Gluten-free bakery Sweet Diplomacy brings a community of food lovers often left out, together

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. 

Sweet Diplomacy’s signature gluten-free cupcakes topped with Italian meringue buttercream. (Emily McNally)

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.

PAUSD to make optional in-person return in red tier

STORY BY OLIVIA HEWANG AND MELODY XU, PHOTO BY GIL RUBINSTEIN

Grades 7–12 in the Palo Alto Unified School District will enter an optional in-person return once Santa Clara County falls to the red tier of coronavirus restrictions.

As a continuation of the school board’s Nov. 10 vote to return to school in the spring semester, this latest set of plans created by district staff do not require additional board approval and could go into effect as soon as the first week of March, if the county sits in the red tier — but not earlier.

Superintendent Don Austin said that the district will need until then to further flesh out the plans and work out logistical kinks.

Currently, Santa Clara County sits in the purple tier of coronavirus restrictions, needing to fall substantially in the number of new cases per 100,000 residents metric to fall to the red tier. Schools are allowed to reopen after sitting in the red tier for five consecutive days.

The district’s plans mandate that all teachers return to campus, but give students ability to opt in or out. Students will be split into two alphabetical groups and attend a full schedule of classes two days a week, with Mondays remaining remote for secondary schools across the district. 

While the exact setup is not immediately clear, the plans call for both students on campus and at home to attend the same Zoom class, the only difference being that students in the classroom are physically present with the teacher leading the class, and would presumably benefit from the increased social interaction of interacting with peers during breaks. 

The maximum number of students in one classroom will be as many as can fit while maintaining the required 6-foot distance. 

Austin emphasized that, in contrast to the reopening plan passed in November, student schedules will not be affected, nor will families be forced to commit to in-person attendance, and students who opt in to the return will still have the choice to attend classes remotely day by day.

Many details remain unclear, including how students would rotate through different classes, as the plan will not use strict cohorts. Further plans, including COVID testing for students, will be discussed at the board’s next meeting on Feb. 23.

The district’s elementary schoolers are currently engaged in a hybrid return, even set to begin a full-return pilot with 15 cohorts in February, and an optional hybrid return for sixth graders on March 1. 

Several teachers, however, expressed concerns about the safety of possibly returning next month during public comment. 

“To put anyone into a crowded, enclosed environment for six to eight hours per day at this point in time would be the height of irresponsibility,” said Paul Gralen, an art teacher at Greene Middle School.

Parents, however — many of whom attended a protest calling for an in-person return yesterday — expressed strong support for the plan, citing student mental health as a priority. Many parents stressed that other districts have already reopened and fully vaccinating teachers should not be a prerequisite to an in-person return.  

Meanwhile, student board representatives Gunn senior Thomas Li and Paly senior Medha Atla, expressed dismay at the plan going into effect with little input from students, reporting that they were only informed of the plan hours prior to the meeting. 

“My hope is that there will be a vote,” Li said. “[The current plan] seems drastically different from the plan that was presented in November, and if we voted to reopen schools in November based off of that iteration of the plan, then that decision was based in part on the details of that plan.” 

Austin emphasized that the new plan is simply a reworking of the board’s November decision to reopen and that requiring a further vote would only delay planning and reopening.