Indiana County businesses cater to customers with special diets
Sit down at any restaurant today, and you'll probably find an alternative menu catering to those with special dietary needs. Whether gluten-free, vegan, low-sodium or lactose-free, options seem to have exploded for restaurant-goers.
One such local eatery has branded itself as a place where sensitive stomachs or allergy-prone eaters can feel right at home. Indiana's Yummy for Every Tummy is a place where vegan or gluten-free epicureans with a sweet tooth can nosh on cupcakes and cookies without fear.
The Philadelphia Street bakery, which specializes in meat- and dairy-free products, as well as celiac-friendly foods, was opened Dec. 10 by owners Jim and Angela Bartek.
“We're trying to get across that it may be vegan or gluten-free, but it still tastes the same,” Jim Bartek said.
The couple met as students at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Angela Bartek is originally from Marion Center while Jim Bartek is an Indiana native.
Angela Bartek takes care of the majority of the baking duties in the business. The couple lived briefly in Florida, where Angela Bartek studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Orlando, for three years and interned at Raphsodic Cooperative Company, a bakery that specialized in vegan victuals.
While the Barteks don't follow a strict vegan diet, they've discovered that vegan recipes omit dairy products and are fairly easy to find. Those dishes are welcomed by Angela Bartek, who learned seven years ago that she is lactose intolerant.
After Angela Bartek earned her degree from Le Cordon Bleu, the Barteks decided to move back to Indiana to open a bakery that focused its menu on vegan and gluten-free foods.
“We saw that there was a need for it here,” Jim Bartek said. “There are a lot of people with dietary issues.”
“It's just something different,” he added, noting that the couple has discovered there are quite a few people in the area living a vegan lifestyle.
The bakery offers cupcakes and cookies every day, with the flavors changing daily. Scones, biscotti and gluten-free breads and rolls also are on the menu.
“The bread and rolls seems to be a big seller,” Jim Bartek noted.
Cakes and pies are offered only through pre-orders.
The bakery's cookies are a popular choice, especially the chocolate chip.
“We'll have people ask at the door whether or not we have them that day,” Jim Bartek said.
Tiramisu is the flavor of cupcake that most people seem to really like, he noted.
Those dealing with other sensitivities aside from lactose or gluten can also benefit from the bakery.
According to Jim Bartek, most anything his wife makes can be adjusted to accommodate almost any allergy, including corn and nuts. He said the bakery is peanut-free, and any food on their menu that contains other types of nuts will be labeled as such.
“There are quite a few people who are gluten intolerant or full-blown celiac,” Jim Bartek said. “And then there are quite a few people who just want to try a gluten-free diet.”
Yummy for Every Tummy's menu is split fairly evenly between vegan and gluten-free offerings. Jim Bartek thought at first there would be greater demand for the vegan items. “But it's pretty even,” he said.
Customers can accompany their sweets with coffee and loose-leaf teas that the bakery offers, in addition to water and soy and almond milks.
The gluten-free items are all vegan, Jim Bartek noted, but not all vegan offerings are gluten-free.
Everything in the store is free of dairy, whey and eggs.
In exchange for eggs in the Yummy for Every Tummy recipes, applesauce is used. A vegan butter substitute made with various oils is used in all baking.
The gluten-free products are all made with tapioca and potato starches, along with brown rice and garbanzo bean flours.
This spring, Jim Bartek said he and his wife are looking to add lemon tarts to the menu. They also want to change some of the cupcake and cookie flavors, using a lot of lavender and rose water.
“The majority of our customers don't even have any dietary restrictions, they just really like the baking,” Jim Bartek said.
More information about Yummy for Every Tummy and its menu can be found at www.yfet.net. The bakery is located at 734 Philadelphia St., Indiana, and is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Theresa Kinneer, a dietitian with the Diabetes Education Center at Indiana Regional Medical Center, said there are several reasons why gluten intolerance seems to be affecting a greater number of people — leading to more gluten-free options popping up at area eateries.
She said blood testing for gluten intolerance has improved much in the last 20 years. “So, it's easier to detect now,” she said.
The way food is processed today also has a lot to do with the increase. Much of the wheat used in foods now has been genetically processed to produce more, which may be causing more gluten intolerance.
“Plus, we are eating more processed food now than we were 20 years ago,” she noted.
Swapping out rice- and corn-based pastas and noodles for traditional ones is one of the easiest options, Kinneer said. Quinoa, too, has become a popular alternative.
“There are a lot of good-tasting things that you can use,” she said, including a variety of breads that can now be purchased at the grocery store or swapped out for breads in restaurants.
Many of the major cereal brands have made changes to their products, too, making them gluten-free.
“It's really starting to become more available,” she said.
Going gluten-free has recently become a fad diet of sorts for people who want to avoid GMOs — genetically modified organisms — or who are looking for healthier forms of carbohydrates. But for others, gluten is a health risk.
Those with a gluten intolerance or sensitivity may experience a bloated, gassy feeling as soon as they've eaten, according to Kinneer, or they could just feel ill.
“But usually it's the gas and bloating that are the key thing that sends people to their doctor to get checked out,” she said.
Anyone looking to learn more about options for living gluten-free is invited to join a celiac support group that meets on a quarterly basis at the Calvary Evangelical Free Church, across from Ben Franklin Elementary School in Indiana. More information on the group can be found at www.indianapaceliacs.org.
One of the support group's members is Patty Merlo of Indiana. She said DNA testing has determined that most of her family members have a celiac gene associated with gluten intolerance or sensitivity. That has resulted in 30 members of her family searching out gluten-free eating options, many of them in the Indiana area.
One of her personal favorites is Spaghetti Benders on Philadelphia Street in Indiana.
“They take the time to make gluten-free garlic bread and gluten-free croutons,” she said.
Her favorite dish there is the shrimp and scallop alfredo, which is made with gluten-free pasta.
Tony DeLoreto, who co-owns Spaghetti Benders with his wife, Cherry, has developed an entire side menu of gluten-free options for his customers.
The need for such offerings was brought to his attention by his attorney and frequent customer, Jack Merlo, the late husband of Patty Merlo.
“They're the reason I started — they were very good customers,” he said, noting his restaurant has offered gluten-free options for about the past 10 years.
The Merlos started providing the restaurant with gluten-free bread mixes that Patty Merlo and her sisters developed, after DeLoreto met a growing number of customers who maintain gluten-free diets. He decided to amend items on his menu to accommodate such needs.
“I knew people who had the (celiac) disease and I wanted to be able to provide them with a meal,” he said.
DeLoreto's wife makes personal pizza shells and breads that are gluten-free, noting that the resulting doughs are very sticky and gooey.
“It's tedious, but she enjoys doing it,” he said.
Spaghetti Benders goes so far as to make gluten-free meatballs, using potato flakes in place of the breadcrumbs in a traditional meatball.
“And they taste exactly the same,” DeLoreto said of the substitutes. “People wouldn't be able to tell if we mixed them up with our regular meatballs.”
The restaurant also recently started making gluten-free buns for its hoagies. It also offer gluten-free croutons and garlic bread.
Even though he has had gluten-free options for over a decade in his restaurant, DeLoreto said it's only been in the past three or four months that he's been able to purchase gluten-free pastas from his supplier, Pennsylvania Macaroni.
DeLoreto said Spaghetti Benders also has options for those who focus on vegan foods: “But it's nothing that we concentrate on.”
Steve White, owner of Whitey's Peetza & Eatery in Coral, said his menu boasts almost 40 gluten-free options, from appetizers through desserts, and includes gluten-free alcohol and beer.
Someone with a gluten intolerance or sensitivity would be able to find dishes among the restaurant's salads, specialty sandwiches and wings, he said, and gluten-free spaghetti can be substituted on most of the pasta plates. His three executive chefs in the kitchen also make homemade gluten-free meatballs using potato buds.
The Whiey's kitchen staff is very aware of creating a safe gluten-free zone for those with severe allergies to wheat and wheat products.
“The whole staff has been trained extensively on cross contamination and celiac disease, and we know the right from the wrong,” White said.
White said he started out with small, simpler items on the menu before expanding to offer a broad range of gluten-free dishes.
“We saw that there was a need, and we like to address all of our customers' needs,” said White.
White said the Whitey's menu has several vegetarian options, but not much in the way of vegan fare.
For more information about what the Whitey's Peetza menu offers, visit www.whiteyspeetza.com. The restaurant is located at 368 First St., Coral.
Jim Bishop, assistant manager at Romeo's Pizzeria & Mediterranean Kitchen in Indiana, said his eatery's menu has added quite a few gluten-free options. In keeping with its veggie-heavy Mediterranean roots, it offers choices for vegetarians and vegans, as well.
“We keep in mind a lot of vegetarians,” Bishop said, noting there are usually several vegetarian soups served throughout the week.
For those with a wheat allergy, the restaurant carries gluten-free pastas that can be substituted in most of the pasta dishes for an extra $1.50 charge.
He said Romeo's has at least three celiac-friendly salad dressings, too.
“We make sure a lot of the dressings are gluten-free,” he said.
He also noted that the restaurant does not use any peanut oil in its cooking.
Bishop said most of the restaurant's salads can be adapted to meet the needs of celiacs or those following a vegan/vegetarian diet.
“I've seen it become pretty popular,” Bishop said, noting that it's not always an allergy or lifestyle choice — he's had several customers eating gluten-free as part of a diet trend. “A lot have the gluten intolerance, but others have some other end goal with it,” he said.
Bishop said his servers are all trained to accommodate any dietary needs they can by reading labels and recipes, “to see if the particular need is something in the realm of what we offer,” he said.
More information on Romeo's Pizzeria & Mediterranean Kitchen can be found at www.romeos-pizza.com. The restaurant is located at 1112 Oakland Ave., Indiana.
“We're lucky,” said Kinneer. “There's a lot of restaurants in our area. We have a lot of options for a small-town atmosphere.”
In addition to many of the other restaurants mentioned, Kinneer added Luigi's Ristorante in Clymer and Benjamin's Restaurant in Indiana as having many gluten-free options, and noted that Domino's offers a gluten-free pizza crust.
When it comes to shopping at grocery stores, Giant Eagle and Martin's both have a nice selection of gluten-free products, Kinneer said.
But specialty stores are where it's at for those with dietary restrictions, she said.
Health food stores like Back to Nature, located at 2520 Warren Rd., Indiana, carry all kinds of products that offer convenience for those with food allergies or other specific dietary needs.
Owner Nathan Williams of Indiana said Back to Nature, a natural and organic grocery and supplement store, has been in business for more than 20 years.
The store has long been specializing in gluten-free foods, but it also offers a full line of health and beauty supplements and bulk spices.
For those removing gluten from their diets, he's got pastas made from quinoa, rice and corn, as well as cereals, breads, flours and mixes.
He also stocks items that may not be found on the average grocery store shelf — things like gluten-free pierogies, burritos, donuts and muffins, along with prepared pizzas and dinners.
Back to Nature also caters to those following the “paleo” diet, which is heavy on meats, vegetables and fruits. The store's almond and coconut flours, coconut wraps and various bars and nuts may sound appetizing to a paleo dieter.
The store features a refrigerated section as well, with a variety of dairy products and several kombucha products — a probiotic fermented drink.
Williams noted that the Yummy for Every Tummy bakery purchases a lot of its ingredients for vegan and gluten-free baking from him.
For vegan eaters, he said, he's got “tons of things,” from imitation meats to vegan mayonnaise to different kinds of dairy-free butter substitutes.
He also has a small low-sodium section for those trying to cut back on their salt intake.
“Pretty much anything you can eat, you can get a substitute for, whether it's meat-free or gluten-free,” he said.
A growing vegan/vegetarian population, in addition to the high percentage of people reducing or eliminating gluten from their meals, means demand has grown in the past few years for menu options catering to these speciality diets.
And growing demand means better business for most of the restaurant and store owners who make a point to expand their offerings.
“Business has been steadily increasing as people become more and more aware of it,” Williams said of customer flow at Back to Nature.
“Business has been very good,” Jim Bartek said of Yummy for Every Tummy. “We've been very well received, and we have a lot of familiar faces coming back, as well as new customers.”
The bakery also has room to grow, Jim Bartek noted. There currently is seating in the front of the store for about 30 people, and the Barteks plan to open a back room for banquets and parties.
DeLoreto said gluten-intolerant people don't make up a huge percentage of his customer base at Spaghetti Benders — no more than 5 percent, he estimated. “But the people who are are very appreciative that we have an extensive gluten-free menu,” he said.
It's a frequent complaint among those who try to eat healthier that the cost to do so is significantly higher, and those paying for meals or products that focus on speciality diets are no exception.
White said his gluten-free plates can often cost between $5 and $15 more than a regular menu item, reflecting not only the higher cost of the ingredients used in the dishes, but also the labor that goes into making them.
“We have to watch for cross contamination, and there's a lot more involved in it,” White said. He even keeps a special fryer for his gluten-free foods so fried foods aren't contaminated with other breading that may contain gluten. There is also an area set aside in the kitchen where gluten-free pizzas are made.
“But honestly, that market is pleased to have what we have to offer, and price isn't always the biggest thing on their minds. It's being able to go out with other people and enjoy a meal and have a nice selection of food,” White said.
Williams acknowledged that prices can be much higher for the types of specialty foods offered at Back to Nature, but things have been improving.
“Costs are definitely more, but it has definitely come down in the past few years,” Williams said. “The price has shrunk significantly.”
That's especially true for the gluten-free products that he carries, Williams said. “It's not as much of a specialty item as it was 10 years ago.”
In terms of prices, Jim Bartek said Yummy for Every Tummy is pretty comparable to what other places offer. A gluten-free cupcake costs $3, and an additional 25 cents is tacked on if the cupcake is filled. For vegan cupcakes, the price is $3 for filled, $2.75 for unfilled.
DeLoreto's gluten-free menu items at Spaghetti Benders will cost a couple dollars more per plate, he noted, due to the high cost of the substitute ingredients.
“We have people who want to buy just a loaf of bread, but it's just too expensive,” he said.
Those who find themselves having to cut out gluten from their diets, or who are eating vegan or vegetarian or have other forms of food allergies need only ask the area's various eateries what they can do to accommodate them.
Though many of the area restaurants are making their gluten-free alternatives known, Merlo said the easiest thing to do is to ask a server or manager what options they have.
For example, she said, McDonald's will serve up a hamburger without the bun, and she's found that some even go the extra distance to change their gloves if they learn there's a gluten allergy involved, making sure there is no cross-contamination.
Eat ‘n' Park restaurants have significantly increased options for gluten-free eating in recent years, as have other smaller, privately owned businesses — such as Pie Cucina in Blairsville, which can adapt many of its dishes to conform to vegan diets and also offers gluten-free pasta substitutes.
Merlo pointed out that, even if a menu doesn't list gluten-free meals, that doesn't mean there aren't options to eat at that restaurant. A steak and baked potato dinner, for instance, would be a safe bet if the dinner roll is left out.
“There are ways of eating gluten-free anywhere,” she said.
“With everything out there, it's so easy now to cook and prepare your favorite meals,” Merlo said, noting that some local grocery stores have developed a nice selection of gluten-free pretzels and pastas. “Different companies are really stepping up and including gluten-free in their lines. It's come so, so far.”
Gina DelFavero is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2915 or firstname.lastname@example.org.