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Berrista Cafe: The coffee shop goes cutting-edge

Berrista Cafe: The coffee shop goes cutting-edge

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A foodservice operation can’t be much more in synch with forward-looking nutritional thinking than Chicago’s new Berrista Cafe. That’s where proprietor and culinary wizard Homaro Cantu is transforming traditional coffee shop fare for people who want to lose weight and/or eat better without giving up their favorite treats. Who wouldn’t go to a place where a Michelin-starred chef makes donuts that are good for you, taste exactly like the ones that aren’t—and cost just $1?

Cantu does it by removing sugar and its caloric load from his food, relying on the Miracle Berry—more about that later—to make each item taste sweet. But he doesn’t have to convince his customers that sugar-free foods are the way to go. Plenty of well-credentialed experts are doing that for him via the so-called “war on sugar,” whose primary argument is that while salt and fat are bad, excess sugar is worse.

Berrista’s mid-December opening occurred just weeks after the release of a major new study from high-powered research group SugarScience. Its findings could create even more fans for Cantu’s hold-the-sugar approach.

SugarScience describes itself as the “authoritative source for evidence-based, scientific information about sugar and its impact on health.” Members say the group isn’t anti-sugar per se, but is instead concerned about the medical effects of excess sugar consumption.

Its meta-analysis of 8,000 studies examined the health effects of added sugar. The verdict: there are strong links between sugar and chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and liver disease. Now the group’s mission is to “take this information out of medical journals and make it available to the public, to help individuals and communities make healthy choices.”

The goal is to move consumers from awareness to action. "People are becoming literate about the toxic effects of sugar," SugarScience’s Dean Schillinger says, "and have more understanding of the idea that high doses are bad for one's health." What’s needed, he told the Chicago Tribune, is to make the healthier choice the easier choice.

Which is exactly what Cantu is doing at Berrista Cafe. His recipes ditch the sugar while delivering the full flavor and mouthfeel customers crave in donuts, scones and many more items both savory and sweet.

There is no artificial sugar, either. Instead, he relies on the “Miracle Berry” to produce the flavor sensations associated with sugar.

The Miracle Berry—a real thing—makes sour and bitter foods taste sweet. Cantu has used it before at his Chicago fine dining restaurants, including ING and Moto. He’s also the author of the Miracle Berry Diet Cookbook.

There are plenty of practical applications for the Miracle Berry, with Cantu himself using it to make meals more palatable for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. It hasn’t caught on because this West African fruit is very slow-growing and hence costly to buy from the single U.S. supplier. It’s also tricky to work with. The “miracle” of the Miracle Berry is that it temporarily tricks an eater’s taste buds into perceiving less-palatable foods as sweet. The customer’s tongue must be primed with a bit of Miracle Berry in powder, pill or other delivery form before he or she begins to eat. You may need culinary chops like Cantu’s if you want to incorporate the Miracle Berry into your operation’s food:

But that won’t be a problem at Berrista. At Moto, a 16-course tasting menu of Cantu’s futuristic fare costs $175. Berrista customers enjoy his food and the Miracle Berry effect at a mass-market price point. That may be the key breakthrough of this concept, which features high-end coffee plus a short list of sandwiches and flatbreads in addition to sugarless pastries.

So could this concept expand or even be franchised one day? We doubt that Starbucks is worried that thousands of Berrista units will appear around the country over the next few years. But Berrista does provide a similar high-end coffee experience and its food and pastry offerings are more healthful than those sold at Starbucks, so stay tuned.

The ever-inventive Cantu has had several ideas over the years that seem destined to find a much larger audience than that of just a single restaurant. But so far he has yet to strike gold. Keep your eye on Berrista—it could be the breakout concept that hits big for this ingenious chef.

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