La Boulange Bakery and Café prides itself on being an authentic French bakery, from its round crusty loaves to the open-face sandwiches it serves on the bread.

That authenticity springs from the fact that founder Pascal Rigo spent years working for bakers near his native Bordeaux, France, and in Paris before opening La Boulangerie, the chain’s “mother bakery,” in San Francisco in 1999. Then, in 2003, Rigo partnered with another French native, Thomas Lefort, whose business background helped grow the La Boulange Bakery and Café concept to 13 locations in the Bay area. A silent partner invested in the company in 2006, allowing the company the financial solidity for continued expansion.

“We started more as a wholesale business when we opened the mother bakery,” says Emily Doan, La Boulange director of operations. “But neighbors caught the smell of fresh-baked bread and showed an interest in buying it, so we opened the doors and started selling to the neighborhood. Every day we added something new and we realized the need in different areas for neighborhood bakeries. So we started to open bakery cafés, adding coffee, breakfast, and lunch items.”

Each La Boulange location seats between 30–50 guests inside and most have some outdoor seating as well. Menu offerings are “very typically French,” Doan says. 

About half of the company’s business is still wholesale bakery. All the baking for the company is done at one central location, and fresh bread and pastries are delivered to the 13 stores each day. Baking is done throughout the night to supply the stores, which open at 7 a.m. When stores close, at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. depending on location, all leftovers are donated to charity.

Bread offerings include the Organic Peasant Bread in plain, walnut, and multigrain, which is priced at $7.50–$8.75 for a large round loaf. Loaves of the chain’s Organic Everyday Bread are $6 for Pain de Mie Sandwich Bread, $4 for Pull Apart Brioche, and $3.75 for sliced 8-grain or whole wheat. Organic baguettes are the most popular bread item sold at the stores, and they range in price from $1.50 for a plain baguette to $3 for a cheese baguette. In addition to breads, La Boulange offers an array of French pastries, including croissants, turnovers, and tarts.

On the café menu, the average price for a traditional French open-face sandwich on fresh bread is $8.75. The most popular options are the Smoked Turkey with tomato and provolone and the Smoked Salmon with cucumber, shallots, and capers. 

“The open-face sandwich is a little messy, and most of them are heated as well, so they can be a challenge,” Doan says. “We have found a to-go box that works well with it. … You open it up and it’s still all in one piece.”

Doan says that including customers who just order coffee and a pastry, about 40 percent of a La Boulange store’s business is carryout. Catering was also added this year.

For customers who want to sit down and have something more substantial than a pastry for breakfast, La Boulange offers homemade granola, as well as French toast made with La Boulange bread. An egg-and-cheese sandwich on a croissant or fresh bread is also available. 

To round out the menu at lunch, La Boulange offers a soup variety that changes daily, as well as five salads, including Nicoise, Beet, Chef, Warm Goat Cheese, and Smoked Trout. All are served with a piece of fresh organic bread.

La Boulange

Owners: Pascal Rigo and Thomas Lefort

HQ: San Francisco

Year Started: 1999

Annual Sales: $19 million
(includes catering)

Total Units: 13

Franchise Units: 0

Doan says La Boulange has opened several locations each year since 2005, and when it moves into a neighborhood it is very focused on becoming a part of the community and being friendly to the environment.

“La Boulange uses all compostable or recyclable packaging and makes other efforts to operate in an environmentally friendly manner,” she says, adding that two of the locations were certified by the City of San Francisco and that the company is working to bring the rest to the same standards. 

The bakery was organic from the beginning. “Pascal went to great lengths to pick out the flour blends and make sure they were organic,” Doan says.

While the low-carb trend never registered on the bakery’s radar screen—perhaps because its core customers follow the French philosophy of “everything in moderation”—the economic downturn had a slightly bigger impact. But, Doan says, it never kept La Boulange from growing.

“Last year we felt it, but not as much as a lot of foodservice companies,” she says. “We’re at a price point where we’re less vulnerable. People still need their coffee and pastry.”

And coffee is no afterthought at La Boulange. The stores serve drip coffee and espresso drinks made from organic beans roasted by the ecoconscious, San Rafael, California–based Equator Estate Coffees & Teas. 

The green business efforts will continue to be a priority no matter how big the company gets, Doan says, adding that there are plans for La Boulange to grow.

But that growth will remain in the San Francisco area. “The Bay area is quite large and there are a lot of places to grow within the area,” she says.

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