On the surface, there's nothing connecting the new La Boulange in Los Angeles to Starbucks, the country's largest coffee chain. With its soaring ceilings, artsy wall decorations and sophisticated bar counter, it looks perfectly at home on its rapidly-gentrifying strip of La Brea Avenue.
You won't find any mermaids at the cafe, which started serving duck confit hash, gourmet burgers, fresh-baked bread and beer cocktails to the public on Thursday. No pumpkin spice lattes or Norah Jones CDs, either. There's just one subtle clue as to the true provenance of the cafe -- the coffee beans.
They were roasted especially for La Boulange by Starbucks, which bought the San Francisco-based chain for $100 million two years ago this month. La Boulange has already had a big impact on the way Starbucks operates; its founder Pascal Rigo and his culinary team have overhauled Starbucks' entire pastry program, bringing versions of their lauded croissants and breads to over 8,000 locations across the country.
But the La Brea restaurant marks a new phase in the relationship between the two brands. It's the first La Boulange outside the Bay Area, the first with a serious bar program and, crucially, the first to serve dinner. Most of the 22 Northern California locations close at 7 p.m., but this one closes at 10 p.m. Even the logo is slightly different -- it's less ornate, and missing the words "Bakery-Cafe."
Together, these changes make La Boulange into something new for Starbucks: a full-fledged restaurant. At an opening party, Rigo compared the new location favorably to fast-casual chains like Chipotle, Panera and Smashburger, which have become increasingly dominant forces in the restaurant industry over the past few years.
"It's similar, this new place," he said in his mellifluous French accent, "But also different. I don't like to call it 'fast-casual.' I like to call it, 'slow-chic.'"
Rigo, who started his career at a Los Angeles bakery not far from the new location, said that he and his team don't yet have concrete plans to open more La Boulanges like this one. But he said there was a good chance they would do so if this one succeeds.
"I think that, compared to those places with 2,000 locations, our food is better, our drinks our better, the room is more elegant and our prices are just as good," he said. "Almost nothing on the menu costs more than $10, $11. This is affordable food. So I can certainly imagine that it could do well as a big chain."
The 10-person operations team for La Boulange currently works out of a small office above the first location, in a space that used to be Rigo's own apartment, so national domination is still a ways off. Right now, their attention is fully focused on the new Los Angeles location. Let's take a look at what they've cooked up: