“If you’re that allergic, then you shouldn’t eat here.”
It’s been a long time since I heard that stock phrase; however, on this day, I could see it coming.
A few years ago, prompted by a family member with celiac disease Mozzarelli’s started offering a gluten-free pizza option. I, along with other GF NYC bloggers went to a Gluten-Free Sunday party – it was big fun.
At the time I spoke with co-owner Chef Ronny about their gluten-free pizza dough. He told me that they were using Bob’s Red Mill as the base and also delineated the special precautions they had taken so one day a week Mozzarelli’s would be completely gluten-free. Sounded great.
I tried the pizza - tomato-y sauce and fresh mozz - but I had a reaction, a slight throaty, itchy thing, the cause of which I couldn’t isolate. Was is the fresh tomatoes - I have a nightshade veggie allergy (mainly eggplant though)? Was it the GF Bob’s Red Mill - they also mill nut flours in the GF facility? Was it some oral allergy syndrome to something blooming that day? I don’t know but I didn’t return.
That is until Tuesday.
Around lunchtime, I was in the Madison Park district and as I passed Mozzarelli’s I saw that now they are advertising Gluten-Free on major signage outside and inside of the pizza parlor (it's also all over the website). They want the gluten-free customer, one would presume. I thought I’d go in, ask some questions – maybe the recipe had changed, maybe I could have some gluten-free pizza. I have an Allergic Girl routine, some of which I outline here.
I saw someone who looked like Chef Ronny counting out receipts by the till. After looking at all the lovely GF pizza options, I walked over and said, “Are you the owner?”
“Oh great! I think I may have met you once before. Are you Chef Ronny?”
“No, I’m Eli, his brother. But we look exactly alike.”
“Ah, OK. Hi Eli! I have some questions about your gluten-free pizza crust and I’m hoping you can help me.”
Eli was barely looking at me. He was still working with the receipts. As he had identified himself as the owner, he was the one I needed to speak with; but it was evident that I did not have his undivided attention. (First indication of an issue.)
“Do you still use Bob’s Red Mill as the basis for your gluten-free pizza dough?”
“No. We use a blend of a lot of different flours.
“Really. Chef Ronny told me that you used Bob’s Red Mill as the base.”
“No! Never. We never did.” (Second indication that things weren't going well - what's the truth here?)
“Hmm, OK, well that’s what he said last time I asked. So, can you tell me what kind of gluten-free flours you use?”
“I already told you it’s a blend of a lot of different stuff.” He was looking at me sideways, barely making eye contact. He seemed visibly agitated at my questions, and his mouth was twitching as he spoke. “Why are you asking?” (Third point - the owner was becoming defensive, never a a good thing.)
I kept smiling, kept my voice soft and not aggressive: “Because I have food allergies and it would be helpful to know if you use nut flours or gluten-free flours that are made by suppliers that mill nut flours.”
“If you are that allergic, you shouldn’t eat here.” (Pow, right in the kisser.)
“OK,” I said and turned on my heels, Tweeting my displeasure as I walked down the street.
Mozzarelli’s advertised that they wanted my gluten-free business then turned me away when I asked about what I would be eating. What is going on here?
After I calmed down and stepped back from feeling personally wounded, I thought about the vital components for choosing (and unchoosing) a foodservice establishment for any dietary restricted patron, me included:
1. A foodservice establishment that bills itself as "gluten-free", "allergen-free", "allergen-friendly" or sells specialty goods, menu items or dishes for the restricted diet community must be transparent about their ingredients. Said another way, if you want our business, then tell us what you're doing. Babycakes, when they first opened, wouldn’t share their ingredients and I blogged about it. Now, they have the ingredients on their site and the owner wrote a cookbook detailing the recipes so we are all able to make an informed decision.
2. A food allergic, celiac or food intolerant patron can only establish trust with a restaurant when a restaurant is open and welcoming. If staff, managers, chefs or owners are rude, non-communicative, confused or uneducated about what they are selling *or* do not make an effort to welcome your business (including your questions), take your business elsewhere. Here’s my ever growing list of allergy-friendly and welcoming spots in NYC.
3. Anyone in the hospitality business should be hospitable. Patronize restaurants that are hospitable, period. Chef Ming Tsai, who headed up the food allergy laws in Massachusetts says this in The Atlantic Monthly:"I've always believed if you're in the restaurant business, which is in the hospitality and service industry, after all, it is your duty to serve everyone safe food." Tsai also said this in Cookie magazine: "And if a restaurant says, 'We'd rather not serve you,' get out and find one that will.".
Here, in NYC, we are very lucky. Not only is it a huge gluten-free playing field but the restaurant business is booming. There are at least 20,000 other restaurants in NYC to try and I know there is a high percentage of those who will welcome me and my business with open allergen-friendly arms. Stay tuned as I find more of those.