The recent story of San Francisco classic La Boulange has been a rollercoaster of trial and tribulation. Five years ago, coffee mega-monster Starbucks purchased the 23-store Bay Area chain from founder Pascal Rigo. The plan: incorporate Rigo's beloved pastries into Starbucks' cafe system, while expanding La Boulange into a 400-location mega-chain all its own. In 2015, after three successful years (Business Insider says Rigo's pastries helped increase Starbucks' food sales by a respectable 16 percent) Starbucks announced they'd be closing the doors on every La Boulange in existence. They'd keep Rigo's recipes, but shutter his once-beloved cafes. Rigo, consummate entrepreneur that he is, didn't linger on the closure, he just started opening new stores. Deemed La Boulangerie de San Francisco, the six new shops (with more opening over the course of the next year) look and feel like what came before: tasty, approachable food and pastries paired with well-made coffee. And if this was the end of the story, Bay Area residents could walk away feeling like San Francisco's can-do attitude had scored another victory. But, there's more.
In early July, La Boulangerie de San Francisco announced that all of their current and future shops would soon be serving coffee legend Andrew Barnett's Bay Area-based Linea Caffe‘s coffee. For great coffee in the Bay Area, it's a victory, a pairing of one of the city's cherished eateries with one of its best coffee purveyors. For Linea Caffe, it's an expansive step into the future.
A year ago, Barnett started talking with La Boulangerie about providing his beans—specifically their single-origin Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza (FAF) Brazil—to the newly reinvented chain. “As an outsider,” Barnett says, “I've been fascinated by their story. I liked their products, their baked goods. And they're local, which appealed to us.” What it came down to though was a meeting between Joao Hamilton and his team, the coffee producers behind FAF, and La Boulangerie. “Right away, it was a good fit,” Barnett recalls, “a love fit, just a really good mesh.” La Boulangerie will serve the coffee as both a FETCO batch brew and espresso.
It isn't just personalities and philosophies that meshed though. Barnett sees the “approachable” aspects of Linea's coffee clicking right into place with La Boulangerie's extensive food program. “Our coffees are very sweet to begin with,” he says, “the chocolaty, caramel-noted flavor resonates with a broad audience.” To Barnett, his coffee is a good entry point, a delicious flavor that won't overpower La Boulangerie's delicate pastries.
“FAF Brazil is enjoyable on a broad spectrum,” he says, “It's approachable, but not dumbed down.” To maintain the consistency of flavor at the chain's current six shops, Barnett and his team have instituted an “ongoing training process” where every three weeks his team will cycle through the cafes, ensuring that the high standards of Linea are being met. So far, Barnett thinks it's going smashingly. “When our team goes in there,” he says, “the coffee is tasting great. They're keeping a real straightforward approach and it tastes delicious.”
Over the next six months, La Boulangerie will open three new spaces in San Francisco's bustling Financial District and another in Oakland's hip Rockridge neighborhood. Linea Caffe will be served in each and all of them. And though La Boulangerie is a new plateau in terms of Linea's wholesale program, Barnett sees it as a product of several years of hard work. “We've been scaling for four years as a company,” Barnett says, “so we can grow and add value to larger companies. We have the staff and the production capabilities now to branch out and partner on whole new wholesale level,” he says, “But it didn't happen overnight.”
For Barnett, as happy as he is for the partnership, it won't change their approach to wholesale, or their philosophy as a whole. “Our focus is adding value to the accounts we work with,” he says, “We see our accounts as business partners. We don't want to be someone who's browning beans and sending invoices.” Barnett will continue to run his small cafe in The Mission while seeking out “best-in-class” partners to serve his coffee.
In terms of La Boulangerie though, Barnett seeks something simple, “I hope someone comes into La Boulangerie,” he says, “driven by the sandwiches, the pastries—their great food in general—and walks out saying ‘this coffee is really delicious.' I hope La Boulangerie and Linea together can exceed their guests' expectations.”
Andrew Barnett photo courtesy of Linea Caffe.