By Bob Uphues
The corner space at the Arcade Building, 1 Riverside Road, in Riverside came to life Monday as a new pastry shop, Flùr, specializing in gluten-free products that the business' owners believe will appeal to everyone.
They know they have a bit of a roadblock to hurdle. Say the words "gluten-free" to a foodie and you're more apt to get a raised eyebrow than a request for samples. No one knows that better than Flùr's CEO and pastry chef, Adriana Meadath.
As a pastry chef at the Peninsula Hotel, Meadath would curse when a dessert request came in from one of "those people" — a patron with gluten intolerance.
Yet, unknown to her, she was one of "those people" herself. At the end of 2011, she finally learned why she was always feeling lethargic and generally off.
"I just kept ignoring it," she said. "I'm a pastry chef. How can I stay away from what I work with?"
But after removing gluten from her diet, her symptoms disappeared after two weeks. And when she got to know Michelle Nelson through Nelson's uncle, everything began to fall into place.
Nelson had been wrestling with coming up with gluten-free alternatives for her children and husband, who are gluten intolerant.
"I've been experimenting since 2007," said Nelson, a former civil engineer who is now Flùr's chief operations officer and handles much of the business end of the pastry shop.
When the two got to know each other, said Meadath, "the light bulb went off."
But there was still the "gluten-free" issue. How could they make their products attractive to the gluten-loving public?
"We really struggled with that," said Meadath, a Stickney resident who is a graduate of the French Pastry School in Chicago. "As a pastry chef, I'd roll my eyes, because the products were so bad. We want to revolutionize the gluten-free market. It doesn't have to lack in flavor, texture and aesthetics."
One way to start was to create a signature item that was a naturally gluten-free product — macarons. Not to be confused with macaroons, the cocoanut-flavored cookies sometimes topped with a maraschino cherry or dipped in chocolate, macarons are brightly colored, jewel-like confections made from merengue and almond flour. They are often filled with chocolate genache, caramel or fruit jam.
Meadath's macaron's are inspired by Pierre Herme, the Parisian pastry chef for whom she worked as an intern at the French Pastry School. For a full month, she worked prepping recipes for him during a visit Herme made to the school in 2007.
"That was an experience of a lifetime," Meadath said.
Meadath honed her macaron-making skills at the Peninsula Hotel, where she was in charge of making macarons sold there.
But macarons are just part of Flùr's product line, which also includes cookies, breakfast muffins, brownies and biscotti. Meadath and Nelson spent six months refining gluten-free flour blends for their products. Each product required a different formula.
"We tested hundreds of times," said Meadath. "And when we found one blend, we realized you can't do it for all the product lines."
Flur's small retail operation is open six days a week and features not only the pastries but coffee and tea. The business' main effort is through its online store and wholesale distribution to institutions, conventions and the like. In the future, Nelson and Meadath would also like to expand its gluten-free offerings to include pancake, waffle and crepe mixes for sale at grocery stores.
The best way for them to spread the word is for people to taste the products, said Meadath.
During the past year we've been passing the products around, just letting people eat it," said Meadath. "It doesn't look like gluten-free product. We're just educating people, converting people."
"The product speaks for itself," said Nelson.