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No waffling, customers approve

Gaüfreé, new confection shop in Irvine, has its roots in owner's childhood trip to Belgium.

October 22, 2013|By Rhea Mahbubani
  • Owner and operator Paul Hortobagyi stands at the community table in his new Gaufree Artisanal Waffle Sandwiches eatery in Irvine.
Owner and operator Paul Hortobagyi stands at the community… (Don Leach / Daily…)

For the first seven years of his life, Paul Hortobagyi never tasted a waffle. Then one day he found himself surrounded by them.

The Fountain Valley resident was strolling through the streets of Liege, Belgium, with his parents when he encountered artisanal street vendors selling waffles at nearly every corner. They would grab a piece of paper, sprinkle the buttery-sweet treasure with powdered sugar and hand it out.

He recalled no fancy stuffing or topping. The confection, in its purest form, was a great indulgence.

"It's like when you give a kid a chocolate for the very first time, and he goes, 'Oooh, now you're talking, Mommy,'" he said, chuckling.

Hortobagyi, a native of Budapest, Hungary, returned to that memory recently when he established Gaüfreé, a waffle sandwich store in Irvine. The 2,400-square-foot venue on Alton Parkway is gussied up in red, yellow and black — symbolic of the Belgian national flag — with a state-of-the-art cappuccino maker and a call for "warriors" to conquer a "monster waffle."

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Chefs work in clear view of customers, sharing the space with McConnell's Fine Ice Creams, Boylan Bottling Co. sodas, Backyard Bees honey and local wines. Everything in the store has a story, Hortobagyi said, right down to the long benches.

Recounting a 1998 trip to Vancouver with his wife, he said, "We went to a restaurant one evening and we couldn't find a seat, but there was space at the community table. I don't remember the gentleman's name, his face or where he was from, but we had a great evening together. We were laughing; tears were rolling down our cheeks and we'd just met! Why not bring people together ... and just have a wonderful time?"

In keeping with the spirit of community, he introduced "Do You Know Me" questionnaires, which have diners answering basic questions about favorite foods, colors, pets and so on, as a conversation starter.

Originally, Hortobagyi planned to establish Gaüfreé in Sherman Oaks, but he decided the move would be difficult for his family — especially his wife, a two-time cancer survivor who has doctors she trusts and a support system in Orange County. The Irvine Company Retail Properties-owned location serves him well, and although the store is still in its infancy, the community's response has been unwavering and overwhelming.

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