It didn’t help that Starbucks announced the move just as the Golden State Warriors were beating the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Playoffs. That’s the kind of stuff that fuels conspiracy theories.
San Franciscans fond of the fancy La Boulange bakeries are crying foul over Starbucks’ decision to shutter the entire chain in a shake-up that will wipe out nearly 800 jobs.
Dozens took to social media and blogs to bemoan this week’s announcement of the planned September shutdown for the French-style cafes made famous by their macarons and bowls of cafe-au-lait.
“It’s a tragedy, an absolute tragedy,” says Lola Soto, an entrepreneur who lives in San Francisco’s hip Cole Valley neighborhood. She says she’s mobilizing a group of neighbors to press Starbucks on why it’s closing the Boulange outlets, and to figure out what will happen to the real estate. “When I walked into La Boulange two days ago I was greeted literally by a tearful server. She had tears in her eyes and I got tears in my eyes. I couldn’t believe it.”
The backlash adds a new dimension to Seattle-based Starbucks’ $100 million acquisition of La Boulange in 2013, a bid to revamp the food offerings of its vast coffee empire.
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It didn’t help that Starbucks announced the move on a Tuesday evening, just as the Golden State Warriors were beating the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Playoffs. That’s the kind of stuff that fuels conspiracy theories.
“They thought this might be a good time to drop out that news,” says Rob Wilson, president of San Francisco-based equity research firm Tiburon Research Group and self-described loyal La Boulange customer. (Starbucks denies that the timing had anything to do with the game.)
Even local politicians had a say. “I think it’s very sad. La Boulange is a great local brand — I go there myself,” said London Breed, a San Francisco city supervisor whose district contains three La Boulange locations, in a statement.
She added that she’s comforted by the fact that Starbucks promised to help staffers find new jobs, but “it probably won’t be at any new Starbucks locations in my district, because I highly doubt they’ll get neighborhood approval now.”
The La Boulange brand will live on — Starbucks now sells its pastries, in pink paper bags, all over North America. It’s a key part of the company’s effort to double revenue by 2019 to $30 billion a year.
But La Boulange’s 23 cafes, which constitute a separate retail concept mostly confined to the Bay Area, didn’t fit with the plan anymore. La Boulange founder Pascal Rigo is also leaving the company to focus on non-profit activities and other food ventures.
The move makes sense financially, said Wilson, the equity analyst. Starbucks got a brand boost from incorporating La Boulange’s foodie glamour, and those cafes were perhaps not very profitable.
Still, he added, “I have a hard time believing they couldn’t find the way to license the stores or something that would have allowed them to remain open.”
Starbucks’ decision also means that more than 595 La Boulange staffers, and 150 workers at two manufacturing facilities that served the closing locations, will have to find jobs elsewhere come September. (An Evolution Fresh juice store in San Francisco will close as well, but Evolution Fresh cafes in Seattle and Bellevue will continue to operate, a spokeswoman said.)
Starbucks says it’s doing all it can do help staffers find jobs at other local Starbucks stores; San Francisco has more than 80. Spokeswoman Holly Hart Shafer said many of the employees are interested in transitioning to other Starbucks jobs, either in the city or possibly closer to their homes elsewhere in the Bay Area.
But the impact goes well beyond job loss, said Todd Rufo, director of the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development.
“Our concern is the effect those closures are going to have in the neighborhoods those places are located, and what’s going to happen to those locations,” he said in an interview.
Starbucks has told him it won’t fill the existing La Boulange locations with its own cafes. Starbucks declined to share details on its plans for the closing stores.
Soto, the Cole Valley entrepreneur, says neighbors are concerned that given steep San Francisco rents, fledgling cafes might find it hard to be profitable. “Parents just don’t know what they’re going to do. No one wants to tell their kids,” she said.