May 20, 2009

Let's Hear It For the GIRL!!: An interview with gluten free store owner

Here's a GREAT interview that was printed in Sunday's Chicago Tribune. I was so excited to see my girl, Marcie, featured. I frequent her store all the time and just love what she has to offer, both products and advice!

Gluten-free advocate helps celiacs enjoy food again
By John Lendman Tribune reporter
May 17, 2009

She's an activist in the gluten-free community. But more precisely, Marcie Harvey, owner of Lil's Dietary Specialty Shop in Chicago's Beverly neighborhood, is a matchmaker.When people with celiac disease -- those who can't have the protein gluten, found in rye, barley and wheat -- come into her store (2738 W. 111th St., 773-239-0355, lilsdietary.com), she connects them to the proper resources and offers comfort foods they thought they'd never eat again, such as breads, pastas, baking mixes and cereals.

While visiting Harvey at her shop, where the aisles are marked by particular food allergies, a woman came in with her four children, all with celiac disease. Like kids in a gluten-free candy shop, they were all excited to actually pick out their own food. "The kids just want to be like everybody else," said Harvey, who has celiac disease herself. "They want to be able to pack cookies in their lunches."

And the modest shop, of about 770 square feet, is doing quite well. While already offering customers access to dietitians, chefs, social services and support groups, Harvey said she plans to expand the shop and expand her online store.Harvey dished about her shop and what it means to be an activist for those with celiac disease.

Q How did Lil's begin, and what's the mission of the store?

A When my mom passed away during complications with diabetes, I didn't know she was a celiac too. When she passed, I was done. I would go study [about food allergies] every day. [I learned] that when you take care of your body, it works so much better, like feeding a car diesel when that's all it can take. This was my therapy. I now go to a place every day that I love and get so much in return. We're here to feed everybody. We're here to give you staples; if it's out there, we'll find it. It's offering a little convenience.

Q How does one become an activist in the gluten-free community?

A Every product in my store is made in a dedicated company. I frequently call to make sure the ingredients haven't changed and the process hasn't changed. I'm always checking every morning with recalls. And when we go out to dinner, we try to do it in a mob -- about 20 of us or so -- to encourage [restaurants] to offer gluten-free food and keep a safe kitchen. We're always talking to manufacturers about things we'd like to see.

Q What hot-button issues are facing the gluten-free community?

A Labeling. Whether it's chefs or in mainstream [grocery] stores, they'll say they have 'gluten-free' food, but they can't tell you if [the product] is made in a dedicated facility or if there's any cross-contamination. If you go into a restaurant and your server says something is 'gluten-free,' you need the person in the kitchen to confirm it. Education is the hardest thing.

Q What's it like for people newly diagnosed with celiac disease to come in and shop for food?

A They're just devastated. They tend to come in sick and say, 'I'll never eat again.' That's when I whip out the [gluten-free] cookies and say, "Here you go." So, we make care packages: one box of cookies, crackers, pasta and one cereal to try first. I try to encourage the newly diagnosed to write down everything they eat, so if they do get sick, they'll know why.

Q What advances have been made in gluten-free products that you thought you'd never see?

A It's all about portability and instant [foods] now. The fact that we have an organization that will certify companies and restaurants -- that's huge. There's now instant oatmeals, pizza, French toast, raviolis and [the peanut-butter substitute] Sunbutter, made from sunflower seeds. It's normal food.

jlendman@tribune.com

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