Recent surveys show that 20 million Americans are sensitive to gluten consumption, with more than 65 million seeking to reduce the consumption of gluten in their daily diet. And yet, even in Napa Valley, where delicious food is only after sublime wine, there have been few options for those looking for gluten-free desserts.
But not anymore. Laurel Rios, from Calistoga, recently started Fi and Me Baking Co., which is completely dedicated to making delicious gluten-free baked goods. Some are made without dairy or eggs, which makes many of its items 100% plant-based.
“I think I got my sweet tooth from my grandpa,” Rios said. “He always had a ‘secret’ kitchen drawer full of Ritter Sport chocolates, and so when I found out that I had developed a severe gluten allergy, I was devastated. There aren’t many gluten-free options and sometimes you just need a really good cookie.
Reimagine the future
At the start of the pandemic, the Rios, like many young families, were forced to reimagine their normal lives. Rios had taken time off at a local cellar because she feared she would be exposed. Her husband, Gustavo Rios, executive chef of Solage, spent more time at home while the restaurant was closed, and their six-year-old daughter, Fi (Sofia), was also at home, learning remotely while schools were closed. .
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“Family comes first,” said Rios, “and with all this time, I realized I had the opportunity to redefine what our future might look like.”
Instead of facing the uncertainty of staying in the tourism industry struggling between ever-changing rules and closures, she shifted gears. By starting her own home business, she could be with Fi during the day, and the extra hands would provide the help needed. Starting a bakery business seemed like the perfect solution.
“Growing up, I always found it very comfortable to cook with my mom and my grandmother,” she said. “And then in college, when I was stressed out, I often turned to cookie making as a coping mechanism – and I loved sharing what I had done with others. It gave so much joy to both sides.
Like many successful entrepreneurs, Rios combined his natural talents and interests to solve a problem. How could she take care of her family while staying safe and at the same time bring some fun and relief to the community?
“It was like an a-ha moment,” she said. “I could basically take care of a bunch of issues at the same time. “
In July 2020, she obtained a food cabin operator’s license – a county requirement for someone who produces or packages food products at her residence – and began baking cookies, donuts, coffee cakes. and muffins. The whole family was involved. As Rios came up with inventive items and fine-tuned recipes, Fi and Gustavo helped out where they could and often became the taste testers.
Later that summer, Fi and Me Baking Co. set up a stall at the Calistoga Farmers Market with Fi working the crowd. On the first day, they sold out in less than two hours.
“It was really something – the community was so united,” she said. “And seeing someone sensitive to gluten bite into a donut or a slice of coffee cake and smile, it doesn’t get much better. Plus, it turns out that Fi isn’t shy about sharing her opinions on her favorites with customers, which is also fun to see.
Within months, production had increased with new products and increased demand. A few local businesses have expressed interest in selling its products, and by the end of 2020, nearly a dozen businesses in addition to the Farmers’ Market were offering Fi and Me baked goods. Napa Valley destinations such as Sam’s General Store, Cal Mart, Oakville Grocery, Napa Valley Roasters, Brown Valley Market, CAMi Art and Wine Gallery, and others have all found that they cannot keep products on the shelves for long.
“People love Fi and Me – we often sell within hours,” said Carl Dene, owner of Sam’s general store. “These are exactly the kind of high quality, locally made products that we love to support and share with our customers. . “
By early 2021, demand for Fi and Me products had exploded, with weekly production dropping from a few dozen items to nearly 400.
The family kitchen transformed into a production site, full of equipment and specialized ingredients stacked in orderly towers. Rios often worked 14 hours a day to meet demand. And then the couple found out they were pregnant.
This led to a brief hiatus in the business, although Rios hopes to return next year.
“We are delighted that our Fi & Me family is growing and adding another baby girl to the mix, but unfortunately due to pregnancy complications our baking business will be on hiatus until at least Spring 2022. She said in October. “We can’t wait to be back on the shelves and see your smiling faces then. Until then, it’s not a goodbye, just a “see you later”!
The break leaves delicious memories of the baked goods – and the anticipation of the return.
Is anyone who has experienced the quality, depth, and sheer delight of Fi and Me baked goods as torn as I am to pick a favorite? For me, the un-fried donut ($ 3.50 each) sprinkled with grated coconut and freeze-dried raspberries is mind blowing. And yet the Sour Cream Coffee Cake ($ 4 apiece) makes me miss the days when I can’t enjoy its silky texture with a cup of English tea. Or when the mood strikes, the crunchy and chewy oatmeal cookie ($ 3.75 each) is a benchmark for the genre.
Yes, each item seems a bit pricey at first, but given the satisfaction associated with each bite, the time and care taken with each and the cost of the ingredients (gluten-free flour can cost several times the cost of regular flour) , every Fi and Me Baking Co. bakery product is actually a bargain.
While the demand is there, you are unlikely to ever see Fi and Me Baking Co. products widely distributed. In a world that often feels full of craft businesses looking to cash in on their initial success, the Rios are going against the trend, content to make a limited amount of what has become little treasures for connoisseurs.
“We started this to support and improve our lives together – both for our family and our small community,” said Rios. “And we are very much going to keep him small enough that he remains a source of joy for all of us, including our new baby Luna, who is due in February.”
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