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Rosa's sweet dreams

Thursday, June 24, 1999

By Kathleen Ganster

Rosa Riehle is living out one of the great American dreams.

Rosa Riehle and her meringues: a sweet dream come true. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette) 

In January, Riehle began a home-based business that after six months threatens to outgrow her home kitchen. Riehle, of Adams, sells homemade meringues to several restaurants and specialty food stores.

But before we talk business, Riehle, a native of Cuba, tells how she came to the Pittsburgh area.

Riehle, 39, was born in Cuba to Jose and Martha Ramon-Vazquez. When she was 1, and her brother 4, her father left Cuba to escape Castro's rule. A baker, he started a business in Miami and sent for his family. Riehle says they expected to return to Cuba. "My parents thought that we would be in Miami only for a year or two until Castro was overthrown. Obviously, that never happened," she said.

Business in Miami wasn't what the Vazquez family expected, so in 1963, they relocated, this time to Puerto Rico. Super Cake, Jose's bakery, is now the largest bakery in the Caribbean, said Riehle.

Her father comes from a long line of bakers. His grandfather was a baker in Spain, as was his great-grandfather. His father left Spain for Cuba, where he opened a bakery. Jose, who started working in his father's bakery when he was only 12, went on to get his master's degree in business.

Riehle herself didn't work in the family bakery while growing up. "We were never allowed in the bakery because we would get in the way. We grew up with those wonderful smells, though, and all the goodies," she said.

She seemingly never developed an interest in the baking business because her parents said it was hard work. So when it was time to choose a career, she went to college in the United States, majoring in medical technology. Riehle has a bachelor's degree in biology/medical technology from Caldwell College in New Jersey.

Rosa Riehle pipes her meringue batter into its distinctive shape onto a cookie sheet in her Adams kitchen. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette) 

While a student at Caldwell, Riehle met her husband, Mitchell, a West Point cadet. The two married in Puerto Rico in 1982. After their marriage, Mitchell served in the Army for 10 years. Riehle worked in the hospitals, either on the base or in the towns where her husband was stationed.

"The first place we were stationed was in Louisiana. I had a strong Spanish accent and the residents had a strong Cajun accent. It was like another world to me. But everyone at the hospital where I worked was so nice," she said. "They were very good to me there."

Fort Benning, Ga., was the Riehles' next stop and where their son, Mitchell, now 13, was born. Matthew, 10, was born in Hawaii. "After the boys were born, I stopped working outside of the home," said Riehle.

The constant moves began to tire the Riehles, especially with young children, and Mitchell decided to join private industry. The family moved to Youngstown, Ohio, in 1992. "Mitchell found a very good job. It was nice because my brother (Dr. Jorge Vazquez) lives in Pittsburgh, and I wanted to be close to him," she said.

They moved to Evans City in 1993. Two years ago, they built their home in Adams.

Riehle is happy living in the Pittsburgh area. "I don't like the heat in Puerto Rico anymore. I love the change of seasons."

Her parents visit often from Puerto Rico. Riehle's younger brother is a lawyer and works at the bakery, making their parents' frequent trips to Pittsburgh possible.

It was during a visit late last fall that Riehle mentioned to her father that she was thinking of starting some sort of small business. "The boys still need me to be home after school, but I wanted to do something during the day. I didn't want to go back to the labs and have to work shifts or things like that. My father suggested that I bake the meringues," she said. "I decided to give it a try."

After the Christmas rush, Riehle started her business. The Department of Agriculture inspected her kitchen and she received a license to bake at home. She also sent a list of the ingredients and the recipe to them for a nutritional analysis of the meringues, which are sweet cookies made with egg whites and sugar. The analysis is a plus in marketing because meringues have only 9 1/2 calories apiece with no fat.

It's a good thing. Light and airy, it's easy to consume several at one sitting.

Once licensed, Riehle baked a batch of her meringues and packaged them in simple cellophane wrappers with a green ribbon and green and white tags that read "Rosa's Sweets merenguitos." She filled a basket and went to one of her favorite restaurants, The Pines Tavern in Pine..

"I was so nervous and didn't know what I was doing. My husband gave me some great ideas, though," she said.

The Pines became her first customer, along with its retail store, The Northstar Market in Richland. Riehle also sells her cookies to La Famiglia in Wexford, T-Bones Convenience Store in Wexford, ASAP Gift Services in Wexford and the Versatile Gourmet in Butler. All her current customers are in the North Hills, but Riehle hopes to expand to other locations around Pittsburgh.

The meringues have been a big success. "I was overwhelmed in about one month. It has caught me by surprise," said Riehle.

Said Mary Jo Hess of La Famiglia, "They sell very well. We use them in our gift baskets, as well as people just purchasing them by the bag. I also use them on the dessert platters for our catering business."

Hess said people love the idea that they are homemade. "They just melt in your mouth," she said.

La Famiglia will cater the Hartwood Showjumping Festival in late June-early July and Hess hopes to be able to put the meringues on the menu. "I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it wouldn't be too hot or so humid that they melt. They would be perfect. They are beautiful, light and delicious."

Another of Riehle's clients agrees. "The product is unique. The way that it is packaged allows you to see every cookie. They look homemade but very professional and very pretty," said Dana Shaffer, bakery manager at T-Bones .

The whole concept of the Old World bakery style is attractive to her customers, Shaffer said. "Plus, she is just a delight to talk to," she said of Riehle.

Now that the meringues are a proven success, Riehle hopes to add other goods to her line, although she isn't sure exactly what and when. She can hand-make 200 to 250 meringues a day but may soon have to hire help to produce more. Eventually, she hopes to open a small shop, a place where the boys can come after school.

"I'd like to stay at home for a while longer. But I may soon outgrow my kitchen," she said.

Kathleen Ganster is a Hampton-based free-lance writer who kitchen tested the accompanying recipe.

Related Recipes:

Puerto Rican Baked Custard (Flan de leche)

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