There was the story of the woman who stumbled and nearly blacked out, crashing her cart into shelves at a store a couple of hours after celebrating her birthday with family over a wonderful spread of food from a restaurants supposedly gluten-free menu.
Then there was the young boy who was hospitalized after consuming a meatball that contained a little milk after being assured by his server that the spaghetti entrée was dairy-free.
And the mother who rarely chooses to take her son out to eat because of the eye-rolls, heavy sighs and frustration employees often show when she asks them to change gloves or to clean a surface to prevent cross-contamination when making the boys sandwich.
For people with food allergies, dining out is no picnic.
I get emails, calls and letters almost weekly from people sharing their horror stories or promoting places that truly cater to their needs. I have done my best to provide whatever information I can when readers ask for places to go to meet their needs, most of them from folks who cannot consume gluten, which seems to be more common these days.
And although I have tried to help, until now, it was a subject I avoided, figuring it was the responsibility of the people with food restrictions to find places to eat and not expect restaurants to cater to them.
Dr. Jeffrey Gladd of GladdMD Integrative Medicine specializes in celiac disease – a condition that damages the lining of the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing parts of food that are important for staying healthy – and the inability to tolerate gluten.
Gladd, whose firm at 4930 Illinois Road sees about 1,200 patients, said one in 133 people have such issues and that it has increased sharply, noting that two generations ago, about one in 1,000 suffered from it.
Most practitioners in my field feel that as much as 30 percent of the population deals with some degree of gluten sensitivity, Gladd said.
The trend has not gone unnoticed by restaurants.
Thomas Parisi, director of operations for the Casa restaurant chain, said his company pretty much had to offer a gluten-free menu, which it added in 2007. The company has since added desserts and recently added gluten-free options on its childrens menu. And, yes, the famous Casa salad is gluten-free if ordered without croutons.
We were getting a lot of requests for gluten-free and vegetarian options then, and now the gluten-free is really in high demand, Parisi said. And if we can meet your need, you are going to come back, so it is good business.
Angie Quinn and her husband, Steve Nagy, are somewhat banking on folks with gluten allergies. Their Pembroke Bakery, which opened last year in the Auer Center for Arts & Culture on Main Street, features homemade gluten-free breads, a large variety of cookies and other sweet baked goods. All of the restaurants breads, most of its soup and all of the desserts are also vegan.
I became a vegan because I developed an intolerance to milk products in the first place, Quinn said, adding that neither her, nor Steve, who has some other food allergies, follow gluten-free diets. When we were selling breads at farmers markets, we had a lot of people asking (for gluten-free items) and we still have them asking for more.
Quinn added that opening in a new space made it easy for them to design a kitchen with cross-contamination in mind, an issue that many existing places struggle with. She estimated that nearly half of the people coming in for just baked items are seeking the gluten-free options. But given how interesting her gluten-free treats are – I have accounted for more than my share of the Mexican chocolate snicker doodles – not all of those folks suffer from celiac disease.
Meeting the need
The place that most of the folks with food allergies I interviewed or who corresponded to queries via social media were quickest to name was Flat Top Grill in Jefferson Pointe. The do-it-yourself stir-fry place allows diners to mark their dishes with clear sticks signifying they have a food intolerance. Those dishes are then prepared in clean woks that havent come in contact with any other food and only water is used during the cooking process.
According to Joe Spell, Flat Top Grills general manager, the company has always tried to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to food allergies.
We get anywhere between 100 to 150 (special requests) per week at this location, Spell said. There has always seemed to have been a demand.
Flat Tops ingredient line is also set up so that high-risk allergy ingredients, such as peanut sauces, are located in a specific area of the food bar to prevent cross-contamination. The three sauces provided specifically for folks with allergy concerns – pineapple vinaigrette, pomegranate-acai and a non-fat spicy lime-basil – are also located together.
All Flat Top locations also have large binders customers can look at which has a comprehensive ingredient list and a list of about 15 dietary restrictions and advice on what customers with those restrictions should or shouldnt consider. These guidelines are also available on the companys website.
At Casa, the gluten-free menu is strictly adhered to and customers are not allowed to mix gluten-free pastas with regular menu items. According to Parisi, even if the customer thinks they will be OK by just changing the pasta, the restaurant is not willing to risk them being affected by cross-contamination. And cross-contamination is the biggest fear for his company.
When we first thought of offering gluten-free pizzas, you would not believe what we had to take into consideration, Parisi said. There was a domino effect. First, the product has to be gluten-free. Then, the utensil you cut with has to be safe, and what you cook it on has to be safe. We even had to put the sauce in individual servings because the ladles we use for regular pizzas might have come into contact with something.
It was quite an undertaking.
All Casa servers have to take a quiz on gluten-free and vegetarian offerings, and must follow a strict procedure that requires them to verbally communicate with the kitchen staff and receive verification from the staff that they are aware anytime a gluten-free order is made.
And that kind of attention to detail is the key for folks who have such issues.
Spreading the word
City resident Rachael Chapulis has been sharing her knowledge of gluten-free dining in Fort Wayne through her blog at glutenfreefortwayne.blogspot.com. She has been impressed with how far the Summit City has advanced in terms of helping people like her, especially in terms of service.
Quite a few local restaurants have gone out of their way in asking questions and working hard at getting things right on their gluten free menus, said Chapulis, who lists her favorite restaurants on her site. Generally places are very helpful. I dont like to get into the medical details of autoimmunity because thats tougher to understand on the fly, but if I say that Im allergic to the buns, or the flour tortillas, or whatever the gluten risk at that restaurant is, many will quickly respond by offering to have one person follow my meal all the way through with a fresh pair of gloves even without me asking.
Those are the places that get a lot of business from me.
The Fort Wayne Celiac Support Group and its leader, Debby Minick, have a list of restaurants to share with members. The group meets on the second Saturday of each month from September to May at Mocha Lounge, 6312 Covington Road, which, yes, makes gluten-free smoothies and carries some gluten-free pastries. The group hosts speakers and tries to share knowledge about the disease. To find out more about the group, you can email Minick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Can’t be too careful
Even though area restaurants seem to be doing well when it comes to meeting the needs of folks with food issues, going out to eat remains a challenge.
For Tara Walulik of Fort Wayne, trips out to eat are few and far between since her sons, Sean, 11, and Ryan, 13, and her husband, Steve, all have life-threatening food allergies: nuts (Sean), milk (Sean and Ryan), eggs (Sean and Ryan), beef (Ryan) and shellfish (Steve).
Many places in the area just say, no, we cannot accommodate you, Tara said.
For her family and others, it just isnt worth the risk.
Even Gladd, an expert in the field, struggled to provide any help when I asked him what his patients should do when dining out.
Dont, he said. I am always hesitant (to suggest restaurants), and I have had many patients told their choice was gluten-free when in fact it was not.