Provo restaurants incorporate gluten-free eating into practices, menus

Jessica Smith
Mary Witham holds the popular gluten-free Nachos Supreme plate at her family’s restaurant, Los Hermanos. (Jessica Smith)

Several Provo restaurants welcome gluten-free dieters by incorporating vegetable-based foods to their menus with hopes that these measures will provide customers with a safer dining experience.

Los Hermanos Manager Mary Witham admits she was the primary inspiration for major menu adjustments when she was diagnosed with Celiac Disease six years ago. As the daughter of Los Hermanos owners Craig and Lisa Witham, Mary Witham’s painful symptoms and eventual diagnosis prompted her parents to create an appetizing atmosphere for customers with dietary restrictions.

“Before I was diagnosed, I was deathly sick,” Mary Witham said. “I was throwing up every night. We had no idea what it was.”

After finally being diagnosed six months later, Mary Witham said she struggled to find restaurants that offered a variety of options for her dietary needs. Most restaurants only had a salad or makeshift meal to offer, even though a Mayo Clinic study reports gluten-free trends have tripled since 2009.

Even today, many restaurants and their staff remain grossly unprepared, Mary Witham said, and when a customer sits down to eat gluten-free, they are often met with inconsiderate options and ignorant service.

“The most frustrating thing is when a server has no idea what you’re talking about when you say you can’t eat gluten,” Mary Witham said. “It’s the worst feeling to not feel safe to eat somewhere.”

Owner Lisa Witham said they shifted everything at Los Hermanos when they found out about Mary’s diagnosis.

“We did a lot of research on exactly what we had to do to make sure we didn’t poison anyone,” Lisa said.

Because many restaurants risk contamination by forgetting to use separate grills for products that contain gluten, the Withams bought a new grill specifically used for warming corn tortillas. They also purchased a separate fryer for chips and designed their menu so nearly every item can be replicated gluten-free. Los Hermanos also trains their servers to know the ins-and-outs of gluten-free options.

Lisa said customers are surprised to find they can eat anything from chimichangas to burritos and fajitas — and all with similar tastes to their gluten counterparts.

A gluten-free diet is not recommended for everyone — Provo dietitian Margaret Holden discourages individuals from trying it unless serious medical needs require it.

“When a person goes on a fad diet, he or she creates an unhealthy relationship with food. When a food is off-limits, we tend to want that food more, which can lead to over-eating or bingeing,” Holden said. “Going on fad diets leads to yo-yo dieting, which will cause more health issues, increase body weight and create an unhealthy relationship with food.”

Holden said the benefit of diet trends, whatever they may be, is their popularity among customers has pressured food producers to proceed with greater caution in the way they make, preserve and list items on their menus.

Like Los Hermanos, other restaurants in the area have made similar changes in recent years.

Guru’s Café, an eclectic restaurant on Center Street, offers a variety of dishes wide in dietary scope. Guru’s labels its menu items with symbols representing gluten-free, vegan and nut-free to aid individuals with particular preferences and allergies.

While Manager Ysaac Ramirez said most restaurants in Provo have done a good job at responding to dietary restrictions, he feels Guru’s has a special mission to provide healthy options as delicious as they are nutritious.

“We’re going to take care of you,” he said. “We are more than happy to welcome all diets.”

Brick Oven Manager Rayna Olsen said Brick Oven has several practices to ensure their customers’ safety. Gluten-free pizza dough is made in a separate facility to avoid cross-contamination and employees use separate cutting knives and utensils specially designated for gluten-free products.

Brick Oven, Olsen claims, is the perfect location for healthy dieters as well as those looking for a chance to splurge.

“The salad bar is so appealing to me because of all the different options we have,” she said. “We don’t just have pizza and dessert. In the same restaurant, I can splurge and bounce back to my healthy eating as well.”

Olsen said many customers, especially students, may feel timid asking their server to make something special than what is listed on the menu. However, each person interviewed encouraged customers to feel free to ask a server for any required adjustments to their meal.

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