OK, so I'm not a restaurateur, but I am an advocate for celiac awareness and following a gluten free diet. When I heard that the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness was hosting a Gluten Free Showcase Pavilion and holding an educational session at the National Restaurant Association's Show last weekend, I was intrigued as to how restaurants are handling their gluten free guests.
Armed with my notebook and camera, I headed over to McCormick Place ready to get the inside scoop to share with all of you. The educational session lead by Nancy Baker, the Educational Director for the NFCA and was geared towards restaurateurs looking to offer gluten free menus and was titled, "Gluten Free, Easy as ABCDE". With a panel of six experts in the gluten free industry, the NFCA proved how necessary gluten free menus are in restaurants and how to provide them safely and successfully.
Nancy Baker from the NFCA started off the presentation by introducing the foundation and its mission. She explained what celiac disease is and who's eating gluten free. Those would be the people with celiac disease, friends and family of celiacs, people with gluten sensitivities, and explorers wondering if a gluten free diet will make them feel better. Gluten free isn't just a market trend, it's a permanent market shift. With more and more people being diagnosed with celiac disease, they will always be eating gluten free. They will have birthdays, graduations, holiday parties, etc. and will need to have a gluten free destination. Offering one boring gluten free item, poor quality gluten free items, or gluten free meals by omission (a la burger, no bun) will not draw in the gluten free eater and their friends and families. Sorry, but it just won't.
Anne Lee, RD from Schar USA spoke next. I believe she was the "A" in the "ABCDE", but I didn't jot down the specific "A" word. My only guess would be either Awareness or Advocate since she is the leading Registered Dietitian that specializes in gluten free diets. Ms. Lee defined gluten and gave examples of naturally gluten free foods (dairy, fruits and vegetables in their natural state, protein, some grains, fats and oils) and rendered gluten free foods (pasta, breads, crackers, cereal). She stated that 1/8 of a teaspoon of flour causes intestinal damage, that is equivalent to one crouton or a gluten product the size of a pinky nail. Crumbs matter!! She discussed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumers Protection Act which lists 8 common allergens, wheat among them - but not gluten. USDA regulated products (poultry, vegetables, fruits, and eggs) are not included in the law. She explained that the FDA is in the process of updating the gluten free label to include testing statements for gluten in the product, and to have a "20 ppm" standard on gluten free products.
Doug Radi, Vice President of Marketing for Rudi's Organic Bakery continued the conversation with the "B", "Bringing the Supplies". On the supplying end, his business recently joined the gluten free marketplace with the help of the NFCA's Great Program. He threw out statistics that show gluten free as the fastest growing food segment with over $1.3 Billion in 2009, and with significant growth trends of about 20-30% across retail channels. The gluten free market is a small but captive consumer segment. He explained (and I could totally relate to this statistic) that conventional breads sell 11 times greater than baking mixes/frostings. Being able to grab a loaf a bread from the store is a lot easier and quicker than baking a loaf of bread from a baking mix. Rudi's Organic Bakery is rolling out a line of gluten free breads within the next couple of weeks. I sampled it at the show and it was delicious! Another great option for gluten free sandwich bread. I don't see gluten free listed on their website yet, but they have a Facebook page up and running or if you need their gluten free news quicker, follow them on Twitter. His presentation really struck a chord with me as a gluten free consumer, because in my notes, I have a quote from him that is underlined twice and followed with 3 exclamation marks. That would be, "A lettuce wrapped beef patty is NOT a gluten free hamburger." Do you know how many bunless burgers I've eaten in the past 10 years? Nuff said...viva la GF bread!!
Jim McCurley, the Regional Chef for P.F. Chang's China Bistro, followed up the "B" from the buyer's perspective. It took everything I had to restrain myself and not run up to the podium and give him a hug (oh, did I fail to blog about the week I ate at P.F. Chang's twice? And then again a week and a half later? GF Chang's Spicy Chicken, I love you!) He gave a wonderful overview of the commitment P.F. Chang's has to their gluten free diners. P.F. Chang's implements a high level of training their employees, which I can attest to. Every time I've eaten there, my server had all of the answers to my questions immediately and knew their stuff. None of that "let me go ask in the back". There is an on staff dietitian to make sure the menu is safe. Protecting their ingredients is extremely important in their kitchens. They keep the gluten free items separate, have dedicated gluten free work stations, refrigerators, utensils, storage containers, and plates. Gluten free items are stored in red containers and red ramekins are used for table sauces. All gluten free items are served on plates with the P.F. Chang's logo along the edges. Take out items are labeled with gluten free stickers as soon as they are placed in the carry out container. He mentioned that gluten free sales are up 130% since they expanded the menu this past March with the beef items. 1 out of 150 dishes ordered is gluten free. They add items to their gluten free menu because of the outspoken gluten free diners. You gluten free foodies asked for beef items, well you got'em! P.F. Chang's will continue to expand their gluten free menu, so keep on offering your suggestions!
Kay Conley of Savory Moment, Inc. brought us to "C", Cross-Contamination. Savory Moment is a chef prepared frozen meal service. They introduced the gluten free menu due to customer demand, personal satisfaction, and the financial benefit - 3 out of 4 new customers request gluten free meals. Ms. Conley explaining the training process of the staff at her business. Again, using the NFCA's Great Program, they introduced the entire staff to gluten free foods. They went through their kitchen and identified which items contained gluten (soy sauce, stock bases, panko, beer, chipotle in adobo sauce, and BBQ sauce.) They reviewed their recipes to find those that are naturally gluten free and researched how to substitute gluten free items such as wheat free tamari sauce, rice flour, and gluten free pasta. All of the staff tastes the gluten free products so they are able to have confidence in selling them. She spoke of how they have separate utensils, cutting boards, pots, pans, and colanders. They designate a time for baked goods production to prevent airborne gluten particles and they also designate a chef to oversee all gluten free meals. Like P.F. Chang's they also use a different color dish for gluten free items. Everything is clearly marked gluten free in their kitchen. She went on to explain the cleaning procedure and sanitation to prevent cross contamination which can lurk on cooler door handles and even aprons. Her theory and advice for safely providing a gluten free meal/menu is to embrace, educate, and enjoy.
Richard Coppedge of the Culinary Institute of America brought on the "D" with Delicious. As a gluten free baker, cookbook author, and baking instructor/professor, he has fine tuned the art of gluten free baking. He explained that the gluten free diner wants to be part of the crowd, and not always have to stand out by ordering off a special menu. Preparing delicious gluten free items that can be enjoyed by both gluten free diners and non-gluten free diners is important. He talked about how a meal usually begins and ends with gluten, starting with the bread basket and ending the dessert. Using the right gluten flour blend/mixture is essential for a good quality product. He gave tips with working with gluten free flours, such as using carbonated water for yeast breads (only if baking that same day), and increasing the percentage of eggs/egg whites. Even baking times and temperatures need to be adjusted when baking gluten free.
Tom Herndon of the Hipp Kitchen ended the panel discussion with "E", Educate. Tom recently established the Hipp Kitchen, a business that specializes in educating restaurants on providing an excellent dining experience for diners with food allergies. After restaurants can successfully create meals free of gluten, dairy, peanuts, soy, and shellfish he connects them with the "allergenistas"...yep, shout-out to Lisa Cooks Allergen Free! He mentioned that he "stole the word from a women in Chicago doing the same thing." (Afterwards Lisa and I had the opportunity to chat with him and he was happy to finally meet her and said she was an inspiration to him - see, spreading the word DOES make a difference! He was such a nice fella!) In addition to the work he does with restaurants, he also provides allergy free meals for families to enjoy at home.
My favorite part of the talk was how proud the panelists were to introduce gluten free items to the public. Each and every one of the speakers commented on how gluten free customers have expressed their gratitude to them either through a handshake, hug, or even a kiss! The most touching story was told by Robert Coppedge who gave a child his first cookie. A year later he provided a cake recipe to the child's mother and at the age of 3, the boy had his first birthday cake.
The show didn't end there. Afterwards, we headed on over to the Gluten Free Pavilion which featured 32 gluten free vendors! Sadly I don't have any pictures to share, but do gluten free chocolate croissants, cream puffs, eclairs, pizza, or grilled cheese entice you? Check out Lisa Cooks Allergen Free's pictures of the most delicious gluten free food. I had the opportunity to meet Kelly from Celiac Chicks, who also has some great pictures of the event...she also has a wonderful site. She was so sweet!