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Co-owner Nicolas Bernardi and director of food innovation Stephane Stocki, ready to take on the world
Co-owner Nicolas Bernardi and director of food innovation Stephane Stocki, ready to take on the world
Patricia Chang

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How La Boulangerie Bounced Back and Into Trader Joe's and Costco

You’re probably eating it without even realizing it

San Francisco collectively threw a tantrum last year when Starbucks announced that it would close all La Boulange locations and dissolve the brand. Luckily, though, founder Pascal Rigo came to the rescue, reopening five of the stores under the name La Boulangerie de San Francisco, and bringing back the same beloved almond croissants, cereal bowl-sized lattes, tartines, breads, and more.

That was all over a year ago, and now the brand has settled into its triumphant return, with two more SF locations on the way and national accounts like Trader Joe’s and Costco. Pascal and co-owner Nicolas Bernadi are tapping into the infrastructure they developed with Starbucks to provide thousands upon thousands of items to accounts across the country.

They’re utilizing a 40,000-square-foot factory in South San Francisco that they reopened in January to make it all happen, which has three distinct departments (bread, viennoiserie, and pastry) and 50 people working 24 hours a day. The end result is crazy production numbers like 20,000 croissants, 10,000 loaves of organic baguettes, ciabatta, and other bread, and well over 10,000 various pastries, among other items — every single day. Here’s a look inside how it all works and what’s to come for the brand.

A look at the some of the space
A look at the some of the space

This is just one area of the massive space, which houses all the ingredients, machinery, and infrastructure necessary for an operation of this size. It’s also underutilized — there’s an additional 30,000 square feet that could be tapped into to increase production, which is exactly what Rigo and Bernadi intend to do.

An assembly line of cranberry bread for twisting
An assembly line of cranberry bread for twisting

The factory is a true mix of technology and artistry — products get made with equal parts machines and human work.

Works hand braid the cranberry twists
Works hand braid the cranberry twists

Right now, workers are braiding cranberry twists for the holiday season, which are supplied to Trader Joe’s. They are currently selling seven items to the grocer, and they’re all certified organic.

The baked cranberry twists
The baked cranberry twists

Trader Joe’s packaging does not have any nod to La Boulangerie on it — that’s how the grocer has so many excellent packaged items with its name on it. It finds experts in that area, purchases the product, and attaches its name to it. There is one product, however, that has a nod to La Boulangerie: the Pain Pascal, for Pascal Rigo.

It’s the same organic sourdough bread that La Boulangerie uses for its tartines, and it’s made in the same vein as the rest of the products: with a mix of machinery and employees. Every day, the factory produces 500 loaves of it.

Pain Pascal, almost ready to bake
Pain Pascal, almost ready to bake
Loaded into the oven and brushed of excess flour
Loaded into the oven and brushed of excess flour
Hand-scored
Hand-scored
Rolled into the oven
Rolled into the oven

The oven is controlled by a computer where you can input various temperatures and times for each chamber, of which there are 18. Every area of the factory was set up to reduce pain points, while still allowing for customization. “The idea is to replicate the process without compromise,” Bernadi said. There are slicers that can cut many different sizes and shapes, different proofing areas, and more.

Beyond bread, the factory makes croissants, chocolate croissants, various flavors of kouign amann, and all the rest of the pastries, cookies, tarts, and more you know and love from La Boulangerie. They are made daily each night and out for delivery every morning at 6 a.m.

Croissants on the assembly line
Croissants on the assembly line
Lemon ginger kouign amann being made
Lemon ginger kouign amann being made
A close-up of the kouign amann
A close-up of the kouign amann
The finished product
The finished product

It may seem like a lot, but Rigo and Bernadi have even loftier ambitions, hoping to open 30 to 40 stores in the Bay Area alone, all while focusing on growing the corporate national clients. They recently installed a pizza oven in the factory to create an extension concept of La Boulangerie, and they’re going through the process of becoming USDA-certified to cook meat products, like a frozen quiche lorraine for Trader Joe’s.

For now, the focus is on reopening the Sutter Street (in November) and Fillmore Street stores, which will have more of a lunch focus with a whole new sandwich line using a new brioche-style bread. It will be a slow rollout, but the past year is only the beginning of the team’s ambitions. La Boulangerie is back in a very big way.

Editor’s note: A prior version of this story contained photos that breached a legal contract between the article’s subjects. As of October 31, 2016 the imagery was removed.

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