It’s fairly evident that more and more restaurants are coming to terms with the value of the ‘free-from pound’. Jenna Farmer looks at how this has manifested itself on the high street…
There’s no doubt that the free-from market is booming; we’re now able to grab a sandwich at coffee shops, share a pizza at a restaurant and find a ‘free-from’ alternative to practically everything in the supermarket. It’s clear that free-from sells, but some business owners are choosing to take this one step further. They’re so confident in the market that they’re willing to take their businesses completely free-from in order to show those with allergies and intolerances that they take them seriously. And it’s working. I spoke to some of the restaurant owners who are reaping the rewards from the ‘free-from pound’.
La Polenteria, Soho, London
La Polenteria began several years ago with owner Gabriele Vitali’s desire to bring his beloved polenta to the London restaurant scene. It was only when he realised more coeliacs flocked to his restaurant for this naturally gluten-free grain that he considered a rebrand. Now La Polenteria is London’s only completely gluten-free Italian restaurant; and with Coeliac UK’s seal of approval, it’s something they’re taking really seriously. While the menu has evolved naturally, it still has a traditional Italian element; meaning many customers who frequent it aren’t necessarily gluten free. “It’s important that we don’t exclude anybody from our restaurant”, explains Gabriele. “With our decision to offer plenty of fresh, wholesome Italian ingredients we are appealing to free-from foodies, but many visitors who accompany them say our food is better than any Italian fare they’ve tasted – meaning only around 30 per cent of our customer base are coeliacs.’’ It’s good to see that La Polenteria is not interested in exploiting the free-from market by refusing to add vegan cheese as it doesn’t fit with their wholesome ingredients and using unrefined sugar in all desserts. Indeed, they are really committed to raising awareness of gluten-free.
Romeo’s Sugar Free Bakery, Islington, London
Since switching his traditional bakery to gluten-free (and now sugar-free), owner Romeo has seen it go from strength to strength. Unlike La Polenteria, Romeo admits that his cafe is targeted specifically at the ‘free-from’ market and isn’t very appealing to the average member of public. It might seem risky, but it’s working. During our visits, we see queues almost out the door for Romeo’s offering of crêpes, brownies and cheesecakes – all sugar-free with the majority dairy- and gluten-free too. “We had a family here the other day and the wife couldn’t eat gluten, the father was diabetic and the child was lactose intolerant. To them, it was paradise.” Romeo sees the free-from trade continuing to go from strength to strength, but is quick not to rest on his laurels: “I’m now trying to create a low-carb bread with my nutritionist”, he says “I’m not interested in unhealthy potato starch and high carb gluten-free flours; for me using healthy ingredients is really important”.
Niche Gluten Free, Islington, London
As a coeliac himself, co-owner of Niche, Marc Warde, is no stranger to the woes of free-from eating. Yet with Niche he aims to serve traditional locally sourced British food and takes pride in the restaurant’s relaxing environment – which, as we know, is just as important as the food on the menu. Like La Polenteria, it’s a home-cooked menu; meaning it’s a place where everyone’s included and regular diners are right at home – think gluten-free crispy onion rings rather than raw buckwheat brownies. Since going down the 100 per cent gluten-free route, Marc revealed just how much business is booming. “It’s really taken off – we have more restaurants in the pipeline and are planning to bring out a whole range of free-from products.” Just another example of how the free-from customer’s loyalty to these kinds of businesses is helping them to keep expanding.
It’s not just the big smoke that offers free-from choices – indeed more and more places are popping up – such as The Gluten Free Shop and Cafe in Northampton, which proved so successful it’s now crowdfunding to expand its space. But with every high street chain now offering extensive gluten-free meals, what’s the appeal? Well, although big restaurants are quick to offer free-from options, many are reluctant to put in the time and effort to secure Coeliac UK status. For example, Burger King states its menus are only suitable for those with ‘gluten sensitivity’, while other restaurants use ‘No gluten containing ingredients’ or even ‘low gluten’ to cater for the lucrative intolerances and fad customer rather than coeliacs. Despite the huge strides we’ve made in free-from dining, many coeliacs are rightly still uneasy. A poll by FATC (www.fatc.co.uk) revealed that 57 per cent of gluten-free diners still did not feel safe when eating out. Helen Southwell, a coeliac from Gloucester echoes this: “I always have niggling doubts about normal restaurants and also wonder about staff training. I’d also just for once like to feel normal and not ask for a special menu. Ahana Ogle, a fellow coeliac agrees that feeling included is a huge part of it: “I feel embarrassed asking for a special menu; I know I shouldn’t, but I do. A restaurant properly certified by Coeliac UK would equal my heaven.”
And that’s what it comes down to really – these specialist restaurants aren’t just offering us free-from alternatives, they’re offering us something the big chains can’t always offer: security. They’re offering us the chance to feel, for a couple of hours a least, like a regular person who doesn’t have to explain their allergies or request a special menu. The chance to not worry that the waiter has misunderstood and is going to bring you out a regular slice of bread. The chance to feel, for want of a better word, normal. And that’s something you really can’t put a price on.
For more information, visit www.abalancedbelly.co.uk
About the author: Jenna Farmer is a qualified Nutritional Therapist (Accreditated through IICT and working toward FNTP accreditation) and writer. She runs a blog, A Balanced Belly, to help people with all kinds of gut issues: from coeliac disease, to IBS to crohn’s and UC. You’ll find advice on everything from how intolerances work to how to get a good night sleep! It’s your one-stop blog for living a balanced and healthy life. You can find Jenna on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.