Gluten-free lifestyle takes off across Vancouver
Before Lisa Skelton opened the Wallflower Modern Diner three years ago, she frequently had lunch with a colleague who had celiac disease. It was difficult for them to dine out because her friend could not eat anything that contained gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. This ruled out menu items like hamburgers, sandwiches, and pasta, as well as anything thickened with flour. Even soy sauce—which contains wheat—was taboo. “She ate a lot of salads,” Skelton remembers.
From her years working as a server at a variety of Vancouver chain and hotel restaurants, Skelton knew that people with dietary restrictions were often unpopular customers. “Chefs and servers would scoff at allergies,” she tells the Georgia Straight by phone. “There was a lot of insensitivity on what a pain-in-the-butt customer this was.” Moreover, she says, staff had no idea which items contained gluten and which were gluten-free.
When Skelton opened the Wallflower at 2420 Main Street, she offered an array of gluten-free options, which eventually evolved into a separate gluten-free menu. Hospitality drove her efforts to ensure that everyone from meat eaters to vegans to celiacs felt welcome. But she also acknowledges that “it was a bit of a business move.” She saw the challenge her friend faced trying to dine gluten-free and recognized that “it was an underserved market at the time.”
Today, though, as Skelton puts it, “the tables have really turned.” Many Vancouver restaurants now proudly tout gluten-free options. During the recent Dine Out Vancouver promotion, 77 out of the 230 participating restaurants offered gluten-free menus. In the past year, dedicated gluten-free stores and bakeries have popped up around the city, and it seems that every day a new product hits the supermarket shelf.
Last month, Vancouver’s first Gluten Free Expo was held at the Croatian Cultural Centre, offering gluten-free product samples and information. Organizer Margaret Dron told the Straight that she had expected a thousand people to trickle in during the course of the five-hour fair. Instead, 200 people crowded the hall in the first 20 minutes. By the end of that rainy Sunday, more than 3,000 people had passed through.
Dron thought the majority of those visitors would be those diagnosed with celiac disease, the autoimmune disorder for which the only treatment is a strict gluten-free diet for life. But she was surprised by the demand from nonceliacs. In a postfair survey, she learned that two-thirds of attendees weren’t celiac; they simply wanted to learn about avoiding gluten.
“I think that’s where we’re seeing a large shift,” Dron tells the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “Most people didn’t even know what celiac was until two years ago. The only time you knew it was if you had it.” Now, awareness of gluten intolerances has gone mainstream. “Now when I say ‘gluten-free’, every single person says ‘Oh, my cousin’ or ‘Oh, my coworker’ or ‘Oh, there’s this girl in my building who has that.’ ”
Whole Foods Market regional grocery buyer Joe Kennedy confirms the interest in gluten-free products in Vancouver. “There’s been a huge increase in demand. Over the last five years it’s been steadily ramping up,” he says on the line from his Kitsilano office. “In the last year, 18 months, we’ve seen a lot more folks coming into the store and asking what we carry and lots more questions.” As well, producers have gotten more innovative. “There are a lot better products out there than five or six years ago.”
Restaurants, too, are paying gluten-free diets more respect. For example, Michael Knowlson, executive chef of the Donnelly Group, told the Straight that his pubs and restaurants used to stock generic gluten-free hamburger buns to offer customers “just in case”. But when he and chef Robert Belcham overhauled the group’s menus last November, they replaced these with locally made Panne Rizo rice buns and added a brown-rice-pasta spaghetti bolognaise to the menu as a regular item. “People were coming in and asking for it,” Knowlson says.
Clearly, many Vancouverites are eager to eat gluten-free. The question is, why?