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La Boulange founder hints at a comeback

The Bay Area food community and social media has lashed out at Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX) since it broke the news Tuesday night that by September it will shutter all 23 of the stand-alone La Boulange bakery locations it acquired in 2012.

But La Boulange founder Pascal Rigo is not among the critics.

“Nothing went wrong,” Rigo said. Starbucks’ food sales were up 16 percent over the year prior and the breakfast items saw a 35 percent year-over-year increase, he said.

After overseeing the rollout of improved food options at Starbucks in the last three years since the coffee giant acquired La Boulange for $100 million, Rigo decided to leave his post at Starbucks, which he will do as of Friday.

As to what comes next, he suggests that fans of La Boulange “stay tuned" to hear "what (the bakeries) could become again, for how it could rise again from the ashes.”

Neither Rigo nor Starbucks are revealing what could happen to the 23 locations around the Bay Area and in Los Angeles or what Rigo himself is going to do next, but his words are optimistic at a time when many are lamenting the beloved bakeries' closure.

Starbucks unexpectedly announced Tuesday night that it would close the popular bakeries, which are mostly in San Francisco but have a presence in Marin County, the Peninsula, the East Bay’s Contra Costa County and one store in Los Angeles.

Starbucks bought La Boulange parent company Bay Bread LLC in 2012 for $100 million in an effort to boost its lackluster food offerings, and it continued to grow the brand’s physical locations through last year. It had brought on Rigo as a senior vice president to develop new recipes and train suppliers to make the baked goods.

And as far as Rigo is concerned, it succeeded in that mission.

“We did great food at scale, and that is what we need to be proud of,” Rigo said, pointing out examples of what he sees as better food product at Starbucks. “We are using the best ham in the country.”

The goal at the start of the acquisition was not to close the La Boulange locations, Rigo said, but the priority with the deal was to elevate the in-house food offerings at Starbucks coffee shops.

“We had six years to roll it out (at all American Starbucks locations), but we did it in three years — the priority was to grow the food at Starbucks,” Rigo said. “I completely understand the business of Starbucks to say we have 12,000 Starbucks (with La Boulange products), why do we need 23 (bakeries) in San Francisco? It’s a distraction.”

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