At that time, the first step Buss took to better serve diners with food allergies was to prepare an allergy information sheet for the restaurant on soy, nuts, and wheat. Similarly, at Native Foods a concentrated effort has gone into compiling ingredient lists of each component of every menu item, including dressings and sauces, and keeping these lists on hand and easily accessible. At the register, where orders are taken, an allergy alert button is displayed on screen, allowing the kitchen to receive messages from the cashier about specific needs attached to an order. This system of easy, instantaneous communication lowers the risk of mistakes and unintentional cross-contamination that can occur when equipment like cutting boards, saucepans, or spoons are shared.

In serving customers with allergies, Buss stresses the importance of transparency, offering options, and providing as much information as possible. “The key thing is to be 100 percent open and honest,” Buss says. “We never try to do something. Either we can do it and have done it before or we can’t.” He also emphasizes that while Native Foods strives to provide options that are allergen-free within the ability of the kitchen (which, incidentally, is very thorough: Native Foods sterilizes all utensils and equipment, for example, and never keeps allergens such as peanuts out in the open), the ultimate responsibility is up to the customer, “It’s always up to the guest — we provide the information and it’s up to the guest to decide,” he says.

Buss is uncertain why food allergies started popping up on restaurant radars. He’s noticed more families especially coming into Native Foods because parents are looking for a safe place to take their children out. Whether or not more children have food allergies, he says, parents certainly seem to be more aware of the problem, or more sensitive to potential risks. And like Dr. Segalene, Buss also notes the power of word-of-mouth: “information is shared more rapidly nowadays…we hear about things we might never have heard of before. Now a salmonella outbreak is national news.”

For restaurant management, an increasingly demanding customer clientele is not exactly a godsend. Accommodating policies attract people that wish to be accommodated, and there are ever-growing numbers of those in our culture of diet-identification. “[At] this restaurant group, more than any other I’ve worked for, our guests are very conscious, very inquisitive, aware,” says Buss. “Some people are very fanatic — those are the people that are very vocal…but [Native Foods] is not here to judge, we accommodate them; we’re always willing to do that.”

Saving Room for Dessert

Jennifer Wells, owner of Tu-Lu’s Bakery in New York City, was actually relieved to be told she had celiac disease. “It was very liberating to finally know what was the culprit behind all of my discomfort for the seven years leading up to my diagnosis,” she says. “I embraced my new lifestyle and was inspired to create foods at home that were just as delicious as meals I had made in the past, but now completely gluten-free.”

Tu-Lu’s Bakery offers scrumptious-looking gluten-free and vegan/dairy-free layer cakes, cupcakes, muffins, cookies, and other baked goods such as brownies, doughnuts, and panini. Tully Lewis, owner of Tu-Lu’s second location in Dallas, Texas maintains a completely gluten-free diet and wanted to hold her bakery to the same standards. “I feel very strongly that in order to provide a safe place for celiacs that the bakery had to be 100 percent gluten-free,” Lewis says. “It is so easy for flour to be airborne and contaminate gluten-free food across the kitchen. People can get very sick with the smallest amount of gluten.” Tu-Lu’s also makes vegan (and subsequently dairy-free and egg-free) and soy-free treats to accommodate their customers with multiple allergies or intolerances.

Lewis is adamant about the importance of giving attention to those with food allergies. “I think every bakery, cafe and restaurant should offer gluten-free items,” she says, suggesting that restaurants that lack the facilities to offer such products themselves buy bread products from a gluten-free devoted bakery.

Allison Lubert, the owner of Sweet Freedom Bakery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, went through a long process of trial-and-error before she was diagnosed as allergic to both cow’s milk and wheat. Having trouble finding desserts that were free of these allergens and wanting to avoid refined sugar and preservatives as well, she says she decided to develop recipes herself “that I would feel comfortable putting into my own body.”

Sweet Freedom Bakery is impressively committed to serving customers that run the gamut of food allergies. The bakery is entirely gluten-free, vegan, and also avoids corn, peanuts, and soy products. Lubert says, “With so many being diagnosed with multiple, co-morbid food allergies and intolerances, I wanted to be able to cater to as many people as I possibly could. I personally knew too many people who had allergies to various things like peanuts, tree nuts, etc., so I thought that Sweet Freedom should be a safe haven for as many people as possible.”

She adds that corn allergies seem to be on the rise. “Corn is an often genetically modified and common ‘filler’ in many processed foods in our country, so I wonder sometimes if we are just eating too much of it,” she says. “If you start to pay attention to food labels, you start to see that corn syrup in many forms is listed all too often. For me, eliminating corn products from Sweet Freedom recipes was a no-brainer, and not as difficult as some of the other allergens.” In Sweet Freedom’s recipes, Lubert avoids corn-derived baking powder and xanthan gum.

Along with Tu-Lu’s Bakery, Sweet Freedom has found a following even among people without allergies, not only those with no other option. “We do have a growing number of customers who are just looking for a healthier alternative to dessert (people who don’t want to feel that sugar ‘slump’ afterward, or those who are diabetic or watching their weight),” Lubert says. Attesting to their well-rounded popularity, Lubert proudly confides that Sweet Freedom Bakery has been profitable from day one, no easy feat for a new business established at the height of the economic crisis.

Nor is it, apparently, an easy feat to develop gluten-free bakery treats. The alternate flours and ingredients required to substitute for wheat flour are sometimes expensive, and no simple ratio exists to modify the formulations in traditional recipes. “Modifying recipes to be allergen-free is definitely tough,” Lubert says. “There is not one exact ratio or substitute for anything. It took a lot of trial and error to come up with my final recipes! My husband has no food intolerances and has a major sweet tooth, so he would tell me honestly when I was on to something with a certain recipe. My goal was that our products would taste like ‘normal’ baked goods, while still being safe and healthier. Many times we have had folks who don’t even know that our treats are free of all of the traditional bakery ingredients.”

Much of the medical discussion around food allergies involves confirming whether these allergies are proliferating among a previously healthier public or whether awareness and diagnosis is simply becoming more astute. Lubert believes the incidence of food allergies is on the rise. “I’m not sure there is one specific explanation for this, but I imagine that it is a combination of genetic and environmental factors,” she says. “I think it has a lot to do with the fact that the food that we eat has become very processed, and we are over-indulging on things like dairy, wheat, gluten, soy, corn, etc., as well as chemical additives, preservatives, pesticides and hormones. Thus, the general ‘toxic load’ in our bodies has increased, causing a weakening of our immune systems…common sense tells me that if we all ate a cleaner diet, we would not only feel a whole lot better, but also suffer from fewer food sensitivities.”

The Trials and Tribulations of an Allergic Eater

Harrison Hsueh, a 26-year-old financial risk analyst working just outside of New York City, is quite possibly the pickiest eater with the biggest appetite you’ll ever meet. Hsueh suffers from a condition called ulcerative colitis. “Without going into too many details…[it’s] rather difficult to comfortably and properly digest food,” he says. He has been vegan for over eight years, is a strict teetotaler, and will cite offhand a long list of common foods that cause his condition to flare up painfully: “onions, garlic, broccoli, hot spices/peppers, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, wheat/gluten, nuts, mushrooms, and some others.”

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