Café Flo is the work of two creative sisters
Six months ago, Café Flo became a dream come true for Mary Gardner, who co-owns the quaint little coffee shop with her sister Katie and named it after their mother Florence.
Mary is widely known locally for her involvement in the arts. For years she was a driving force behind the “Annies,” otherwise known as the Chico Arts Awards, and a member of the city’s Arts Commission. She currently serves as art projects coordinator for the city of Chico.
The oldest of nine children in her Irish Catholic family, Mary spent her early years in San Francisco, where her parents were part of the Beat scene in the early ‘50s. Her father Lew majored in theater and writing at San Francisco State, and her mother taught English at a Catholic high school. Mary’s earliest memories were of the café society in North Beach, where jazz, chess, poetry and intense political conversations went on into the wee hours, while she tried desperately to stay awake and listen.
This atmosphere of art and intellectual discussions continued at their home. With Lew living an artist’s life, finances were slim, but Florence saw to it that the children had an abundance of books, music, museums and intellectual stimulation.
Mary was the first to arrive here, in 1980 to attend Chico State University, and she never left. Over time, her parents and six of her siblings migrated here as well.
Katie, Gardner child No. 6, grew up in Sonoma County, where she developed an appreciation of fresh food, wine and gardens. Although she earned a degree in anthropology from UC Berkeley, she worked many years in the food industry in Sonoma County before moving to Chico three years ago. Eighteen months later the sisters, along with good friend Thomasin Saxe, resurrected Mary’s café dream and began the planning in earnest.
True to the Gardners’ love of art, the first impression Café Flo gives is of color. The building’s facade is painted periwinkle blue. The colorful mosaic around the front door, Mary says, “is junk made beautiful and tells the story of the décor you’ll find inside.”
Mary’s artistic talent is reflected in the flamboyant interior color scheme of purple, lime and “Buono Gusta” orange that is mirrored in like-colored shades on an octopus-armed floor lamp. Formica tables with a ‘50s boomerang design are surrounded by gently used leather armchairs, giving the sense that the café has been open for quite a while. A raised counter accommodates a few seats of bright yellow leather, inviting patrons to lean back and watch over the preparation of their lunches. Large windows let in light and the outside sidewalk scene.
The menu reflects Katie Gardner’s expertise as food planner and cook. On one visit I sampled cream of broccoli soup made with caramelized onions in a sour-cream base and infused with the juice and zest of fresh lemons. On another, I had a salad of mixed greens and asparagus spears with a creamy dill dressing.
Inventive sandwiches seem to be a trademark of the café. The Herbed Natural Cream Cheese and Artichoke sandwich is redolent of garlic, thyme and parsley, while the Wasabi Lime Tuna speaks for itself. I could not resist the Roasted Red Pepper Hummus, a marvel of chick peas, Tahini, tomato paste and roasted red peppers with a splash of balsamic vinegar combining sweet and piquant flavors into a seamless union.
Raegan Roach does all the baking. She and Mary worked together 18 years ago at Kramore Inn, and she continues to bake with a fresh and inventive twist. Try her “Lemon-Ginger Pound” cake studded with bits of candied ginger and drizzled with a lemon glaze: It’s dense, moist and intense. And her signature “Hostess Flo Cakes,” real chocolate cakes filled with marshmallow cream and overlaid with a film of bittersweet chocolate icing, are cupcakes for grown-ups!
The Gardner sisters have a good start on "creating a place where people can gather to feed their bodies while nurturing their minds and spirits." Café Flo is a neighborhood café comfortable enough to be your own kitchen. The food is not pretentious or precious, but rather fresh, inventive and down to earth.