More restaurants, grocers, food makers jump on gluten-free bandwagon

Industry is catering to people with celiac disease.

Cassie Paullin is a gluten-free trailblazer of sorts. The wellness coordinator for the 18-store Heinen’s supermarket chain has fought the last 10 years to make gluten-free items and education available in the grocer’s locations in Ohio and Illinois.

“I just saw a need with my customers in my store,” Ms. Paullin said. She remembers one of her first customers was a mother of two teenagers who had just been diagnosed with celiac disease — a disease that damages the small intestine and is triggered by eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Ms. Paullin spent four hours casing the store with the woman, educating her on its gluten-free products.

As the ranks of people diagnosed with celiac disease has risen dramatically in recent years, so, too, has the interest of food producers, retailers and restaurants in Northeast Ohio in meeting the needs of customers who must adhere to gluten-free diets.

Just last month, J.M. Smucker Co. in Orrville completed for an undisclosed price the acquisition of Enray Inc., a company in Livermore, Calif., that sells gluten-free pastas, grains and cookies under the truRoots brand. Maribeth Burns, vice president of corporate communications for Smucker, said Smucker plans to use the new products as a launching platform for what it recognizes as a rapidly growing gluten-free market.

Smucker is not the only company bulking up its supply of gluten-free products. Pierre’s Ice Cream Co. in Cleveland offers 24 celiac-friendly flavors of ice cream in addition to its gluten-free frozen yogurt and sorbet offerings. Two months ago, Pierre’s introduced a new gluten-free treat for the summer, its “¡Hola Fruta!” fruit bars, said Laura Hindulak, vice president of marketing.

“We feel everyone deserves a treat, so Pierre’s is excited to offer so many options for its ice cream fans,” she said.

At Heinen’s, Ms. Paullin remains an advocate for her customers who require gluten-free diets.

Today, any customer can call and schedule a tour with a wellness consultant at their closest Heinen’s location. Although the grocer’s marketing department designates each mainstream manufacturer’s gluten-free products with a brown gluten-free sticker and Heinen’s stores feature sections of exclusively gluten-free items, the tours teach shoppers how to make balanced meals from the hundreds of products offered.

“It really puts them at ease, because they think their whole life has changed,” Ms. Paullin said.

Removing the guesswork

From breads and medicine capsules to the saliva-activated glue on an envelope, gluten can be found in everything that requires binding. Its presence can make life hard for the one in 133 Americans who is affected by celiac disease. For those individuals, the constant intake of the protein can result in a range of 200 symptoms, from common digestive problems to the more serious gall bladder malfunction and the early onset of osteoporosis, said Hillary Kane, communication director of the Celiac Disease Foundation.

Though the foundation estimates that more than eight out of 10 celiac sufferers remain undiagnosed, awareness of the disease is growing. Local restaurateurs are responding by offering more gluten-free creations on their menus.

“Vegetarianism and veganism is a choice,” said Eric Williams, owner and chef of Momocho at 1835 Fulton Road in Cleveland and El Carnicero at 16918 Detroit Ave. in Lakewood. “But celiac is a disease. They don’t have a choice.”

Mr. Williams said his staff spent three or four days researching each individual ingredient for every item on the menu, deciding if it was gluten-free. It was a tedious process, because certain brands or styles of an ingredient are gluten-free while others are not, he said. For example, while yellow mustard and regular vinegar are celiac- friendly, whole grain mustard and malt vinegar are not.

“We tried to take all the guesswork out of the customer’s experience and have them enjoy themselves,” he said.

“We’re in the business of making people happy,” Mr. Williams said. “If that means taking a few extra days of researching where my soy sauce and mustards come from, so be it.”

(Click here to watch a video of Mr. Williams preparing gluten-free dishes.)

Restaurants with ingredients from natural sources prove to be the most reliable sources for gluten-free meals. At Spice Kitchen & Bar, 5800 Detroit Ave. in Cleveland, owner and chef Ben Bebenroth said he creates simple, flavorful dishes with fresh ingredients from farmers’ markets or his suburban and urban gardens.

“There’s really no guessing game,” Mr. Bebenroth said. “We don’t hide fillers and things like that in there.”

Like Mr. Williams, Mr. Bebenroth wants customers with special dietary needs to feel special, not a burden. However, he has an ulterior motive to producing dishes with local, fresh, gluten-free products. He wants to take business away from industrial agriculture and put that money back into community farms so he knows exactly from where his crops are coming,

“Chefs have more control over your health than a doctor does,” Mr. Bebenroth said.

Touchy subject

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration slowly is introducing mandates regarding gluten, including an Aug. 14 stipulation that to bear a gluten-free label an item must have less than 20 parts per million of gluten. However, the power and enforcement is in the hands of the chefs and manufacturers.

Although verifying ingredients and their origins is important to keeping a celiac-friendly meal gluten-free, food suppliers, processors and handlers also must contend with cross-contamination and take precautions against it.

The Celiac Disease Foundation’s Ms. Kane said if the cookware used to make a gluten-free item also comes into contact with gluten throughout the day, the ongoing contamination could bring the gluten levels up high enough to irritate a person suffering from celiac disease.

For Mr. Williams’ staff, it is common knowledge which fryer is used to make gluten-free dishes, and gluten-free sauces are made on a designated day, so that they’re not next to a gluten sauce on the stovetop. Mr. Williams’ two Tex-Mex restaurants even offer a wine list of vino aged in celiac-friendly cast iron, free of gluten contaminants.

Spice Kitchen’s Mr. Bebenroth said he treats gluten contamination as seriously as protein contamination associated with meats, and keeps the products separate by using different preparation stations.

The practices implemented to prevent cross-contamination at a restaurant are no different than at the deli counter at Heinen’s, which offers specialty gluten-free deli meats. But, if the butcher didn’t designate a shaver for the gluten-free meat, the specialty product would be for naught, Ms. Paullin said.

Pierre’s also understands the severity of the problems cross-contamination can create. It produces an assortment of regular and gluten-free frozen treats, all in the same plant, but keeps the gluten-free products pure through carefully planned and executed production schedules and a meticulously cleaned production space, Ms. Hindulak said.

“This becomes a challenging puzzle to piece together, especially during the busy summer selling season,” she said.

As another layer of protection, Pierre’s certifies its gluten-free ingredients and their producers by putting each through a thorough evaluation process.

Spread the word

Education is an important tool to protect against cross-contamination as well. Employees at the Pierre’s plant are trained in the dangers of cross-contamination and in verification procedures for the ingredients in each recipe, Ms. Hindulak said.

Education also is key at the Aladdin’s Eatery chain of restaurants, based in Lakewood.

The chain offers more than 40 different gluten-free Lebanese dishes in five states. Since 2010, employees at the 30 Aladdin’s locations have undergone mandatory training in accommodating gluten-free customers, said Jamie Samaha, executive assistant to Aladdin’s president and CEO Fady Chamoun. The classes include a training module for new hires, three-hour classes two times a month through the corporate office and a “serve safe” class through the local board of health.


By Laura Shaub, Crains Cleveland