Erbert & Gerbert’s Sandwich Shop is the first national restaurant to offer, along with its other fare, a certified gluten-free menu—and it all started at the chain’s Decatur restaurant.
Soon after Erbert & Gerbert’s on East Ponce de Leon opened in 2011 Michelle Kelly of nearby Pure Knead Bakery inquired whether the restaurant offered gluten-free selections.
“She helped us understand the importance of gluten-free food for those with celiac disease and who are gluten intolerant and the importance of handling gluten-free food correctly,” said Edward Andrist, CEO of Fresche Start Restaurant Group, LLC, the East Lake organization that owns the Decatur store.
“We had to convince the national headquarters that gluten-free food is a health need, not a food fad that will disappear in a few years,” Andrist said, explaining that celiac disease causes serious illness, not just mild discomfort. “Some of the symptoms are pretty severe. It can cause gastric disturbances, fatigue, weight loss, weight gain, numbness, soreness, and a long list of other things—and symptoms can last up to a month. It affects between 2 percent and 10 percent of the American population, but when you consider how large that population is, it’s a lot of people.”
Andrist said the reason estimates of how many people have difficulty processing gluten cover such a broad range is that it’s a relatively recently identified disorder, “but more and more people are finding that gluten is responsible for illness they’ve been experiencing. Today, gluten-free food is a $2.6 billion industry. It’s expected to grow to $8 billion by the end of the year.”
He noted that finding certified gluten-free restaurant food is very important to those who are so gluten sensitive that even a small amount makes them extremely ill. “I hate to use a word as strong as militant,” Andrist said, “but those on gluten-free diets are extremely vigilant. They have to be. They know the right questions to ask and you can’t fake it with them. [A national pizza chain] advertised that it had gluten-free pizzas. It turned out only the crust was gluten-free. They were found out and they had to pull the ads. They lost a lot of customers, too.”
Health care providers urge those with celiac disease or even those who are gluten sensitive to be careful in restaurants. On its website, for example, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta advises: “Ask your server or chef to explain how foods are prepared to make sure they are gluten-free. Take the list of the foods that your child needs to avoid with you. Foods that often contain hidden gluten in restaurants include salad dressings, marinades, soups, sauces (including au jus), rice pilaf, french fries and hash browns.”
Initially, the Decatur Erbert & and Gerbert’s bought its gluten-free bread from Pure Knead, but now, like the approximately 70 other restaurants in the chain, it buys from Udi’s, the largest gluten-free baker in the United States. It also sells gluten-free cookies, soups and chips.
“Just as important as buying gluten-free is training our staff to handle it so there is no cross contamination with our other food. We use separate tools, a separate preparation table, a separate storage area, even separate wrapping paper,” said Andrist, who compared the procedures with keeping a kosher kitchen. He added that national consultants trained the staff and inspectors come in periodically to make sure the restaurant is in compliance with certification guidelines.
Andrist said the response from his customers has been enthusiastic.“People just keep thanking us for doing this. We’re the only restaurant with gluten-free meals in a 25-mile radius. Some customers drive 30 to 40 minutes to come eat here. In addition to our food not making them ill, they like the way it tastes. Many of our customers tell us we offer the best tasting gluten-free food they’ve ever had.”