September 3, 2016 » 11:59 am

Status Versus Substance

A little over a year ago, I read an item in Sarah B.’s most excellent Richmond District Blog about a French bakery called Arsicault opening up in my neighborhood. I love great bread and have often wished for a bakery like Tartine nearby. But Arsicault wasn’t that kind of bakery, and while I like a good croissant as much as the next guy, I didn’t see the need to go out of my way to visit.

Still, I love living in the Richmond District, and I take great pride in all local successes. So last month, when Arsicault was named America’s Best Bakery by Bon Appetit magazine, I took notice. But I still didn’t go, and frankly, while I knew that national recognition like this was a big deal for small businesses, I had no idea how big of a deal it would be.

I’ve gotten a pretty good idea, thanks to my weekly pickup basketball game. I drive past Arsicault every Sunday on my way to the park. Prior to the Bon Appetit article, I had never once seen a line there. Now, the line is around the corner all the time.

This morning’s San Francisco Chronicle had a great piece describing Arsicault’s story and pondering this most recent chapter:

So what had drawn the crowd — bragging rights? The sense of accomplishment? The chance to taste the best new croissant in America and assess it on one’s own terms? Was that even possible anymore?

There’s a scene in Don DeLillo’s novel “White Noise” when the narrator and a fellow professor pay a visit to the “most photographed barn in America.” They stand in silence, watching people take pictures of the barn.

“No one sees the barn,” the colleague says finally. “Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn. … We can’t get outside the aura.”

Here we were, inside our own sugar-scented aura. The charming neighborhood bakery that Bon Appétit’s editors had stumbled on had momentarily ceased to exist, and in its place was a much-hyped croissant factory that caused otherwise reasonable people to wait in a 30-minute line at 6:55 on a chilly morning.

We weren’t waiting for breakfast. We were waiting to see whether this experience was worth it.

I don’t know how good the croissants are at Arsicault, and I am less likely to find out now than I was before, thanks to the ridiculous lines. But it’s been a good reminder to me about how much I value craftsmanship and the unusual relationship between status and substance.

Regardless of whether Arsicault’s croissants live up to the hype, I love founder Armando Lacayo’s story, how it all began with an incessant desire to bake a croissant that lived up to the ones he ate as a child in Paris, and how he kept working and working and working at it, and how he plans to continue to work at it.

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