The National Institutes of Health estimates one in every 133 people suffers from celiac disease, an immune reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley.
After encountering many customers asking about gluten-free items, restaurant managers at the Bluff View Art District decided to take action.
Though they have always tried to be aware of food allergens, said director of operations Michael Vasta, a growing level of concern regarding gluten was the motivating factor for creating gluten-safe menus at the eateries contained in the Bluff View Art District. The Art District restaurants join a growing list of Chattanooga-area eateries with gluten-safe menu items (see box).
"We used to [say] 'Well, we'll just have them have a salad,'" Vasta said, "And it's like, 'Well, that's not much fun.'"
Vasta has a personal stake in the evolution as well - he was recently diagnosed with celiac disease.
"For a foodie like myself, to be told something like this ... was really kind of devastating, because now all of a sudden you're limited as far as what you can and can't eat," Vasta said.
According to the National Institutes of Health, celiac disease is an immune reaction to the protein gluten. In celiac patients, gluten consumption damages the villi lining the small intestine. Healthy villi allow the absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream. However, damaged villi can lead to gastrointestinal issues, osteoporosis, hair loss and infertility.
"I thought what a great opportunity to get in and offer something to people so that when they come in, they know that the restaurant is conscientious about celiac and gluten intolerance, and that they know we have that in our brain," Vasta said.
The official launch is May 1, in honor of Celiac Awareness month, but the preparations in the kitchen have already started.
They have hired a pastry chef who specializes in gluten-free items. Gluten-safe pastries will be made with almond flour, which is already used in making macaroons. The Bluff View chocolate kitchen, already flour free, will now double as the gluten-safe pastry kitchen.
For an item to be certified as gluten-free, it must contain less than 10 parts per million gluten in a single product. In order to avoid harm to anyone with a severe intolerance, Bluff View is using the term "gluten-safe" said director of marketing Michelle Kephardt.
"We are taking measures to make sure things are stored separately and cooked separately, however we cannot make the claim of gluten-free."
She said they are "constantly" asked about gluten free offerings. "This is going to be a way for both our celiac driven and our gluten free customers to enjoy our services."
While the Bluff View Bakery will not be offering gluten safe items, there will be an array of gluten-safe pastries, all of which will be displayed in a single container at Rembrandts Coffee House. Having separate kitchens for pasta and pastries help control the environment.
For the time being, they will be purchasing certified gluten free pastas and pizza crust. Vasta said the plan is to eventually make their own pizza dough, but the cost of incurring a second pasta machine may not be prudent at the time.
The gluten-safe menus will be very similar to the standard ones, with some slight adjustments, Kephardt said, such as substituting plain potatoes for French fries to avoid contamination from a fryer.
Ultimately, the decision to focus on gluten-free selections came out of "numerous requests from diners and people wanting to feel normal when coming to a restaurant," Kephardt said.
And rather than simply indicating gluten safe items on the existing menus, Bluff View decided to create special menus.
"We didn't want to have a menu that was full of 'don'ts,'" Vasta said, "'You can't have this, you can't have this.' We wanted to say 'Here's a menu and here's all things you can eat.' "