Demand for gluten-free prompts new restaurants and more food options

More restaurants and stores are introducing gluten-free options and products in response to increased awareness of the growing number of Canadians with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.

Mississauga resident Charles Agius became so passionate about the issue he recently helped open a new restaurant that offers an entirely gluten-free menu.

Last March, the manager of Victoria’s Gluten-Free Bistro in Mississauga on Silver Creek Blvd was so sick, he was suffering from both liver and kidney disease.

“I was starving to death, even though I was eating,” Agius told YourMississaugabiz.com.

An allergist helped Agius determine he had celiac disease, a condition that caused him to experience a serious automimmune reaction in the small intestine if he ingested even a small amount of gluten.

There are thousands of Canadians like Agius. According to the Canadian Celiac Association, one in 133 Canadians is affected by the disease. However, it’s estimated six percent of the population also has some sort of gluten sensitivity, meaning the gut can’t properly break down and digest gluten.

The Canadian Digestive Health Foundation estimates that each year, families affected by celiac disease spend $150 million to obtain gluten-free food products, the primary therapeutic option for the disease.

In addition to allergy suffers, there is growing number of people adopting a gluten-free diet for health reasons.

The market has taken notice, with retailers like Loblaws introducing more gluten-free products and chain restaurants, like Il Fornello, adding gluten-free options to address the growing demand.

However, Agius found there still weren’t that many options when it came to dining out, especially for a condition as serious as his.

“There is still the possibility of cross contamination just because of having other foods around,” he said. “They don’t have separate pans and everything to make sure there’s no passage way.”

It wasn’t enough for Agius to avoid the main sources of gluten in food with protein from wheat, barley or rye, like baked goods and pastas. Seasonings, soup mixes and gravy could also be problematic if they contained minute amounts of gluten.

After eight months of planning, he and a team at his parent company V Group opened Victoria’s, a bistro they could guarantee to celiac customers would have gluten-free food.

Agius said this was possible because they were able to find a building with pre-built spaces for two kitchens and designate one specifically to be gluten-free.

But running a gluten-free restaurant this way has meant incurring a long list of extra costs, beginning with an extra set of appliances and kitchen supplies. “That way we wouldn’t have to worry about what was in the fryer or the refrigerator before,” he said. “Without having a clean kitchen, there’s no way. It’s dangerous.”

Special gluten-free flours and other ingredients are also estimated to cost 4-5 times more than standard ingredients.

The restaurant has also hired an extra chef, staff nutritionist and specially designated wait staff for the gluten-free menu. “We always have at least one waiter on staff that is gluten free,” Agius said. “So that they do not touch anything else but the gluten-free [meals].”

Despite these financial and logistical headaches, Agius said the three-month trial period has been good. The restaurant has been advertising on CP24 and received lots of word-of-mouth recommendations, leading to customers coming from all over the Greater Toronto Area.

“It’s very rare that we don’t get a table that doesn’t have at least one person that is gluten-free,” he said, citing recent bookings of groups of 10 or 12 people.

“People are just coming in for the experience because there’s not another restaurant like us out there,” he said.

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