Meet Lou Giraudo, a son of San Francisco whose sourdough legacy is not the most important thing about him.
By Paul Wilner
Hard work. Taking people as they are, not how you want them to be. More hard work.
These have been the building blocks for San Francisco sourdough scion Lou Giraudo, whose stewardship of the Boudin Bakery is just one of a vast catalog of accomplishments. After beating back a pancreatic cancer scare nine years ago, Giraudo, 71, seems very much at ease as he sits for a rare interview at his Francisco Street office. He is clearly as proud of his family and philanthropic work as he is of his substantial business successes—in addition to Boudin, he oversaw the successful turnaround of Pabst Blue Ribbon from a failing brewery to a thriving hipster brand before relinquishing the helm in 1993. Giraudo is a trustee of the Kalmanovitz Public Charitable Trust, and a proud founder of the De Marillac Academy, a tuition-free middle school aimed at helping underserved youth in the Tenderloin.
He comes by his place in the world honestly, starting out at Boudin when he was in second grade. “My brother and I would pack breadsticks on the weekends with our father [Steven Giraudo],” he recalls, sitting in a tan armchair in his conference room at GESD Capital Partners, the private equity firm he founded in 1998. “We would get paid with an ice cream cone at the Old King Cold ice cream store, just up the street from the bakery on Geary Boulevard.”
The elder Giraudo, who was born in North Beach in 1913, returned to Italy with his parents when he was a boy and later spent a seven-year stint at a bakery in Toulon, France. By 1935, he was back in the States and baking bread for Boudin, where he “worked easily seven days a week, many days as much as 16 or 17 hours,” he says.
Established in 1849 by Isidore Boudin, it quickly won a following for its special yeast, originally popularized during the Gold Rush. (Boudin’s wife, Louise, rescued the “mother dough” from the wreckage of the 1906 earthquake.)
The longtime employee ended up saving Boudin, taking over when it was on the verge of bankruptcy in 1941. Giraudo says his dad was a “good oven man, who also served as a dough mixer and raw baker—he knew all the positions firsthand.”
Although he worked at the bakery to the very end of his life, Steven always found time for family. “He never neglected us,” Giraudo remembers. “He ate dinner with us every day. Sometimes it was just five minutes, but he was there.”
Steven emphasized the importance of education, a lesson his son took home with undergraduate, then law degrees from the University of San Francisco. But he never forgot his roots. “We grew up in a working-class family,” Giraudo says. “We were raised to work hard, and the rewards would come.”
The down-to-earth approach paid off when Giraudo, a longtime partner at the SF law firm Coblentz, Patch, Duffy & Bass, successfully mediated a three-month-long strike in 2005 by workers at California Pacific Medical Center.
Martin Brotman, then CEO of the health system, asked him to get involved, and he also knew Sal Rosselli, who was president of SEIU’s United Healthcare Workers West.
Working with Nancy Pelosi, Giraudo met with both sides until an agreement was hammered out. “On the union side, one person on the negotiating committee had 41 years of service,” he says. “But with the exception of Brotman, just about all the management people [at the center] were new, and didn’t know San Francisco—the only thing they did know was that they didn’t like unions.”
His tireless efforts were praised by the San Francisco Chronicle, which editorialized: “One of the negotiating sections lasted 17 hours. Giraudo stayed with the process until the end.”
Not all his dealings with the newspaper were as amicable. Giraudo recalled the time legendary columnist Herb Caen called to ask for help renegotiating his employment contract.
Although his column was a daily must-read, with a lucrative Macy’s ad placed next to it, Caen was scandalously underpaid.
Giraudo called former Chronicle publisher Richard Thieriot and got bumped to the general counsel, who told him: “Well, you know, Herb doesn’t have to pay for lunch—he gets all his meals for free.” Giraudo said, “How do you know that? Have you had lunch with him? I’ve been with him and seen him pay. Furthermore, you should be paying for his lunches because he’s out there working, getting his stories.”
After calling Macy’s and getting an assurance that they’d pay even more for the prime position, Giraudo informed the barrister: “We’ve changed our strategy—we don’t want to talk to you anymore about nickels and dimes. We want to buy the page and sell it back to Macy’s or The Emporium.”
He then told Caen, “I want you to go to lunch with Willie Hearst (former San Francisco Examiner publisher William Randolph Hearst III] in a very public place. I don’t care what you talk about—you can talk about squirrels.”
Giraudo laughs. “Before you know it, we had the whole thing wrapped up. He tripled his salary, and got an expense account and an annuity.” The same deal-making prowess allowed him to repurchase Boudin in 2002 after it was sold to Specialty Foods in 1993.
“They paid us over $1 billion,” he says. “But they were over-leveraged. Boudin was the sole survivor; they’d lost the other companies we’d previously acquired. So we bought it back.”
But the cause closest to his heart is the De Marillac Academy, which he formed with his wife, Suzanne, in 2001. “The children go to school from 7:30 in the morning until 5:30 in the evening, eat two and a half meals a day there, and are provided every form of support you would get at an expensive prep school,” he emphasizes.
That dedication remains Giraudo’s credo. He repeats cherished advice from his parents, whose words he’s long sought to honor.
“My mother used to say, ‘Don’t look at your friends’ faults—if you do, you’ll have no friends.’ My father said, ‘You can do anything, but don’t lie, cheat or steal.’ It’s a combination of those two dispositions that’s enabled me to see other people for what they are, to realize who I am and never try to pretend to be something else.”