There’s a new pudding in town, and no it’s not the panna cotta trend — you haven’t partied until you’ve tasted the Cuban flan from What The Flan! Sink a spoon into the luxuriously rich and creamy texture, and savor the infused flavors of cinnamon and lemon, sometimes with a bold twist of coconut or espresso. It’s the delight of Terely Harrell, an entrepreneur who launched her first food business later in life, using a beloved family recipe that literally escaped communism. In San Francisco, there are plenty of restaurants flipping Mexican and Spanish flan, but this legendary flan specifically splashes down with a taste of Cuba in the Bay.
Originally from Cuba, Harrell says her family left on the last legal flight in 1970, when she was five years old. Officials asked her parents to sign papers that they would never return. “They stripped you of everything. Jewelry. My mother’s wedding ring,” Harrell says. “We literally left with the clothes on our back.” They landed with family in Miami and eventually moved to California. Harrell married young at age 21, to a pastor — Fred Harrell of City Church SF. She worked in education before having four kids, John Mark, Victoria, Lucas, and Lunden. It’s a family that loves to eat: Terely and Fred were regulars at Jardiniere, even featured in the SF Chronicle when the restaurant closed. Lucas is now a chef, cooking at Petit Crenn and Coi in SF, and Francie and Little Prince in NYC.
The flan was the family tradition that went to every barbecue and picnic, and they never brought home leftovers. Even fleeing Cuba, Terely’s mother didn’t need to pack a cookbook to bring the family recipe, which she had memorized by heart. Terely made it for the first time in middle school and won a baking contest, and her mother had to repeat it again when Terely was a newlywed. For years, Terely only made it for friends and family, who no matter the occasion, always begged, “Are you making the flan? Are you bringing the flan?” Even though she considers herself an introvert, the flan took on the life of the party.
“I’m not your typical Cuban girl … ” Terely disclaims. “But when it comes to parties, I just light up. I love gathering, hosting, and introducing people. So Cuban food was an opportunity to bring people into our home and introduce them to my culture.”
Once her kids left the nest, Terely started catering a few weddings around 2015, and then whispering to herself, “my flan’s going to be in grocery stores.” Not knowing where to start, she threw up a post on Nextdoor and hired a graphic designer to help develop the packaging and her #flantastic brand. She sent out a few emails and heard crickets, then summoned the courage to pound the pavement. The good folks at Bi-Rite Market were the first to officially put What The Flan! on shelves in 2021, and several other boutique markets followed.
Terely simmers everything herself, using her mama’s recipe, out of a shared kitchen in the Mission. It’s specifically Cuban flan, which is a distinct style, she explains. The number one question Cubans ask is whether it’s “too eggy,” and Terely says absolutely not, “I don’t want sweet scrambled eggs.” She uses fewer eggs, only the yolks, and doesn’t whisk in too much air, so it’s a looser set and luxuriously rich and smooth. The classic flavor combo is cinnamon sticks and lemon zest, and she steeps the custard overnight to let it fully infuse. She also does fun twists, including coconut, espresso, lavender honey, and pumpkin spice. Cubans go straight for the guava and cheese — in Cuba, guava paste and cream cheese are a treat after dinner, and in Miami, the same flavors fold into pasteles. All of the flans come in either individual jars or party pans. (Pro tip: Always flip the flan after you arrive at the party. Thinking back to her catering days, Terely doesn’t want to talk about how many flans have slid around in her car.)
Her goal is to grow and eventually sell the brand, and see little jars of flan on grocery store shelves across the country. Terely never expected to become a food entrepreneur in her fifties, and she gets emotional thinking about the women she grew up with. “Most of the time, Latinas have their life dictated to them — this is what you’re going to do,” Terely says. But chatting with her friends now, “I just want Latina women to know that if I can do it, they can do it. Because there’s so much talent. There are so many dreams.”
What The Flan! is on shelves at Bi-Rite, Luke’s Local, Tahona Mercado, and the Market in San Francisco. And the flan is ready to party and available for neighborhood pickup across the Bay Area through Pastel.