A Pumpkin Clafoutis from Floriole in Chicago.

Establishing your bakery in any neighborhood requires careful attention to detail and a willingness to adapt. Sandra and Mathieu Holl, owners of Floriole in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, knew what they were good at making when they opened their bakery cafe in 2010. What they did not fully understand is what the local market wanted. Through a few years of refinement, their bakery is now realizing its full potential and is gaining widespread notoriety as one of the best of Chicago.

Floriole began as a stand at Chicago’s famed Green City Market, where for nearly five years the Holls sold rustic French pastries in a 10-foot-by-10-foot tent. The couple longed for having their own brick-and-mortar space; the dream came true five years ago. Expanding on offerings sold at the farmer’s market, the menu now includes breads, sandwiches, salads—and, of course, more pastries.

“I remember when people first came in, they were asking for soups and salads. They were looking for another place to eat,” Sandra Holl remembers about their first year as a freestanding bakery. “We stuck by our menu but added items. The menu has really evolved, and it is a lot more savory inspired, which has helped our bread sales. We had always wanted a location that had a good neighborhood feel.”

Sandra Holl's stepfather, who works in construction, helped her gather design ideas for Floriole.

Prior to opening, the challenge was to create a distinctive environment that showcased delicate and flavorful breads and pastries made with local and wholesome ingredients. Their first stroke of good fortune came from the existing brick walls in front and the side. Previously a law office, the 1800-square-foot building was nestled in a residential Lincoln Park area but zoned for commercial property. “We kept the brick stone front and opened up the second floor to give it a nice feel,” Holl explains. “My stepfather is in construction and he helped with great design ideas. I wanted it to look like a French bakery – warm but very simple.”

The tan-colored dry case is stocked with flavorful pastries such as seasonal fruit galettes, pecan sticky buns and triple chocolate brownies. Her one regret? The glass shelves are not a bit higher to bring pastries closer into view. The refrigerated display case, which is situated first in line and next to checkout, spotlights edgier menu items like passion fruit tarts, sorghum pies and pumpkin clafoutis (a rustic French fruit tart).

Floriole is dedicated to using only the best ingredients available.

The lighting (including George Nelson bubble lamps) is tasteful and a bit muted, so as not to overpower. “There are windows in the back room,” Holl recalls when they moved in, “and I thought, ‘This is nice. We’re going to have a kitchen with light.’”
The menu board features a chalkboard sign that lists the day’s choices under three columns: lunch, all day and breakfast. The bakery cafe serves breakfast until 11 a.m. Featured breakfast sandwiches, a wildly popular option in a retail store supported by walk-in morning traffic, include the veggie egg sandwich on baguette with goat cheese, melted leeks and arugula. Ricotta toast is another popular breakfast option.

“We are more generalists,” Holl says of their menu today. “I don’t want to be so specialized that we are in a box. This is a great time of year for us, as we move into fall. We will start a lot of new products like our pumpkin sticky bun made with pumpkin puree and iced with cream cheese frosting. It’s our version of pumpkin pie. We’ll have spicy gingerbread cookies and Normandy apple cake. In the fall, all of our savories become heartier.”

Commitment to Local

“We remain committed to using the best ingredients available,” says Holl, who has contributed articles at Bon Appetit and has been featured on StarChefs.com. (She was also nominated for Best Chef by TimeOut Chicago). Most her produce, meats, dairy and cheeses are sourced directly from sustainable farms in the region. They use organic flour and sugar, Valrhona chocolate, European-style butter and cage-free eggs.

 Breslin Farms, a farm that concentrates on small grains, is one of the many local producers Floriole works with.

Floriole works with, among other local producers, Breslin Farms, a father-and-daughter operation that grows certified organic row crops on the family farm in northern Illinois. The farm concentrates on small grains and dry beans and uses heirloom varieties like Turkey Red wheat.

Training for the Future

After completing her study at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, Sandra Holl secured an internship at iconic Tartine Bakery under the direction of pastry chef Elisabeth Prueitt and her husband, renowned baker Chad Robertson. Holl cherished the experience and gained a deeper appreciation for ingredients and flavor. “Ancient grains have been a huge trend, as well as local milled flour. People seem want to discover more about the healthy and more flavorful side of pastry,” says Holl, who worked at Tartine from 2003 to 2005.

Before Floriole was established, Holl sold pastries at a space at the Green City Market.

She and her husband, Mathieu Holl, came to Chicago with the intentions of moving on to France, but their lives took a change of course. Sandra Holl started baking pastries and the couple decided to open a space at the Green City Market. “At our first market, we sold out of everything in a couple hours,” she remembers. “We made pastries, cookies and fruit and savory galettes. We build up quite a following week by week. That’s when we decided to jump in and open a bakery.”

Mathieu Holl was born and raised in Paris and grew up with a great appreciation and love for food and pastries. Although Mathieu is not a trained chef, he has an amazing palate and the ability to critique even the most perfect pastry. As Sandra puts it, “He makes me a better baker, even if it makes me crazy sometimes.”