Here's What Made Starbucks' La Boulange Bakeries SO Great

So rarely does a small bakery or restaurant hit that right mix of irresistible foods, at the right price, in that “third place” that customers crave visiting. That was La Boulange, the bakery business that Starbucks acquired for $100 million, with the idea of providing amazing baked goods at Starbucks cafes nationwide.

Viva La France - In San Francisco

La Boulange original Pine Street San Francisco location chalkboard
This is not hipster chalkboard thing. Chalkboards and French patisseries go hand in hand, even in San Francisco. Susie Wyshak

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was quoted as saying that the company loved being in the "French" bakery business to accompany their "Italian" coffee heritage.

At the core of La Boulange was authentic French patisserie quality, an impeccable brand designed around classic French style and prices that made us wonder: How can they make money on this stuff?

Let's take a look at what exactly made La Boulange so popular, so beloved and the one cafe I would go to that didn't have WIFI and just deal with it, because it was just so pleasant.

[9/25/15 Update: In an entrepreneur's dream come true, the founder of La Boulange is set to  re-open several of the bakery / cafes as La Boulangerie de San Francisco. The terms of this deal are not clear yet. Read on to learn the backstory of this popular bakery chain.]

Inside La Boulange You Felt Like You Were In France

French style at La Boulange Bakery
Are we in France yet? No, it's Pine St in San Francisco, the original La Boulange Bakery location. Susie Wyshak

Walk into the original La Boulange on Pine Street and you might wonder if the Concorde had jetted to you to Paris while you were sleeping. Founder Pascal Rigo (once called the Steve Jobs of Modern Pastry) perfectly replicated the type of old-time patisserie experience for which we flock to France and beyond.

There was nothing “faux” about La Boulange. How did this American bakery designed in a quaint French style succeed and develop a cult following?

San Francisco-based food blogger Faith Kramer thinks the physical atmosphere of the bakery was at the core of what made La Boulange so special. "The pastries were delightful, but it was the 'French' feel of the place that delighted me." She was even shocked when she discovered it was a chain.

Food Business Success Starts With Crave-worthy Foods

Amazing almond croissants and coffee at La Boulange Bakery
Communal tables, almond croissants loaded with frangipane and unlimited. Susie Wyshak

While the quality did change a bit after Starbucks acquired La Boulange, we could always depend on incredible pastries and bread, made with organic flour. This old-world quality has even become rare in France. 

Then, there were unlimited organic drip coffee refills. Even after the Starbucks acquisition, and transition to Starbucks coffee, the chain maintained this delightful practice (a perk  Starbucks also offers if you use the app to pay). 

All along, the bakery served classic French Roast-style coffee despite the trends in lighter roast coffee.

Community in a Croissant

La Boulange Bakery on Polk St San Francisco
With no WIFI to distract cafe goers, La Boulange had an old fashioned community feeling. Susie Wyshak

La Boulange had a knack for landing gorgeous corner real estate then matching the exterior design to fit flawlessly with each building's architecture.

Between cafe tables outside, and an assortment of small and communal rustic wood tables inside, you always felt welcome.

Oh, but La Boulange didn't have those "work at a cafe" types like me lingering — none of the cafes had WIFI. 

Pastries? Bread With Jam? La Boulange Had Something for Everyone

Pastries and cookies La Boulange bakery
Wooden drawers filled with dainty cookies in giftable packages, with La Boulange branded ribbons. Or freshly baked pastries? Hmm. Susie Wyshak

In most locations wooden bakery cases evoked old time French bakeries in a truly authentic way. 

"I work right by the Pine Street location," food blogger Joanne Boston-KwanHull said. "When I first started my job, I used to go there almost everyday for their chocolate hazelnut croissants. Their cannelés were my favorite."

From Suburban Parking Lots the La Boulange Charm Welcomed Customers

La Boulange Bakery in Lafayette
The La Boulange brand translated well to suburban strip mall locations - just as French as ever!. Susie Wyshak

Signature Provençal-inspired blue and yellow runs throughout menus, awnings, ribbons, signage, and stickers.

Beautiful awnings and colorful exteriors blended into the overall charm of whatever building the cafes inhabited. (Are we in Paris, France or bedroom community Lafayette, California?)

The Secret: La Boulange Had a Healthy Wholesale Bakery Business Too

La Boulange bakery baguette
La Boulange-branded baguette bags only added to the bakery's charm. Susie Wyshak

What better way to offer low prices at retail than to supplement the business with a profitable wholesale bakery business?

According to a 2012 Modern Luxury article, "the company’s wholesale and retail operations were a $60–75 million-a-year business supplying products to everyone from Whole Foods to Apple to Olive Garden to Trader Joe’s to La Boulange’s own bakery-cafés."

At La Boulange you could get a small baguette for around $1. The exceptional and decadent granola, sold in cellophane bags in the bakeries, found its way into Whole Foods Markets. Given the breadth of packaged and bulk granolas, the fact that this La Boulange granola got added to Whole Foods' mix speaks to its quality. 

The cafes also offered free jam to eat with your freshly made bread, as well as cornichon  pickles and other gourmet condiments.

Savory Meals and Catered Food, Again at Good Prices

La Boulange bakery patio tables and menu
The simple lunch and dinner menus featured French favorites made with California ingredients at very reasonable prices...with a choice of charming seating areas. Susie Wyshak

La Boulange had something for everyone, food-wise and business-wise.

Well-priced soups, salads and sandwiches included a favorite: a bowl of onion soup for $5 and a hearty Niçoise salad for around $10. 

Blogger Heather in SF used to go to the original bakery on Bush Street in San Francisco twice a week. She says, "I was addicted to the cannelés, mini palmiers and the fresh breads. When they opened the California Street location I'd go there for a bowl of mushroom soup and an open faced salmon sandwich while knitting at lunchtime. I used their catering business for office happy hours and in-office holiday party. It's going to be hard to replace them, in terms of quality and price point."

Classic French Macarons in Classicly Beautiful La Boulange Gift Boxes

Macaron gift boxes at La Boulange Bakery
Macaron cookies in beautiful gift boxes at La Boulange Bakery. Susie Wyshak

Friends said that the macarons changed after Starbucks took over La Boulange. Whether or not that's true, the pastel gift boxes of macarons in various sizes were yet another La Boulange offering that made this bakery a must.

The Beautiful La Boulange French Style on Ribbons For the Perfect Gift

La Boulange bakery shortbread cookies
The most perfectly simple and wonderful branding.

The bakery offered an assortment of snacks such as herbed potato chips packed in cellophane bags, as well as shortbread and other small cookies tied with La Boulange’s signature ribbons.

In high enough volume, custom-designed ribbon is a low cost way to turn everyday foods into gifts. Easy win!

Free Postcards at the Bakery - Pour Quoi Non?

Postcards in the original La Boulange Bakery
Beautiful free postcards with bakery illustrations, bakery food porn and even the founders. Susie Wyshak

Racks filled with a variety of free postcards featured charming illustrations of La Boulange cafes, beauty shots of their foods and even the founders. 

Why did they have these postcards? They just did. And we loved them! 

(It's very cheap to order large quantities of postcards, bookmark and other useful giveaways these days from Overnight Prints, Vista Prints, etc. The link gives you even more $ off.)

High Quality Jams and Caramel Sauces at a Great Price

line of La Boulange spreads and jams
La Boulange made a line of delicious jams and spreads in cute jars at great prices. Susie Wyshak

Foodies have plenty of options for award-winning artisanal jams and other good foods in jars.

Even so, La Boulange had a tempting offering. They took their charming, colorful brand and reputation for quality and packaged it in a series of jams and caramel sauces, as yet more  great and affordable gifts (at around $5.95) or for home use.

You Could Try Those Jams Before You Buy

Jam samples at La Boulange Bakery
Samples of La Boulange Bakery jams and spreads at the original bakery. Susie Wyshak

At the original bakery, you could taste jams and caramel sauces before buying.

Most locations would cut up pastries to sample while you waited. How could customers resist buying with all of the tantalizing tastes?

(Sampling is the most effective way to get people to buy food!)

Adorable Free French Themed Stickers Just For Fun

Free stickers at La Boulange Bakery
The original La Boulange on Pint St made free French themed stickers for kids and adults - just for fun. Susie Wyshak

It's not often that you walk into a bakery and leave with stickers that can cheer up a notebook, a gift bag or a box of macarons. In fact, I've never seen this before.

At the original La Boulange bakery these rolls of stickers with French phrases never failed to delight customers. Stickers are a nice, simple marketing idea to make gift-giving purchase decisions even easier.

Sniff...La Boulange Bakery Closed

La Boulange Bakery closed sign
Hopefully La Boulange will be open again as a new and better bakery!. Susie Wyshak

Starbucks decided to close La Boulange stores, saying they are "not sustainable for the company’s long-term growth."

As Eater SF said: Here's the La Boulange Closure Schedule You Don't Want to See.

The upshot: The La Boulange brand, customer experience, food and wholesale business were key assets in the Starbucks acquisition. 

What you've read so far is just the start of why La Boulange was so great...the original  location even hosted wonderful prix fixe dinners and charity dinners.

And so, we say goodbye to La Boulange and hope we see many more bakery experiences as delightful. Rumor has it Rigo may have a new bakery in the works.

In the meantime, here are some tips if you want to start a cafe with the brand, quality and experience that made La Boulange famous and that also makes the Pain Quotodien chain popular.