Gluten-free options growing in Shores

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published November 12, 2013

ST. CLAIR SHORES — What if your favorite food left you feeling ill?

Although it seems the easiest thing to do is remove it from your diet, for those with celiac disease, the answer isn’t that simple.

According to the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment in Boston, celiac disease is a genetic disorder that affects 1 of every 133 Americans.

Those with the disorder produce antibodies that attack the intestine, causing damage and illness, when they eat foods that contain gluten, found in wheat and other grains.

About 6 percent of the population, or 18 million people, are affected by gluten sensitivity, which does not cause as severe a reaction as celiac disease but can still cause diarrhea, bloating, cramping, abdominal pain and constipation, along with depression and ADHD-like behavior.

Living gluten-free can be difficult, as just a small amount can cause damage to a person with celiac disease. But now, local eateries are taking notice and branching out to offer gluten-free menus and options.

At Wild Red Wings & Sandwiches, 30124 Harper Ave., the almost entirely gluten-free menu was inspired by co-founder Michael Koester’s friend.

“I have a friend of mine, he suffers from celiac (disease). He really liked fried chicken, and he couldn’t have it before,” said Koester, of Grosse Pointe Woods. And, he added, “We knew, as a small independent, that if we tried to do the same thing as everyone else, we wouldn’t be successful.”

That’s why everything at Wild Red’s is fresh, not frozen, and all of the fried chicken is coated in a special breading Koester developed with rice flour.

Also this year, Alicia Bemiss opened Old World Gluten-Free, making gluten-free pierogi, at 27203 Harper Ave., Suite 2. She first thought about making gluten-free food more than three years ago, after her then-12-year-old son was diagnosed with juvenile, or Type 1, diabetes.

“Somebody told me, a little bit later, you need to have him checked out for celiac disease,” Bemiss said.

Sure enough, her son tested positive for that, as well.

“As soon as he went gluten-free, all of these symptoms we didn’t realize were symptoms went away,” she said.

But Bemiss is Polish — her parents were both born in Poland.

“We love our pierogi. My children have actually been to Poland,” she said. “It’s something my son could not longer eat. I could not find it in my heart to buy it for my family if he could no longer have them.”

Instead, she worked for nine months developing a recipe for the dough that was gluten-free and not full of empty starches.

She found that garbanzo bean flour — high in fiber, protein and a good source of iron — fit the bill. The pierogi have a creamy color that resembles the traditional dumpling; they still fry nicely in a pan and can be assembled with a machine to speed up production.

When her son was diagnosed with celiac disease, Bemiss said she went gluten-free, as well.

“There’s a need to keep cultural foods in society. I don’t want them to disappear because we can’t eat the wheat, so if we can make the same type of cultural foods, but getting rid of the gluten or the ingredient that isn’t tolerable, we can keep” the traditions alive, she said.

She said her products, sold frozen, are also virtually lactose-free, as they are made with cultured milk or cream. She is also switching to a cultured cream butter to cut down on that allergen in her product, as well.

Old World Gluten-Free pierogi were officially introduced at the Made in Michigan Market at the St. Clair Shores Senior Center in September.

“I got an unbelievable response,” she said. One customer, she explained, “was almost crying, she was so happy that there was something like that that was gluten-free that tasted good.

“That’s why I’m doing this. It’s not just my son that has the need.”

Koester, who opened Wild Red Wings & Sandwiches with Mick Myslinski, of St. Clair Shores, in May, said he was surprised at how instrumental word-of-mouth has been in the success of the restaurant.

“People are very hesitant to try a new restaurant until a friend or neighbor tells them,” he said. 

But once they try the menu options, he said, “we’ve gotten a tremendous response.”

Serving gluten-free food isn’t something that’s going to be a passing fad, Koester said.

“It is something we’re going to stick with,” he said. “I like the taste of our fried chicken better than some other places.”

Because some patrons think that “gluten-free” means the food taste will be adversely affected, he said, “we don’t say it from the top of the lights, ‘Gluten-free! Gluten-free!’”

“We don’t want to scare people away,” Koester explained. “After they try it … they say, ‘Oh, that’s awesome.’ We want to have everyone be able to enjoy it, and we’re not hiding that it’s gluten-free.”

Not everything offered is completely gluten-free: the chicken sliders and sandwiches are not because of the bun, and neither are the macaroni and cheese bites. But there is no cross-contamination, Koester said, because nothing fried in the restaurant has gluten in it. He even had to find a special kind of French fries to avoid contamination in the fry coating.

“For the people that are aware of it, they’re really happy,” Koester said. “This is really great to have another option. We’ve been getting some real positive feedback from that, and it’s nice to hear.”

Right now, Bemiss sells Old World Gluten-Free pierogi to the public out of her business. She said customers can look for the sign on Harper Avenue just a few blocks south of 11 Mile Road for times when she is at the business, or they can call (586) 873-0354 ahead of time to arrange for a purchase.

She hopes to get her product in stores like Whole Foods, Hiller’s Market and Hollywood Markets soon, as well.

“Most people, if you didn’t tell them they were gluten-free, wouldn’t know they were gluten-free at all,” she said.