Let them eat bread: A baker's crusade to rescue the French boulangerie

La P’tite Boulangerie in Cap Ferret, France, the first of Pascal Rigo’s microboulangeries. Everything is made fresh from organic ingredients by 23-year-old Maud Moinard (centre).
La P’tite Boulangerie in Cap Ferret, France, the first of Pascal Rigo’s microboulangeries. Everything is made fresh from organic ingredients by 23-year-old Maud Moinard (centre).PHOTO: NYTIMES

CAP FERRET, France (WASHINGTON POST) - Pascal Rigo was just seven when he fell in love with baking. Summering with his family here on the Atlantic coast, he began an apprenticeship in a small boulangerie, one of dozens that dotted Lege-Cap-Ferret, a spit of land about an hour's drive southwest of Bordeaux.

Over the years, as he built a fortune in the baking business in the United States, one boulangerie after another closed until there was only one left in this tiny town at the tip of the peninsula where he has a home - a turn of events Mr Rigo considers an affront to French baking.

His opinion of that bakery's bread is not much higher. "People say the French are eating less bread because of gluten-free, because of low-carb," Mr Rigo said, sitting in a cafe here and dunking a flaky croissant into a hot chocolate made the French way, with melted chocolate diluted by warm milk. "But bread like that - that is the reason."

All across France, the local boulangerie - the mom-and-pop shop that turns out classically crusty baguettes, eggy brioches, sturdy boules and croissants as light as air - has fallen into decline in recent decades as some people have adopted carbohydrate-free diets and others have grown accustomed to buying bread at supermarkets and convenience stores that make their own, using cheap ingredients. In the process, bread aficionados lament, the quality of the average loaf has plummeted, and many traditional bakeries have closed.

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And so Mr Rigo, an ebullient baker with a seemingly perpetual gap-toothed grin, has embarked on a personal crusade to rescue this pillar of French cuisine one bakery at a time, starting here with La P'tite Boulangerie du Ferret, a shop that he opened last summer. He sees it as the first in a nationwide chain of what he calls microboulangeries.

He has also started scouting for shuttered boulangeries in small towns, hoping to overhaul their finances and reopen them. The plan is to connect young bakers to defunct bakeries in communities with 2,000 or more people, 20 to 30 miles from a major city.


Mr Pascal Rigo in front of the La Boulangerie de San Francisco on Hayes Street. PHOTO: NYTIMES

"Bread is part of our heritage," said Mr Rigo, evoking the popular demand for bread that prompted the infamous phrase "Let them eat cake" during the French Revolution. "I'd like to restore that for my country."

Applying a modern multistore strategy to a traditional, handmade product may seem a contradiction. But Mr Rigo, 56, turned that combination into a hugely successful career. He 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 is now resuscitating under a slightly tweaked name, La Boulangerie.

His vision for France is a network of tiny bakeries, each operated by one baker, some with the help of a sales clerk. He plans to open at least four more this year in arcades, called Les Halles de Bacalan, that are being built by the developer Biltoki in south-western France. The first will open on Oct 15.

He is negotiating a lease to open a P'tite Boulangerie in the 10th Arrondissement in Paris, and working to strike a deal with Biocoop, an organic grocery, to put the microbakeries in some of the chain's 400 stores around the country by year's end.

"The problem is with the economics of the boulangerie, not the bread," Mr Rigo said. "I'm going to show that you can make good bread and good money."


An assortment of baguettes, boules and brioches at La P’tite Boulangerie. PHOTO: NYTIMES
 

After much study, he has determined that the old business model simply does not work any more. "The real estate would cost 400,000 euros, and then they had to buy equipment, so by the time they opened, the average boulanger was 800,000 euros in the red," he said. "They then would be working 20 hours a day because they couldn't afford to hire anyone to help them, and still, they had trouble turning any profit."

He plans to get around that problem by shrinking each store, reducing the number of people needed to run it, buying ingredients centrally to enhance the shops' bargaining power and limiting the number of products sold. "To try to make profit, boulangers were trying to sell anything and everything, instead of trying to sell more of the things people really want - the baguettes des copains, the ficelles, the boules," Mr Rigo said.

To make matters worse, the mills that for years supplied flour to French bakers started becoming competitors in the 1990s, investing in chain bakeries that pump out pain quotidien on an industrial scale often using preformed frozen dough.

"They would sell two baguettes for the price of one, three for the price of two, things like that, and soon, every time a Marie Blachere store opened" - part of a large chain of mill-backed bakeries - "three boulangeries in three small towns would close," Mr Rigo said.

The number of boulangeries in France dropped to 28,000 in 2015, from 37,800 just 20 years earlier. Mr Alexander Goransson, the author of a 2014 report on bread in France and a lead analyst at Euromonitor, a research firm, said that rate has slowed during the past decade, although bakeries continue to close.

Mr Goransson said Mr Rigo may be putting his plan in motion at just the right time, because more French consumers are showing an interest in high-quality breads - they call them "artisanale" - that use minimal ingredients and are baked fresh.


A latte and a pastry at the Hayes Street location of La Boulangerie de San Francisco. PHOTO: NYTIMES

On a blustery, overcast Friday morning, Virginie De Laval was picking up four baguettes at La P'tite Boulangerie in Cap Ferret. "I'm buying it because it's good bread," she said.

She said she sometimes purchased supermarket bread, but only in a pinch. "I think people today are returning more and more to foods that are artisanal, without preservatives and other ingredients that are unfamiliar," Ms. De Laval said. "There's a better appreciation of the way things were done in the past."

Over a span of two hours, 67 customers - just 600 people live here during the off-season - pulled up to the tiny bakery to buy baguettes, chewy ficelles and buttery croissants, all made by Maud Moinard, 23, the boulanger who runs the 290 sq ft space.

She has all the equipment she needs - a water chiller, a mixer, an oven, a sink, a proofer, big sacks of flour and a refrigerator, built in under the classic marble display case - and works her doughs while she sells the breads. She knows her customers so well that before many even step out of their cars, she is already twisting a piece of thin, noisy brown paper around their customary purchases.

"Sure, it's sometimes busy doing sales and baking, too, but that's how I know what I need to make," Ms Moinard said.

The bakery sold a daily average of 2,000 baguettes des copains last summer, until volume dropped to about 400 when the vacationers left, Mr Rigo said. In comparison, Mr Rigo's La Boulangerie shops in San Francisco each sell about 50 baguettes daily.


Ms. Moinard, 23, has everything she needs to run the microboulangerie in a mere 290 square feet of space.
PHOTO: NYTIMES

La P'tite Boulangerie also sells sandwiches and pastries made in a patisserie Mr Rigo has opened in Cap Ferret, where traditional sweets are made with a local twist. A classic gateau Basque, for instance, is made with pine nuts that grow in the forests here and a Bordeaux rum, and is playfully called Gateau Presque Basque, or "nearly" a gateau Basque. And there are a few imports: The shop sells bags of the granola that is a hit at his San Francisco shops.

Ms Carole Garcia, the town's adjutant mayor, stopped in to buy a couple of savoury ficelles to enjoy with aperitifs that evening and sampled a bite of the gateau. She said she buys loaves from the other boulangeries here as well - "relationships, you know; I'm adjutant mayor" - but the P'tite Boulangerie bread is "without comparison".

"It's like bread used to be," she said.

Ms Garcia has known Mr Rigo for years. He and his business partners here played soccer together when they were children, and he has become something of a local celebrity as the boy who left home and made good.

He grew up east of here in Paillet, where his mother was the postmaster. The family spent summers in Cap Ferret; Mr Rigo apprenticed here and at two other French bakeries.

After working as a baker in various restaurants in Paris, he moved to Los Angeles in 1989 with plans to start a wine-importing business. But he began baking bread for an old friend, the chef Michel Richard, who had struggled to find loaves he considered good enough for Citrus, his acclaimed restaurant in the city.


Mr Rigo in San Francisco. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Soon Mr Rigo also was making breads for restaurants such as L'Hermitage and the dining room at the Checkers hotel, where Thomas Keller was chef. "We were making bread for about 70 of the best restaurants in Los Angeles," Mr Rigo said. "It was hard work, but fun."

In a quest to find the perfect flour, he met the family who owned Giusto's, a milling business, and ended up buying not only their flour, but also their commercial bakery. Suddenly, he was making organic and gluten-free breads and baked goods for about 40 grocery stores in California.

He relocated to the Bay Area to be close to the bakery, which he still owns, and soon opened the La Boulange chain. The shops were supplied in part by his commercial kitchen, but they also had their own kitchens, and they fast developed a passionate fan base. By the time he sold the business to Starbucks in 2013, La Boulange was 23 stores, and the commercial bakery had 1,500 employees creating products for retailers such as Trader Joe's and Costco.

Mr Rigo then took on another job that seemed folly to Wall Street and many Starbucks consumers: helping the coffee giant retool its baked goods, which were notoriously bad. This meant finding commercial kitchens around the country that could match the quality of his own, and finding space in Starbucks stores for ovens to heat the products.

The experience left Mr. Rigo deflated and defensive. Even though many of the new baked goods sold well, he said, he felt the company was hesitant to put its marketing heft behind them. "No matter how big the improvements were that we made - and the improvements were significant - they didn't want to talk about them because they didn't want Wall Street to think they were a food company," Mr Rigo said.

Asked to respond to that criticism, Ms Sanja Gould, a spokesman for Starbucks, noted comments made late last year to Wall Street analysts and investors by Sharon Rothstein, the company's global chief marketing officer. "Our food platform represents the biggest growth opportunity for our business," Ms Rothstein said.

Mr Rigo left Starbucks in 2015, and soon after his departure, the company closed the La Boulange stores in San Francisco, inciting a huge outcry from customers. When it bought the business, the company had said it planned to build the chain to 400 stores.

Mr Rigo joined Munchery, a meal delivery service - and left after five months, troubled by the high cost of marketing the service, the food waste it generated and what he considered a lack of transparency with customers and investors. "I'm not sure about that business model," he said.

Since then, much of Munchery's management has changed and the business has turned around, said Ms Baochi Nguyen, its vice-president for marketing. "There are distinctions between food delivery models," Ms Nguyen wrote in an e-mail. "Some are proving to be not as effective at scale, while others, like Munchery, are yielding really promising results."

By the time Mr Rigo left Munchery, he had decided to open La P'tite Boulangerie here.

He and his wife, Virginie, have begun spending more time in Cap Ferret now that their three children are older. He is known for tooling around town on his bicycle in shorts, whatever the weather. "I never take the car when I'm here - it's much more fun to get around by bicycle," he said.

He issues a steady stream of ideas: a drive-through pizza business in California, how to obtain organic ingredients for the best price. "I don't drink coffee," he said. "I have too much energy as it is."

One of his most ambitious plans is to open a training school for young bakers here to ensure a ready supply of boulangers. If the students go on to open boulangeries in small towns, Mr Rigo and his partners will provide financing packages that will allow those students to own up to 70 per cent of their businesses.

"I really think we can become the biggest smallest business in France," he said.