growing network of small bakeries he calls microboulangeries in his native France. “We had a kick doing it, for sure, and we sort of triggered a lot of similar concepts that have popped since we we went away, which is a good thing. We’ve been super humble to start again and see what people think of us again, and we’re thrilled at the response – it’s better than we could ever have imagined.”
The 411: La Boulangerie plans to open at 590 East Blithedale Avenue before the end of 2018. It will be La Boulangerie’s ninth location. Initial hours will likely be 7am-5pm, with an expected extension to 9pm soon after. MORE INFO.