You’ve no doubt noticed more and more “gluten free” mentions on food labels in recent years. Now local restaurateurs and retailers are climbing aboard the trend, recognizing the burgeoning numbers of consumers who can’t properly absorb the protein commonly found in wheat and other grains.
Barbara Benson, president of the Traverse Area Gluten Free Support Group, is one of an estimated three million Americans diagnosed with celiac disease. Eating anything with gluten damages her small intestine and interferes with the absorption of nutrients from food. The only treatment is to eliminate gluten from her diet, which she says “poses challenges” when eating at home and dining out.
“The list of foods with gluten can be surprising,” Benson says. “Spices, ice cream, chocolate, frozen or canned vegetables, and orange juice all can use wheat for filler.”
But now, more and more businesses are making changes to accommodate people like Benson; and it’s big business. According to a study by the group Market Research, gluten free foods are expected to bring in $5 billion in sales by 2015.
Red Mesa Grill in TC has been providing gluten free enchiladas and fajitas to its customers for more than two years.
“It’s been a big hit,” says restaurant manager Bert Baker. “A lot of regulars come in and ask for the ‘celiac menu.’ Regulars rave about it.”
Servers are also able to hit a “celiac” button on the restaurant’s computer system to alert the kitchen staff about special preparations. Baker also says his chefs are trained on how to make gluten free items, to prevent cross-contamination - which is always a concern of Benson’s.
Nick Boudjalis, owner of Boone’s Long Lake Inn, says his restaurant offers about three dozen gluten free items. He says it’s important to give people that option, so they’ll feel “confident” in his dining room.
“The service industry is about listening to our guests and their requests,” he says. “More and more people were requesting gluten free foods.”
An upcoming menu revision at Boone’s will add icons next to gluten free foods so celiac patients can easily see what they can and can’t eat.
Jason Thibodeau, owner of Om Café, has committed to the gluten free movement in a giant way, nothing that 90 percent of his menu items are gluten free or can be made gluten free upon request. The demand for it, Thibodeau says, “increases almost exponentially” every year.
“There has never been a time like today where people are so aware and conscious of what they are putting in their body. It’s a great time to offer tasty healthy food for everyone,” he explains.
But it’s not only restaurants that are going gluten free. Stores like Edson Farms and Oryana Natural Foods Market are also catering to celiac patients. Oryana’s Sandi McArthur says the store has the largest variety of gluten free products in northwest Michigan, with hundreds of products throughout the store marked with red labels, making them easy to find.
She echoes Thibodeau’s assessment of rapid growth, noting an increase in gluten free sales at Oryana each of the past five years.