Getting healthy at a gluten-free cafe
By Paul Eisenberg For Sun-Times Media
Two years in biz: The three co-owners of OMG ... It's Gluten Free in Frankfort, including Eileen Greenawalt (from left), Andrew Hebda and Julie Scianna, were on hand at the cafe to celebrate its two-year anniversary of being in business. | Supplied photo
Eileen Greenawalt wasn’t just often sick, she was downright sickly.
“It was always something,” she said. “If someone got the flu for 24 hours, I’d get it for four days. Someone got mono for two weeks, I had it for four months. I had strep throat for a year and a half, until they finally took out my tonsils. My immune system just couldn’t keep up.”
Greenawalt’s recurring illnesses, chronic arthritis and susceptibility to nearly every bug that went around made her life tough, but her condition also led her and partners to open OMG ... It’s Gluten Free, a cafe in Frankfort that has become so successful that it now supplies certain foods to major attractions around the country, including both Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California.
A ‘mindboggling’ change
But just a few years ago, even just knowing what it was like to “feel good,” was a seemingly unattainable goal, Greenawalt said.
With no medications seeming to help, she took some advice to try eliminating gluten from her diet for a short while. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye that causes a negative reaction in the immune systems of people with a condition called celiac disease.
So Greenawalt decided to give it a try, and stopped eating anything that included regular flour in the recipe. Not even two weeks later, the arthritis she had suffered with for more than 15 years went away.
“It was mindboggling,” she said.
As her health improved and the gluten-free diet progressed, Greenawalt decided she was done with gluten forever. But that decision wasn’t easy to implement. A strong Catholic, she found that even Sunday Holy Communion contained gluten.
“It’s sneaky,” she said. “You can even find it in hand lotion. It’s in some ice cream. Most soup contains gluten — even vegetable soup starts out with a flour base. Risotto (Italian rice) isn’t something you’d think contains gluten, but many companies mix a bit of flour in to keep the rice from sticking together.”
And even when she’s successful, Greenawalt’s reaction to the substance is so severe that cross-contamination is an issue.
“If someone uses a fork to scoop stuffing and then that fork touches some turkey I eat, that’s all it takes to get me sick,” she said. “It’s not as easy as taking croutons off a salad. Even after you do that, there’s still crouton dust on the salad.”
Making the most of it
But soon Greenawalt’s focus went from simply avoiding gluten to using her skill as a cook to come up with ways to make delicious food while leaving a main building block of western cooking, flour, out of the mix. She found a similar desire in some friends and acquaintances, including fellow celiac and food fan Julie Scianna, and the group began meeting at Greenawalt’s house every Tuesday to share and try recipes — all gluten free.
“It started as a way to find ways to feed a whole family with food that everybody would like,” she said. “The meals we came up with were so good, that word got out and people started joining us, and eventually there were nine people in my kitchen on Tuesdays. We called it Tasty Tuesdays.”
Finally, someone suggested that the food they were making was better than what many restaurants offer, and that there were currently no gluten-free eating establishments in the south suburbs. So Greenawalt and Scianna decided to open their cafe, OMG … It’s Gluten Free, in Frankfort two years ago.
“We used to say that unless something made you say ‘OMG, that’s good!’ when you ate it, it couldn’t come out of the kitchen, and that’s where the name came from,” Greenawalt said.
As word got out, the restaurant became a local hit, especially for, but not only among, people on a gluten-free diet.
“For someone who’s gluten free to sit down and eat a turkey sandwich on white bread that’s fresh out of the oven, it’s like the angels are singing,” Greenawalt said.
The perfect balance
One of the keys to their recipes was coming up with a substitute for wheat flour. Greenawalt said they tried countless different ingredients, including exotic ingredients from Africa and the Middle East, before they settled on a “delicate balance of rice, corn starch” and other ingredients that behaves and tastes similar to flour. The results have impressed even those who don’t know the flour isn’t what they’re used to having.
“Our brownies are so fudgy and moist,” Greenawalt said, and their lasagna has made such a good impression that restaurants are buying it and labeling it as their own.
Greenawalt believes OMG … It’s Gluten Free is on the front edge of a trend that can only get larger. Doctors are still reluctant to diagnose gluten allergies, she said, but more and more people are realizing the benefits of removing that protein from their diets and are demanding gluten-free options.
“If three couples go out to eat, and one person in that group is gluten-free, then that person is going to decide where they eat,” she said.
And demand for the cafe’s products is proving the truth in Greenawalt’s theory. Production has doubled in the last year, she said, and their food is now served at the Disney parks, as well as Six Flags amusement park in Texas and locally at the Shedd Aquarium and Brookfield Zoo, among many other places.
But no matter how busy they get, Greenawalt said they want to always keep the cafe open. “I love seeing the faces of (celiac) kids who get to finally have a birthday cake for the first time in their memories,” she said.
OMG … It’s Gluten Free is located at 19819 S. Harlem Ave. in Frankfort. Check out their webpage for a full menu as well as more background on the restaurant at www.omgitsglutenfree.com.