Squirrel & the Bee in Short Hills Draws Those Gluten-Free and Not


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Squirrel & the Bee, a gluten- and grain-free cafe, opened 18 months ago.

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Fred R. Conrad for The New York Times

Even before noon on a recent Friday, every table at Squirrel & the Bee, a gluten- and grain-free cafe and bakery that opened in Short Hills, N.J., in 2014, was occupied. Were all these people gluten free?

I ordered the kale salad with dates and a cup of tomato pumpkin soup. Although the combination of tomato and pumpkin seems improbable, in the case of this sweet and tart soup, it worked. I was surprised. I do not have celiac disease and, in general, eat everything (an occupational requirement). And yet, both items, even the lemony vinaigrette on the salad, were terrific.

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The doughnuts at Squirrel & the Bee in Short Hills.

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Fred R. Conrad for The New York Times

I returned a week later for the much-praised pumpkin granola. Skeptical, I wondered how granola made without grain could be palatable. Again, the food caught me off guard. It was first-rate. I bought a whole bag, which Squirrel & the Bee sells along with cereals, nuts, coffees, teas and baked goods. Like many items for sale there, the granola was labeled with letters that deemed it suitable for various diets: G (gluten free); D (dairy free); P (Paleo); S (specific carbohydrate diet); and E (egg free). Also, everything is kosher.

Michelle Retik, the owner, explained on the phone after my visits that her customers come from as far away as Holland and Canada, where they have read about it on gluten-free websites. At least 50 percent, however, have no particular allergies. Presumably they come, as I now will, because the food is bright, fresh and skillfully prepared.

The story of the cafe’s origins, and Ms. Retik’s evolution into a grain- and dairy-free chef, explains, to a large extent, the character of the place.

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The chocolate cake comes topped with a brownie bomb.

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Fred R. Conrad for The New York Times

A newly single parent of four and a former merchandise planner, Ms. Retik decided to switch career gears in 2008. Being a pastry chef had always been her dream, and after graduating from the Institute for Culinary Education in 2009, she achieved it. Flour and sugar had become her tools. Working sometimes 12 hours a day, she simply assumed that her stomach maladies were the result of being a busy single mother. When her weight dropped to 87 pounds, she was given a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis. “The children were late for school 27 times that year,” she said. “I couldn’t even get out of the house in the morning.”

After conventional treatments and doctors did not help, Ms. Retik embarked on a strategy based on her own reading. It worked: “On Wednesday, I rid my kitchen of grains, refined sugars and dairy; on Friday, I got out of bed, walked the dog and felt awesome.” Even Thomas McCarrick, the doctor who was her fiancé at the time and is now her husband, marveled at the change. “What happened?” she recalled his asking.

During the next few years, she perfected the recipes for her restricted diet. They are the basis of what she now serves to more than 2,500 customers a week.

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The bakery has lured customers from as far away as the Netherlands and Canada.

Credit
Fred R. Conrad for The New York Times

Stylishly decorated with aged silver wood, splashes of turquoise and a rotating display of art, the cafe attracts crowds that are typical of Short Hills (lots of Lululemon), as well as people from out of town, out of state and occasionally out of the country. The food is simply that good.

Ms. Retik’s asparagus, leek and dill quiche, for example, is fluffier than most quiches because it is made without cheese and the crust relies on coconut oil and almond flour, rather than the more leaden vegetable oil and white flour. A dish called Michelle’s eggs, scrambled with spinach and tomatoes in coconut oil and served with a generous smear of eggplant tapenade and guacamole, is delightfully hearty.

If you’ve sampled only store-bought almond or coconut milk, Ms. Retik’s homemade versions are worth the extra 75 cents charged when added to cereal. The milks also pair well with Ms. Retik’s fluffy muffins (the eggs in her muffins are beaten for about 20 minutes).

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The granola with fruit and almond milk, a blueberry muffin and a caffe latte.

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Fred R. Conrad for The New York Times

For dessert, the pumpkin pie and raspberry coconut tarts are popular, and cakes come in basic vanilla or more exotic flavors like chai. Three-tier wedding cakes, popular in June, come laden with real orchids and fresh berries. On waffle Sundays, more customers appear than at any other time during the week.

Squirrel & the Bee (alluding to the nuts and honey that figure in many of the recipes) has its detractors: Some find the flavors to be too subtle.

On the other hand, in the 18 months since it opened, Squirrel & the Bee has sold 50,000 muffins; the staff has expanded to 34 employees from six, and 12 Whole Foods stores throughout New Jersey, Connecticut and New York recently decided to sell some of its baked goods.

No one is more surprised than Ms. Retik. “Shocked and amazed,” she said, surveying the crowd on a recent Sunday. “It’s a joy to see myself and my business thrive.”

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