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Celiac Problem #98; Explained!

I saw this posting on a Celiac Page that I follow and it really got me thinking.  There were about 100 comments on this post and I read them all. Being a Celiac and owner of a completely GF Cafe, Deli & Bakery, I have a thorough understanding of this problem and a very enlightening perspective on why Celiac Problem #98 exists. This is a bit long but this reality check is needed and what most of you have come to expect from me. It will enlighten you and there will be many “ah-ha” moments too.

Celiac Problem 98

The first problem is that we have Celiac Disease. Personally, I think #98 should be Celiac Problem #2 because our next problem is being able to eat  without getting “glutened”.  Shortly after I shared this “problem” on my facebook page, a customer posted that a GF Bakery/Cafe in Camp Hill, PA closed again; suddenly and without warning. I refer customers there fairly often so I emailed and called them over a span of a few days and got no answer.  My lingering question is this:

“If Celiac Problem #98 is truly a problem, why are so many GF businesses closing?”  (I told you all about 3 businesses closing this past summer.) Gluten Dude just posted yesterday that his favorite mainstream place to get a  safe GF Burger in PA closed; permanently.

Let’s Examine The Sad Reality:

The bakery/cafe opened about 3.5 years ago in Camp Hill, PA (population 7,892; located outside of Harrisburg w/ population of 49,000). They expanded, closed locations, got investors and re-opened several times. Hearing they closed again breaks my heart because they had some great products! Was management an issue? Probably. Was staffing an issue? Probably. Were they exhausted from all of the hours working to try to make the business viable without a paycheck? Most definitely. Were there enough customers to support their business? Absolutely not!  In my opinion the main reason they closed is because there were not enough customers coming in to sustain them. They put everything into this for the GF Community and lost it all.

Still, I pondered “Celiac Problem #98” and the comments that I was reading on this group’s post. I can relate to this, I too had Celiac Problem #98..until I got tired of getting sick and hearing myself complain…so I opened my own GF place. I don’t expect everyone to open their own GF Bakery or Cafe but I do wonder why many complain but don’t support the place that is GF who is actually doing something about it.  The question really should be: “How bad do you want it?”

There are quite a few completely GF establishments in just about every state; yet we all struggle to stay in business and several close each year due to not enough customers. It seems that everyone wants a completely GF place in their own small town. I don’t know why I was surprised when one comment on that post said that they had a GF place near them but they were not willing to drive 20 minutes for this safe haven. How bad do you want it? For some, not badly enough!

Evolution of Availability of Gluten Free Products:

Back in 1988 when I first heard my doctor say the words “Celiac Sprue/ Tropical Sprue/ Non Tropical Sprue”. I thought.. OMG, I went to St Thomas and British Virgin Gorda for my honeymoon, they are in the tropics, I knew it was too good to be true… I guess I caught this there! I had vaguely heard about this strange illness because my sister’s boss, who was 70, had just been diagnosed at Mass General and she would say that my mysterious symptoms sounded just like him. I couldn’t believe what was going through my mind: “gee, I would rather be a hypochondriac then have what he has!”

There were no dietitians to talk to, because they always canceled my appointment before I got there.  Finally, the 5th or 6th one saw me and was not much help.. I was told to try oat bread. I found some in Giant, bought it and did not feel better.  I finally read the ingredients; it was oat bread but it still had regular flour and gluten contaminated oats in it.

There were no GF products in the grocery store.  I got a 2 page piece of paper from my doctor saying I could not have flour, vinegar, vanilla extract, beer or alcohol, etc.  But I could have potato vodka and at this point I needed a drink and the first thing I was gonna do when I walked out of his office was to find me some Potato Vodka! And to my surprise it was easy to find. I squeezed fresh lemons and made myself a cocktail (ok, a few cocktails).

This was way before electronic banking and I would snail mail a check to a company on the west coast, wait for it to clear and then they would send me some GF Flours. Then, in the early 90’s I would drive to Rockville, MD (20 minutes or so drive) to this hole in the wall “health food store”. It was the first of it’s kind in the area. This place looked like it supplied kegs for a college fraternity. Yet I still was thrilled to check it out. Cue the music from Chariots of Fire and imagine me, in slow motion, running eagerly into this place!

It was dingy and dark but there was a kind man working there who vaguely understood what I was saying. He directed me to a shelf in the back left corner.  Then, magic happened; I found my GFFG (gluten-free fairy godmother). On that shelf was a cookbook by Bette Hagman.  This was not your glossy cookbook, it looked like she bought a binding machine, printed and published it herself. I bought it, made one more stop on the way home and I picked up some potato vodka; made myself a drink (ok, a few drinks) and read it cover to cover. It was heaven and it became my Bible. I still have it in my kitchen here at ODC; stained and yellowed with age. I would do what she did but I also made my own substitutions for her recipes to get them the way I wanted them to taste. Ok, truth be told, I altered them a lot. In the back of the book was a list of products I needed and where to mail order them from.  The hole in the wall health food store would order what I needed and I would drive to pick it up. Unfortunately, not enough of people like me existed or went into that store and they closed. There were no Wegman’s, David’s Natural Markets, Trader Joes or Mom’s Organic Markets.

I went to Giant and asked them to carry the products that I needed. I got a big “no; we won’t sell enough, nobody else is asking for this!”  I went back to mail order. I did not even meet another Celiac until 2007.

Today, you can find GF products in most grocery stores.  Why? Because we asked for them and we show up each week and buy them! If we stop buying them they will not go out of business because 95% of their store is dedicated to those who can eat regular food.  A completely GF Restaurant does not have the luxury of also feeding the 95%, we feed between 1.5-5% on a sporadic basis, so Celiacs need to show up for the completely GF establishment to stay in business.

Today’s Reality

The majority of Celiacs take their chances at places filled with gluten; in a country where gluten does not have to be disclosed on labels..(wheat does, but not rye or barley). They take chances when there is no mandatory testing in order to put a GF label on a product. There is also no requirement that your meal actually be gluten free when it is served to you and there is no mandatory training. If you choose this option over the completely GF place; you made it clear that is is not really that important to you. This is the message that the mainstream restaurants get from those eating GF; “it is just not that serious”. If it was serious; you would be at the completely GF place down the street.

Here is the Reality: There will NOT be more places opening up in small towns or multiple ones in big towns if ONE can’t stay in business. How badly do you want it & supply and demand folks!

Customers come to our Cafe, Deli and Bakery every weekend from 35 and 60 miles away and these people are the ones showing that they want it and need it and they are the minority.  The majority don’t come because it is “not convenient”.  Well, the demand is just not high enough to have a completely GF place on every street corner or even every 20 or 30 miles.  They will all go out of business unless the population is in the millions. Supply and Demand folks and how badly do you want it.

For a Celiac there is the “want” and the “need” and the “complaining” when there is no safe place to eat.  We all have been there and done that! However, when the safe place opens; many have excuses as to why they can’t make it to eat at the very safe place they had wished for. Be careful what you wish for, if it comes true and you don’t support the place, it will close and they won’t be able to expand and open another one closer to where you live. Supply & Demand and how bad do you want it?

Example:  A celiac customer came in last night who lives right across the street, in the very neighborhood where we are…she can walk the 500 yards to us. She only came in because she won the $25 gift certificate that I donated to the neighborhood Fall Fair. I was curious and asked her if she would mind sharing with me why it took her 3.5 years to come in to see us. She said; “I tried GF pizza at a regular restaurant and it tasted like cardboard and the bread was dry.” I gave her some bread samples and she was stunned and said “this tastes like real bread”.  (This is what you get when the person making your food has to eat it too..better product) This is a glaring example of why it is hard for the completely GF place to survive.  Another comment I got recently was; “wow, if I knew the bread and pizza crust was this good, I would have come right when you opened!” (My thought bubble was; “you are lucky I am still here”)

GF Places Serve 5% of the Population (celiac & gluten sensitive), other restaurants feed 95% of the population; which is a huge factor that the average Celiac does not think about much. However, only 1.5% (celiac) truly need a completely GF place.  Any restaurant has 3-6months to make it or break it and GF places really need your support upon opening and throughout the year. The “5% Rule”, as I call it, is a tough lesson in math for owners of GF establishments. We can’t expect that everyone with Celiac will eat at our place every day.  Should we expect that a Celiac will choose the dedicated GF place over the regular restaurant? How bad do they want it?

Example: “Please open a One Dish Cuisine in my town; I promise folks will support you”. Really? Will you be signing the loan documents and explaining how you folks will support me to the bank? Population of that small town 30,000 = 450 Celiacs. The GF place would need every Celiac and their family members to eat out at their place 3 or 4 times per week to stay in business. Supply and Demand rears it’s ugly head & I would be bankrupt in 3 months folks. (Actually, the bank would not lend w/ these dismal statistics)

Do a “google search” to find the population of the town you live in.  If the population is under 150,000 within a 10 mile radius, chances are slim that someone will open up and stay open. If there is one open, support them so they will stay open.

As I read more comments, those who don’t have a dedicated GF place in their area all said that they wish there was one in their specific area.  However, I know from personal experience the grim reality of how often they would actually make the effort or be able to afford to frequent that GF business. Then I thought about the customers who go to Starbucks every day and spend $6 on a cup of coffee and that is not expensive them.  How bad do you want it gang?

Other comments were from some of our customers talking about us and how great ODC is.  Others talked about the completely GF places near them. This was so great to see.

Lesson: The completely GF place does exist and it will not stay open unless we all make it a priority to support them in our own town or when traveling to other areas!

When I go out of town I seek out completely GF establishments and always purchase from them. If I have a choice of a chain with a”gf menu” or the completely GF place. I go to the GF place and support the little guy who is doing it right!

We all have our own stories and hear stories from Celiacs who ate out from a “gf menu” at a local chain and boy did they pay the price later when they were sick for days. Some chains do it well and some, not so well. Yes, sometimes it costs more from the GF Place, but I can assure you, the cost comes from producing a safe product with safe ingredients and more staff to do it right. The difference in price does not line our pockets; it pays for ingredients and the extra staff needed to SAFELY do what we do.  How bad do you want safe food?

That being said, I am very grateful for our customers and their families and the referrals to us. I am also very thankful for the many websites/phone apps that serve as a guide to help us all find safe places to eat. Some sites are: allergyeats, findmeglutenfree, glutenfreetravelsite, glutenfreepassport, allergyfreepassport and happycow. Two of these sites have dedicated facilities info where you can look for places that are completely GF!

If you want to see more completely GF places open up, please support the little guy who is completely GF, whenever and wherever you can. Even if it is just to spend $3.50! Use the websites and free phone apps.

A Wake Up Call for Celiacs:

It appears that many Celiacs go around with their heads in the sand only coming up for air to complain when they get “glutened” somewhere and missed time from work because of it; etc. Then we all hear about how we need completely GF Restaurants. I agree, we do need more completely GF places. Below, I will tell you what three things need to happen to see more GF Places open up.  These are all subject to you, the customer.

  1. Show Up! If you really want safe GF Meals when dining out, you will support those who provide it..no excuses! If the safe place is 10, 20 or 30 miles away from you and you can’t find the time to visit them, admit that it is just not a priority for you to eat safely. If price is an issue, eat something that is less expensive. If you are on vacation and you have a choice of dedicated GF and you choose the regular restaurant and you get “glutened”; you should not complain.
  2. You Create the Supply & Demand! There are not enough customers for the completely GF Place. The reason is Supply & Demand. In most cases this is why completely GF places are not opening up and why many are closing. Support the ones that are completely GF and there to keep you safe. Or, you can just sit back and do nothing and wait to hear about them closing and then lament that you did not have a chance to make it there in the past 3 or more years. Create the demand for SAFE Meals when dining out by showing up at the completely GF establishment who is providing it. It is up to you the customer to create the demand so the supply will increase. A few years ago GF products were not available in most grocery stores, we showed them that we need them and now you can find what you need in most grocery stores. The same holds true for GF Restaurants.
  3. Stop the Complaining & Choose Wisely: We all know that most  mainstream businesses don’t take the GF Diet seriously. If you don’t support the place that is completely GF in your area and choose to eat at the mainstream restaurant with a “gf menu”, with no mandatory training or labeling required and you get “glutened”; don’t complain; especially if you chose this option over the GF Place! It is just a bunch of nonsense folks. Support those who are giving their all to give you safe food..put your money where you mouth is and quit whining about prices; etc. Prices will come down when supply and demand changes. Customers showing up (demand) is the only way that we will see more safe restaurants open up and stay open. It is all up to you, the customer. The customers have the power to make this happen. Choose wisely.