Meet the founder
Jorge Flores emigrated from Ecuador to the US as a teenager to study engineering. In his twenties, he returned to school to study finance, then spent ten years crunching numbers behind a desk. Now, he is the founder and head chef of Cassava Chicago, one of Chicago’s most popular dedicated gluten-free eating establishments. How did he, a tie-wearing business valuation consultant with no professional cooking experience come to invent a paradigm shifting approach to gluten-free food?
Well, by accident.
In the early 2000s, Jorge realized he wanted out. He was tired of working for someone else. He was tired of nights spent in hotel rooms far away from friends and family. His back was killing him from sitting in a chair all day. And he wasn’t just frustrated with his job. Through a lifelong fascination with health and nutrition, he’d learned a lot about food and he found himself more and more unwilling to eat most of what he found in grocery stores and restaurants.
He kept thinking back to his childhood in Ecuador, where cooking with whole foods was the norm rather than the exception. He hardly had the time to cook at home, but because he saw no acceptable alternative, he began to make most meals from scratch. And, because he was feeling nostalgic, he started making pão de queijo or pan de yuca, small rolls made with cassava-root flour and cheese popular in his home country.
The cassava rolls were a big hit with his American friends. To Jorge’s surprise, most of them had never even heard of cassava, a staple food in South America, Africa, and South East Asia. He kept working on the rolls, altering the traditional recipe and creating new flavors in his kitchen at home. The positive feedback kept coming in and because neither his back nor his entrepreneurial spirit could take another day behind a desk, in 2010 Jorge started looking for a space to start baking and selling cassava rolls. He found Cassava’s present location at 3338 N. Clark Street and had it renovated, bought a few ovens and secondhand refrigerators, paused briefly to hold his wedding reception in what is now the seating area and, finally, in September 2010, Cassava opened it’s doors.
Customers loved the cassava rolls for their unique texture and flavor and for another unanticipated reason: cassava rolls are inherently gluten-free, making them a favorite of those with celiac disease, wheat allergy, and gluten-intolerance. Upon learning this, Jorge decided make Cassava a dedicated gluten-free facility (because, why not?) and began to consider other ways to serve his customer base.
Again, he thought back to his roots in Ecuador, this time to empanadas, heartier pastries with various fillings, usually made with wheat flour and fried. “Why not make empanadas out of the dough we already use for pão de queijo?” thought Jorge, and, after much trial and error, Cassava’s unique gluten-free empanadas were born.
Today, you won’t catch Jorge at a desk for long. He’s behind the counter at Cassava, making fillings with whole foods ingredients, folding empanadas by hand, and developing new smoothie flavors. Some days he’s driving around Chicago personally delivering frozen orders and other days he is at Chicagoland Whole Foods Market stores, where Cassava products are available in the frozen section. Cassava has grown enormously over the past years, but under Jorge’s leadership, the core values have remained intact: