Tom Schiano remembers the day a woman and her young daughter came to eat at the Italian restaurant he and his brother Luigi own in Hackettstown. After he greeted them at their table, the woman explained that Kirsten, her little girl, had celiac disease and couldn’t eat wheat. This was about 12 years ago.
“We didn’t know much about it,” Schiano admits. After questioning the mother about the condition, he had his chef make Kirsten a meal she could safely eat.
It might have ended there, but Schiano decided to do some research. The next time the two came in, he was ready for Kirsten. “I put together a little menu just for her so she wouldn’t be embarrassed about having to explain what she could and couldn’t eat every time she came,” he says.
To Schiano, concern for even a young guest merely applied what he and Luigi had been taught by their parents, who opened Mama’s Baci Cafe in 1970, when Tom was eight. Schiano and his brother virtually grew up in Mama’s, which they took over from their parents in 1985. “It’s a family restaurant,” he explains, “and we want people to have a family experience.”
Schiano eventually created a full gluten-free menu and invested more than $40,000 to retrofit his kitchen with separate equipment and work areas to prevent cross-contamination, and to have his kitchen and dining room staffs trained. “If you make regular fried calamari,” says manager Sheri Riva, as an example, “you have to wash your hands and move to a separate prep area and fryer to make gluten-free calamari.”
When a gluten-free customer is seated, a framed gluten-free sign is placed on the table so servers know to bring the appropriate menu. While this might strike some as intrusive—is it something the customer really wants to flaunt?—a sense of community seems to cohere around these little badges of solidarity. “All tables view it as a sign of awareness, and love the fact that we do it,” Schiano says. “At a glance I can see which tables are gluten free, so that as a chef and owner I can converse with them.”
Mama’s earned a Gluten-Free Food Service Training and Management certificate from the Gluten Intolerance Group, which it clearly displays so diners with celiac can eat with confidence. Representatives from the program visit certified restaurants several times a year to ensure compliance and educate new members of the staff.
Across New Jersey, more people with celiac disease or concerns about eating gluten are finding a warmer welcome these days and a greater understanding of their needs in restaurants, bakeries, pizzerias and specialty food stores. According to market research firm Packaged Facts, U.S. sales of gluten-free products increased 28 percent between 2008 and 2012, reaching $4.2 billion last year. By 2017, gluten-free sales in America are predicted to exceed $6.6 billion annually.
An inability to digest gluten, a protein found in wheat and barley, hampers a growing number of people in this country. The leading cause is celiac disease, which doctors estimate afflicts about 1 percent of Americans—or roughly 3 million people. Uncounted others suffer from non-celiac gluten intolerance (see story below).
Food and restaurant professionals are taking note, adding gluten concerns to the list of food allergies of which they have become mindful. A few, like Schiano, make a wholehearted commitment, even without any personal or family experience with gluten intolerance. Not surprisingly, though, many who got into the field early, when public awareness was minimal, were driven to do so out of frustration with finding solutions to their own health issues.
“I had to figure it out myself,” says Kathie Schwarz, whose bakery, Gluten Free Gloriously, in Stirling, has a sign in the window reading, “Peace of Mind Baked Here.”
For many years, peace of mind concerning food was exactly what Schwarz lacked. “Shortly after having my first child, at 32, I started having a lot of muscle pain,” she relates. “During my second pregnancy, food would run right through me. The doctor’s answer was, ‘Stop eating.’ I switched doctors.” After the second birth, her muscle pain became muscle weakness and her gastric troubles worsened. She was tested for lupus, multiple sclerosis and cancers, “but nothing related to celiac.”
A journalist turned stay-at-home mom, Schwarz reluctantly took pain medications, but was eventually reduced to walking with a cane. Finally, in her 40s, a doctor advised her to go off gluten. She substituted soy products, but got no better. She later figured out that she was soy-intolerant. Once she eliminated soy as well as gluten, she says, “my body began to recover. Occasionally the cane comes back out for a day, or I have stomach trouble, but it seems to coincide with when I eat something suspect.”
After eliminating her two culprits, Schwarz began working on making her new diet not just palatable, but enjoyable. “I’m a mom,” she explains, “so I had already given up smoking and drinking…and cursing. There was no way I was going to let my food be taken away from me, too.”
From home, “I made breads, cookies, pizzas, cakes, entrées—anything I was missing eating and wanted to share with others.” After about three years, realizing the demand for her products exceeded her production capacity, Schwarz and her husband, Bob, opened Gluten Free Gloriously in 2009.
“I can’t complain,” she says. “I’m in my 50s, working 12 hours a day, five and six days a week, and luckily doing well.”
Bakeries were among the first food businesses to adopt gluten-free recipes. It makes sense, because baked sweets are among the first thing people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance miss when they adjust their diets. Like Gluten Free Gloriously, Fallon’s Gluten-Free Bakery in Fords and Posh Pop in Red Bank are completely gluten free. Others, like the Montclair Bread Company in Montclair and Little Sweet Cakes in Point Pleasant, bake both ways.
Many kinds of gluten-free flour are available today. Variously made from rice, potatoes, tapioca, sorghum, beans, chick peas, almonds, coconut and amaranth, they lend themselves to different applications. Substances like xanthan gum or guar gum are usually added to compensate for the elasticity otherwise contributed by gluten.
Nicholas Sumas began shopping at Gluten Free Gloriously because his wife and son are allergic to wheat. He did more than become a regular customer. As vice president of Village Super Market, Inc., which owns 26 ShopRite stores in New Jersey, Sumas introduced the bakery’s products in the freezer cases at ShopRites in Garwood, Bernardsville, Chatham, Chester and Stirling.
All New Jersey ShopRites have gluten-free products. Many hold gluten-free cooking demonstrations in May during Celiac Disease Awareness month and offer free samples, and most have in-house registered dieticians. “If you’re newly diagnosed with celiac or a gluten intolerance, or just want to revamp your diet,” Sumas says, the dieticians “offer free nutrition counseling in all of our stores. Our dieticians will talk to you about your diet, walk you around the store and show you items that will work for you.”
Whole Foods markets have responded similarly. “The demand for gluten-free products has increased so significantly that gluten-free items are woven into our full product mix,” says Michael Sinatra, public relations manager for the Whole Foods Northeast Region.
In less populous areas, where supermarket chains are scarce, small stores have begun to fill the gap. In Whitehouse Station, moms Stacy Rossi and Kathy Wagner, whose children are on gluten-free diets, opened Great and Gluten Free in April out of frustration with trekking from store to store to gather everything they needed.
“At the larger stores,” Rossi says, “you still have to read every label to make sure products don’t contain any gluten. With us, you know.” The market offers samples and advice, and will soon organize support groups and host guest speakers as well. In Audubon, Gluten-Free Dynasty takes a similar approach.
While gluten-free shopping has become easier, gluten-free dining can still be a challenge—perhaps more for the kitchen than for the customer. “Our restaurants know they need to take gluten-free diets seriously, not just as a trend,” says Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association, which represents about more than 18,000 eateries of all kinds across the state. “However, our restaurants are typically quite hesitant to label something as gluten free because of the processes of how the food items are made. To be labeled gluten free, it’s not just about ingredients—they have to worry about cross contamination.”
Restaurateurs who fully rise to the challenge, like Tom Schiano, earn enormous customer loyalty and goodwill. He estimates that on Fridays and Saturdays, his busiest nights, about 20 percent of his customers are gluten free, and that 80 percent of them travel more than 20 miles to eat at Mama’s. “People can get salad or steak anywhere,” he says, “but they come to us for penne vodka or chicken Alfredo, things they normally can’t get without gluten. And we take pride in the fact that our gluten-free dishes are just as good as the dishes on the regular menu.”
New Jersey restaurants increasingly are offering gluten-free options or a separate gluten-free menu. At A Mano in Ridgewood, gluten-free pizzas, made from a blend of rice, corn, potato and soy flours milled in Italy, are baked in a dedicated wood-burning oven. In East Rutherford, Park and Orchard uses separate pots and water to prepare its gluten-free pastas. “We want to be a place where everyone can eat,” says owner Buddy Gebhardt. “We have people who are regulars because they love our food and know we’re careful.” Read our recommendations for New Jersey’s best bakeries, markets, pizzerias and restaurants for the gluten-free foodie.
Chains like Elevation Burger, P.F. Chang’s and Bonefish Grill feature gluten-free dishes, and even Domino’s offers gluten-free pizza crust.
It’s a change worth celebrating. To propose the ideal toast, just raise a frosty mug of craft-brewed, gluten-free beer. In fact, you can do just that at Hailey’s Harp and Pub in Metuchen, Molly Maguires in Clark, Texas Arizona Bar & Grill in Hoboken and the Pour House in Westmont, among many other forward-thinking places. They all carry Redbridge, a moderately hopped, gluten-free lager made by Anheuser-Busch from sorghum rather than barley or wheat. It’s also sold at many New Jersey liquor stores.
Hunterdon Brewing Company, which bills itself as “New Jersey’s number 1 craft beer and spirits distributor,” carries 10 varieties of gluten-free beer from four different makers. In 2012, Hunterdon distributed gluten-free beers to more than 400 New Jersey businesses, up from about 100 in 2011. One New Jersey home brewer, Brian Kulbacki, hopes to create a brick-and-mortar gluten-free brewery this fall. It would be New Jersey’s first. Read the story on this gluten-free brewery here.
So raise a glass. It’s a good time to be gluten free in the Garden State.