STORY BY OLIVIA HEWANG AND MELODY XU, PHOTOS BY EMILY MCNALLY
When Melody Hu happened to run out of regular flour while baking muffins at home one afternoon five years ago, she discovered gluten-free, mochiko rice flour to be a perfectly delicious substitute. The result of this accidental discovery is Sweet Diplomacy, a 100% gluten-free bakery nestled in downtown Los Altos.
Sweet Diplomacy, which has always been a to-go operation, began with an uncertain start, opening its storefront in December 2019 mere months before the pandemic began, but Hu said community support has been essential to helping the fledgling bakery thrive.
Hu said Sweet Diplomacy’s mission is to “bring people together to celebrate world flavors and inclusive tastes.” In addition to being entirely gluten-free, the bakery accommodates a range of other dietary restrictions, serving dairy-free, vegan and paleo desserts.
As for those “world flavors,” many of Sweet Diplomacy’s desserts draw influence from European, Asian and American cuisines. Hu, a native of Taiwan who grew up eating mochiko rice-based desserts, said she wants to capture the Bay Area’s unique mixing and matching of cultures in her baking.
“When you come to Sweet Diplomacy, not only are you getting special diet-friendly treats, but we’re also bringing you on a kind of culinary magic carpet [ride] with us to try different flavors,” Hu said, referring to the shop’s Flavor of the Week cupcakes, which can range from Japanese flavors to Mexican hot chocolate.
As for the special diet-friendly element of the bakery, surprisingly neither Hu nor the rest of the staff have dietary restrictions. But Hu said that she was inspired by the community of people she encountered in the bakery’s early days selling gluten-free mochiko muffins at farmers’ markets and pop-ups.
“These are people who enjoy good food — handmade, flavorful food — but who also have dietary restrictions,” Hu said, and serving that community “became a passion and a calling that [she] fell into.”
As one can imagine, adapting recipes for desserts that are traditionally chock-full of sugar, butter and wheat flour to be gluten-free and special diet–friendly comes with many challenges.
Hu said the hardest part is using limited ingredients to create the right textures and flavors that make a dessert recognizable. In the earlier days of her operation, she would list every ingredient on Excel spreadsheets and tweak recipes by the gram, conducting countless trials to get each one perfect.
“Gluten-free and vegan baking is about as hard as it gets,” Hu said. “It really took a lot of time and a lot of tears and scraping of bottoms of pans.”
Now, with a few years of experience under her belt and the help of team members, she’s simplified her process for creating recipes.
But more than its carefully crafted treats, manager AnaLisse Johansson says Sweet Diplomacy is built on a strong relationship between the team and the community members they serve. Many of their customers trust the bakery to provide for their dietary needs, which in some cases can be life-threatening. For full transparency, ingredients of each product are listed on the bakery’s website so customers know exactly what they’re eating.
As for those without special dietary restrictions, Hu is fully aware of the negative perceptions surrounding gluten-free foods that can put off customers.
“You know, we’ve had remarks like ‘What, this is gluten-free? Okay, no thanks.’ And they just run away — like literally they will dash out the store because they associate gluten-free with ‘disgusting,’” said Hu.
Hu attributes that stigma to people being accustomed to the taste of wheat as well as many gluten-free recipes being created out of medical necessity. However, she hopes customers can look past that and be open-minded about giving her desserts a try.
After all, that willingness to try new things is central to Sweet Diplomacy’s mission.
“We bring people together; even if you have all these different dietary restrictions, even if you come from different cultures, you can still come to the table and eat with us,” Johansson said.
Sweet Diplomacy is open in downtown Los Altos Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.