Friday, July 11, 2014

The Little Aussie Bakery: down under treats and gluten free

In San Antonio, Texas, The Little Aussie Bakery & Cafe serves gluten-free treasures for residents and tourists visiting the Alamo City.

The Little Aussie Bakery & Cafe, San Antonio, Texas | PHOTO CREDIT: P-G Matuszak
The Little Aussie Bakery & Cafe, San Antonio, Texas | PHOTO CREDIT: P-G Matuszak

Tucked into a semi-secluded area near Brackenridge Park near the San Antonio Zoo and the Witte Museum rests an unassuming little cafe called The Little Aussie Bakery & Cafe. This little restaurant and bakery serves as a treasure for residents and tourists visiting the Alamo City. Their bakery creations are delightful. Their Sunday brunch menu features must-have twists on old favorites. Surprisingly, everything they serve is dedicated wheat and gluten-free. Much of it is also dairy free, as well.

The Little Aussie Bakery & Cafe, San Antonio, Texas | PHOTO CREDIT: P-G Matuszak
The Little Aussie Bakery & Cafe, San Antonio, Texas | PHOTO CREDIT: P-G Matuszak

For multiple reasons including diagnosed health issues, my family is gluten-free. When the craze first began, I was among the naysayers. I had seen so many fad diets of “avoid this” and “eat lots of that” over the years that gluten seemed just another fad weight-loss diet. Sure, going gluten-free can help lose excess fat from around the midsection. However, as I looked into studies, that is a mere peripheral benefit. However, research led to the findings of many longitudinal studies that pointed toward gluten as a factor with certain medical issues in my family. So, gluten ceased to be an option.

Like so many that find themselves cooking for gluten-sensitive people, including those with celiac disease, thyroid problems, type II diabetes, or chronic joint inflammation, finding healthy and good tasting alternatives became a quest of trial and error. Finding a restaurant that serves dedicated gluten-free items with little to no chance of cross-contamination proves even more difficult. Searching the local area for such restaurants, we discovered The Little Aussie Bakery & Cafe, rated five-stars by the Find Me Gluten Free database, 4.4 stars by Open Table, and four-stars by Urban Spoon.

Have your gluten-free cake and eat it, too | PHOTO CREDIT: P-G Matuszak
Have your gluten-free cake and eat it, too | PHOTO CREDIT: P-G Matuszak

The Little Aussie Bakery & Cafe is the creation of Australian immigrants Rita Sturzbecher and John Apostolovic. Both were registered nurses in Australia who decided it was time to change their lives and grow in a different direction. They packed up and moved to the U.S., eventually settling in San Antonio. Both had lead gluten-free lifestyles for years, but found gluten-free choices here much more difficult than in their home country. Rita reached into her rural Australian upbringing and did what she and John knew had to be done — she created those options.

John and Rita opened the bakery in 2006, but didn’t advertise its dedicated gluten-free menu for the first few years. The bakery gained repeat business due to the quality and taste of its products. That same quality and taste is still there, if not improved through years of practice, eight years later. Many patrons are surprised to find the restaurant is gluten free.

The staff seems well-informed and educated on the gluten-free lifestyle as well as which flour alternatives work best for which baked good. They were extremely helpful in selecting some mixes and other products for use at home, which the bakery sells in addition to its own creations.

The Sunday brunch crew includes both Kathy and Ron Sutton. Ron works the kitchen as a baker. Kathy is the face of the business that greets the post-church crowd at the counter, taking orders and answering questions. Kathy has worked at the bakery for about three years and has been gluten-free for about the same length of time. The Sunday job is more a labor of love for Kathy, a break from her normal “day job”. It allows her to spend time with her husband and to see the happy faces of satisfied customers. When asked about her own gluten-free journey, Kathy explained that she had a list of symptoms that no medical treatments seemed to adequately alleviate. After speaking with Rita, they identified possible dietary changes that could help. Among those changes was eliminating gluten, which turned out to be the root of many of her problems.

Kati Burlay | PHOTO CREDIT: P-GMatuszak
Kati Burley | PHOTO CREDIT: P-GMatuszak

The waitress had a similar story. Kati Burley is a college student, a tutor, and an aspiring educator during the week. Like many students these days, She holds many jobs that give her schedules flexible enough to allow her to attend classes and study. Kati has worked at The Little Aussie Bakery for about six months, now. She can answer most basic and some obscure questions about the food, the gluten-free lifestyle, and the bakery itself. When asked about her gluten-free journey, Kati stated she’s been gluten-free for about a year, after being sick for two years with no other medical treatments seeming to work, or being too expensive to undertake. Kati also cited Rita as helping her identify the remedies for her conditions could be treated through dietary changes. Those changes included not only gluten, but eliminating many dairy products, primarily cows’ milk-based, as well as gluten.

Gluten-free quiche | PHOTO CREDIT: P-G Matuszak
Gluten-free quiche | PHOTO CREDIT: P-G Matuszak

If you think a dedicated gluten-free bakery run by two former nurses serves up bland, soulless, overpriced hospital food, you couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, it is primarily the soulless, hospital food quality of many gluten-free options on the market that drive Rita and John toward success. That success begins with a great tasting product, but continues through the knowledge these former nurses are willing to share. Theirs is a philosophy of healthy living, not clinically correct existence from sheer necessity. They believe that food has emotional, spiritual, and sensual elements, a philosophy shared by Brenner Brief’ News contributor Ilona Thompson.  Nutrition is vital to existence, but enjoying food is essential to living life.

Rita Sturzbecher described her journey toward opening The Little Aussie Bakery. She started working as a nurse in Australia circa 1976. In Australia, a lot of nurses do primary care provider treatments similar to a general practitioner medical doctor in America. Much of their training includes keeping current with research studies that registered dietitians study here in the US. She did a lot of self-study in the field, though. Her listed specialty in Australia was psychiatric medicine, where she found many linkages to food and diet to mood and mental health. On that subject, Rita noted one of the problems with prescribed dietary changes in the US-system is they seem to focus too much on prohibitions. “Everything in the US is ‘you can’t do’ and ‘you can’t eat’. There is not enough emphasis on ‘you can do’ options”, she says.

“I grew-up in the bush, the country. Food there is simple but abundant. You just have to grow it, gather it, or hunt it,” Rita explained. Her rural upbringing also emphasized key individualistic factors regarding one’s health and wellness. “Knowing first aid was very important. In the US, people don’t make health decisions on their own. They need that ‘official diagnosis’ and feel they need to pay for a doctor’s opinion’, she remarked. Rita seems to advocate taking individual responsibility to research what is best for a person or a family and make informed decisions on their own.
Epicurian delights!  | PHOTO CREDIT: P-G Matuszak
Epicurian delights! | PHOTO CREDIT: P-G Matuszak

On the gluten-free lifestyle, Rita explained that there is a wealth of research and information available dating back decades. Of those who maintain gluten in their diets, she said, “People don’t take gluten out of their diet because of convenience. Gluten-rich foods are convenient choices, not healthy choices. But it’s their choice.” She made some insightful remarks about naysayers:
Time will out everything. We eat the diet our bodies need and our lives improve. We choose our outcomes. Life is a gift we’re given. What we do with it is our personal choice. You gave up gluten, congratulations on making an informed, healthy decision. You don’t? To each his own. But what you need to do is look at the societies with longevity. What is their diet? Our bodies don’t evolve, don’t adapt in less than 500 years to these new things like new sugars, new grains. This high-gluten dwarf wheat is only a few decades old. But time will tell.
Rita takes on sort of the executive baker or executive chef role at The Little Aussie Bakery & Cafe. She revealed some of her secrets. Among them is the use of guar gum to replace some of the elasticity lost from removing wheat gluten. Most gluten-free bakers use xanthan gum these days. Rita explained her choice, “Xanthan gum is too complex. Guar gum is basically a bean. Xanthan gum is a bacterial byproduct of wheat. Through trial and error, I discovered guar gum gives a better texture and quality while the xanthan gum is too rubbery, more like Playdough.”

The inspiration for her creations comes from taking old, wheat-based favorites and experimenting until she gets things right. “I take simple things, address its nature, and find that balance that works. It’s trial and error. It’s technique, not some magical substitute ingredient.” Rita mourns the modern society of convenience where food is zapped in a microwave. Home kitchen cooking from her childhood is her greatest inspiration. Rita explained that, in times when mothers stayed at home, mothers were responsible for family nutrition and creating tasty, healthy meals, an art that seems lost on today’s children.

Rita also explained why, she thinks, The Little Aussie Bakery is successful at the local level, now that there products are available in local grocers and restaurants. She explained that many industrial bakeries try to just substitute in gluten-free flours, add xanthan gum, and bake. The machines require recalibration and lack the senses of a baker checking each and every loaf. Environmental conditions affect how things bake, especially bread. Adaptations needs to happen on a daily, even hourly basis. The industrial bakers look for shortcuts to mass-production rather than finding what works.

John Apostolovic echoed similar sentiments. He stated that modern, unhealthy diets are an “addiction to convenience that is killing healthy diets”. He continued, “you need to engage the brain and react to the environment instead of trying to control the environment.”

John handles most of the business aspects of The Little Aussie Bakery & Cafe. Their products have expanded availability into several of other local restaurants that want to offer gluten-free options for their patrons. One restaurant, The Cove, offers their signature hamburgers on Little Aussie’s buns, for example. In addition, the HEB grocery store chain added a seventh store that carries the bakery’s products. John explains how that deal manifested.
The wife of a manager of one of the stores has celiac. They tried our products and invited us into that store some three years ago. Now we’ve expanded to serving seven stores with deliveries three days a week in a single run each day.
Like any successful business, they continue to seek expansion. The bakery is at its near its full capacity for production with its current facilities. “We’re needing other expertise before we can consider opening another location, expertise in franchising and restaurant management”.

When the business first started, they had to make a lot of their own raw materials. These days, there are more suppliers of alternative flours. But the original business model necessitated The Little Aussie Bakery & Cafe to not specialize in certain products, but be open to being a general bakery. John wold love to specialize in a few, select products. “When we started, the bakery was a necessity. We had no alternatives, so we became one.”

John’s advice to anyone seeking to start a bakery, open a restaurant, or start any business is simple. He states that, to be successful, the “most important thing is the quality of the product. Packaging and marketing will come, eventually, if the product is sound.” The bakery’s products are certainly sound. For that, John gives all the credit to Rita. “Rita cooks so well. I can do the eggs, steak, etc. But Rita has the real talent and passion.”

John was rather candid about their immigration to the US and eventually settling in San Antonio. “We were not satisfied with life in Australia. We wanted reinvention, a fresh start. It was not easy, but it was worth it. It led us to the opportunity to make food with a health emphasis i order to promote good eating habits. We went from being nurses and helping people to feeding, educating, and melding things from our former nursing careers into something new.”

Choosing San Antonio, Texas was the easy part. The city has “the right climate, real estate prices, low costs of living, great business policies at the state and local levels, and the right atmosphere and culture.”

French Toast, Little Aussie Bakery style | PHOTO CREDIT: P-G Matuszak
French Toast, Little Aussie Bakery style | PHOTO CREDIT: P-G Matuszak

Choosing their favorites from their menu was not quite as easy a decision. Rita has never been a huge eater of sweets. But she would choose their lemon sponge-cake for its tart but simple taste. Her real joy comes more from seeing the delighted satisfaction on the faces of returning customer. John had a harder time choosing, because there is so much he likes on the menu. So it very much depends upon his mood. Of their desserts, he likes the anzac cookies and cream cake. For entree items, he swears by their beef pies, also known as pasties (pronounced pah-steez).

On their Sunday brunch menu, pasta lovers should try their pasta bake. Their quiche is a huge hit with a light, flaky crust. Their waffles put many chain breakfast restaurants to shame. One brunch menu item everybody needs to try is their version of french toast.

For those not located in the San Antonio area and who are not planning a trip to the River City in the near future, many of their items and baking mixes are available for online order and can be shipped within the US.