| 2015 Q1 | story by ANNE BROCKHOFF | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG |
There was a time when a special order at a restaurant meant salad dressing on the side or no pickles. These days, diners are just as likely to request meals that accommodate their food allergies and sensitivities.
Are Lawrence restaurants up to the challenge?
Absolutely, restaurant owners and chefs say. Locally owned eateries are adding alternatives and backing up their promises with improved techniques, systems and training to better serve customers with special dietary needs.
“We want people with dietary restrictions and preferences to be comfortable and to be able to navigate their meal stress-free,” said T.K. Peterson, the chef-owner of Merchants Pub & Plate at 8th and Massachusetts Street.
That attitude makes sense, given the numbers. An estimated 15 million Americans suffer from food allergies, according to the nonprofit group Food Allergy Research & Education. As many as three million may have celiac disease, which the Celiac Disease Foundation calls one of the world’s most prevalent genetic autoimmune conditions, while another 18 million may suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Even more, adults are reducing their gluten intake by choice. A 2013 NPD Research poll found diners request 200 million gluten-free meals annually. That doesn’t even count folks with other sensitivities, like a dairy intolerance or those living a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.
While some critics dismiss consumer fascination with these diets as a fad – Jimmy Kimmel famously lampooned clueless gluten-free adherents in a 2014 episode – demand isn’t likely to diminish, local chefs say.
“People are not only conscious of where their food is sourced and how vegetables and things are grown, but also very conscious of what they’re putting into their bodies and how their bodies react to it,” Peterson said. “I don’t think it’s a trend. I think it’s part of the evolution of the modern day diner.”
Peterson embraced the shift when he took over the restaurant in the former Merchants National Bank building in 2013. He revamped the 230-seat space to create what he calls a comfortable, affordable atmosphere.
Merchants is often described as a gastropub, thanks to its equal commitment to beer – there are 30 on tap – and seasonal farmhouse fare. However, Peterson is also dedicated to welcoming those whose health limits what they eat, not because he himself has any restrictions, but because he understands how frustrating they are for those who do.
“We’ve been around it so many times when eating out with friends,” Peterson said. “It can be a buzz kill for someone with a dietary restriction—whether it’s vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free or an allergy—to have to ask the server a million questions.”
About three-quarters of the Merchants menu is or can be prepared gluten-free, dairy-free or vegan. Each is flagged to immediately provide as much information as possible; guests can then follow-up with specific questions.
Marking the sticky chicken lettuce wraps with GF/DF shows they’re already both gluten- and dairy-free. The addition of a + indicates items like the bourbon-glazed pork tenderloin and bison Bolognese can easily be made so by subbing sides or pasta. Those made without any animal products, such as the strawberry shortcake, are marked V for vegan.
Figuring all that out does take experimentation and flexibility, Peterson admits. He’s developed an arsenal of alternative ingredients such as arrowroot powder, rice flour, potato starch and nutritional yeast and become adept at mimicking the textures and richness delivered by dairy products, eggs and wheat flour.
Most recipes are prepared without dietary triggers, or made in such a way that it’s easy to swap or omit elements. One thing never changes though—fresh, quality ingredients.
“It has everything to do with quality ingredients,” Peterson said. “If you’re going to substitute with olive oil, you have to substitute with really good olive oil.”
It’s not enough for a dish to be “-free,” however. It has to be delicious. Peterson credits his wife, Emily Peterson, with holding him to that standard. The couple became the restaurant’s sole owners last year.
“When I’m writing the menu, she’ll ask ‘Yes, but are you able to make that gluten-free?’” he said. “If I say yes, then she asks how. She constantly challenges me.”
In the end, some things simply don’t translate, like the mac & cheesemonger, made with cavatelli pasta and cheddar, parmesan and gruyere cheeses, on the menu in February. Serving dishes like that means there is potential for cross-contamination. Preventing it requires vigilance and careful organization, Peterson says.
One of the kitchen’s two fryers is dedicated to gluten-free foods, as are certain cutting boards and a section of the grill used to toast GF buns. Ongoing training keeps the restaurant’s 45-person staff current on options, procedures and facilitates better communication. It’s a constant process, but one that’s well worth the effort, Peterson says.
“Our expectation is that we will accommodate anybody with a dietary restriction,” he said. “The kitchen isn’t going to balk at anything.”
The payoff for that kind of attitude? Repeat business, often from larger groups, said Neeley Carlson, Vice President of Education and Training for the Kansas Restaurant & Hospitality Association.
“If we’re calling to find an allergy-free meal, it’s not a decision for one person with an allergy,” says Carlson, whose own family has restrictions. “It’s a decision for four of us, or, if friends are with us, eight.”
When someone gets it right – “We’re very loyal customers,” she said.
Subarna Bhattachan and his business partner Alejandro Lule have worked hard to earn such a following at Zen Zero, La Parilla and Genovese in downtown Lawrence, mostly by emphasizing customer communication.
Many customers call or email ahead of time to discuss the menu and kitchen procedures, or speak with their server or the chef once they arrive—that’s essential, since their menus generally don’t address such issues. Shellfish and peanut allergies are the most frequent concerns, although there has also been a recent rise in the number of gluten-free queries, Bhattachan says.
To accommodate them, the restaurants’ cooks switch to fresh utensils, cookware and disposable gloves and carefully track each order as it moves through their kitchen. They also eschew problematic ingredients when they can, Bhattachan says.
For example, Zen Zero uses soybean-based vegetable oil instead of the peanut oil more common in Southeast Asian-style cooking. If someone is sensitive to soy, the restaurant swaps it for olive oil. Rice or rice noodles can easily stand in for noodles containing wheat.
La Parilla, which offers an eclectic mix of Mexican, South American and Central American fare, serves both all-corn and wheat tortillas. Genovese’s gluten-free gnocchi is made with potato starch instead of flour and is kept separate from the Italian restaurant’s other traditional handmade pastas.
The restaurants together have 70 employees; all are trained to talk concerned customers through these and other options, Bhattachan says. New hires spend their first few weeks studying the menu, tasting and examining each dish’s preparation and presentation. They must then pass a kitchen test before becoming permanent.
Managers and chefs—each restaurant has its own, and many are long-time employees—do a line-up of specials before shifts, and weekly meetings create opportunities for additional training, reminders and policy reinforcement.
It’s not easy, Bhattachan said, but it’s essential to creating positive experiences and building repeat business.
“If we can take care of our customers and their needs, hopefully they’ll come back,” he said. “That’s the whole part of being in the food service industry. Sometimes you bend over backwards to please customers.”
Peterson and Bhattachan aren’t the only Lawrence restaurateurs with that attitude. Online resources such as the Facebook community Gluten-Free Lawrence, Yelp.com and findmeglutenfree.com list dozens of eateries with GF offerings. Many more accommodate other needs as well.
They range from Wheat State Pizza and Rudy’s Pizza, both of which offer gluten-free crusts and vegan cheese, to Billy Vanilly Cupcakes, which has vegan and gluten-free offerings. Some, including the 23rd Street Brewery have a separate gluten-free menu, while Henry T’s and others note availability on their main menus.
While many local restaurants have their own procedures in place, industry organizations have also developed training programs including the National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe Allergens online course and the Gluten Intolerance Group’s Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program.
Still, people should be aware that providing truly safe food is difficult, Carlson cautions.
“There’s no way a restaurant can guarantee an allergen-free meal,” Carlson said. “They have processes in place to help minimize those risks, but if you have a high allergy response to anything, eating out is always a risk.”
That’s why it’s essential for patrons to fully disclose and discuss any health concerns with a restaurants’ staff, owners say. That’s becoming easier, thanks to the proliferation of consumer-focused websites, apps and dining cards, which are used to communicate allergies and sensitivities.
Restaurants increasingly ask guests to distinguish between medically necessary requests for conditions like an allergy or celiac disease and dietary preferences. Among them is Ramen Bowls, which substitutes rice noodles for wheat-based types in gluten-free orders and will even cook them in a fresh pot of water if gluten presents a health risk.
Other restaurants hedge their bets by describing their offerings as gluten-sensitive, as Bigg’s BBQ does. Some caution that they may not be able to prevent is cross-contamination. That’s the case at The Oread Hotel’s Five 21 and Bird Dog Bar restaurants, whose menus carry this clarification: “GF indicates gluten-free item. Fried items may come into contact with gluten.”
That’s one reason Ted Nguyen, owner of Ted’s Taphouse, eliminated wheat flour and ready-made foods from his kitchen—it simply makes cooking gluten-free easier. Nguyen grew up in Lawrence, and his family’s operated restaurants downtown since 1981. Angler’s Seafood, The Orient and Wild Pho have all occupied their spot at 10th and Massachusetts streets over the years.
Nguyen’s method of brining and pressure-frying gluten-free chicken became the foundation for Oh Boy! Chicken, which his mother, Nancy Nguyen operated in the street front location as her son launched Ted’s Taphouse in an adjacent space at the rear.
When she retired, Nguyen expanded the Taphouse to take over the entire 120-seat operation. The fried chicken stayed put on the menu, stayed gluten-free and has been joined by a host of other GF items.
“It’s very difficult to address every single allergy, but because I have this down so well, we concentrate on gluten-free,” Nguyen said, who counts about 70 percent of his menu as gluten-free. “It’s a nice feeling to see people who have a serious gluten allergy really enjoy themselves and feel like a normal person.”
High quality gluten-free foods purchased from restaurant vendors tend to be pricier than their traditional counterparts, so Nguyen holds costs down by making them himself. It’s also the best way to control what goes into his food, since food manufacturers and distributors sometimes change ingredients and brands.
“Everything we make here is by hand, and that allows us to really control that part of it,” says Nguyen, whose restaurant prepares everything from fried chicken and sides to spice mixes and desserts from scratch.
Ted’s Taphouse will celebrate its first anniversary in March, and Nguyen is looking forward to expanding both its gluten-free offerings and its current staff of eight.
“I’m proud of the fact my mom started down here, and that now I’m able to pick up the ball,” Nguyen said. “Hopefully I’ll be here for another 30 or 40 years.”