Gluten Free Challenges at Old Chicago

by | G+ Amy Leger

Five years ago (hard to believe it has been that long), after some negotiations with the staff, chef, managers, we were able to get a gluten-free meal for my celiac daughter at Old Chicago.  The original posts came out in June of 2009.  I thought it was high time for an update.

ocgraphicI emailed Old Chicago to see whether gluten free dining has improved there or not.  I received a reply from Fred Genth, Corporate Chef at Old Chicago Restaurants, who also had celiac in his family.

He brought out many points about the challenges Old Chicago has with creating safe, gluten free food.  But they haven’t ruled out the possibility of trying to be a little more gluten free friendly.

Old Chicago’s Challenges with Gluten Free

Cross Contamination Concerns: When I asked about their gluten free friendly status, Genth replied that it a big challenge for Old Chicago to take that step. “Unlike most of our competitors, we serve pizza and cookies… both of which we make from scratch,” Genth said. “This means that we carry two kinds of flour and our mixer is constantly mixing three kinds of pizza dough and cookies. Those prep areas are not separated from other production areas and as a result, there is flour in the air and potential cross-contamination is almost assured.”

Staff Training:  “We do not have training programs in place that teach the nuances of gluten free requirements and affects,” Genth said.

Gluten Free Future?: This is a little dicey, because as many people with celiac and non-celiac gluten intolerance know, it is annoying when companies start or have a gluten free product and deliberately don’t keep the people in mind who need it most.   But that is what is being explored at Old Chicago.

They are currently testing out gluten free pizza crusts, but because of cross contamination, Genth  says they would not be for someone with a gluten free medical diagnosis. “These pizzas would be acceptable but they would certainly carry trace amounts of gluten.  [The gluten free pizza] will be viewed as a lifestyle choice but not an illness-related choice due to the contamination.”  He says the marketing department will make the final decision on whether they add the gluten free crust.

Anything for us other than pizza? Well, yes, there are other options of foods that are inherently gluten free, like burgers (no bun), “steaks, ham, turkey, Canadian bacon, chicken wings, chicken breasts, pepperoni, sausage & salami. Vegetables and salad mixes are also appropriate selections”, but, Genth adds, “…at this time it would be inappropriate, given our homemade pizza position, to encourage gluten intolerant folks to make us a gluten free destination through special menuing.”

I have to say I do appreciate Genth’s knowledge of cross contamination when dealing with these questions. It is important to have that knowledge to successfully answer the gluten free questions accurately — even if the answer is not what we celiacs want to hear.

Bottom line, the top chef at Old Chicago says it’s not safe for someone with a celiac or non-celiac gluten sensitivity diagnosis to eat there because of cross contamination. We know other restaurants, like California Pizza Kitchen or Pizza Luce (in MN), that have gone to great lengths to create a pizza safe for all gluten free eaters.  Are Old Chicago’s challenges fixable?  Yes, but only with a massive overhaul a la CPK.  At this time something like that does not appear to be in the cards for Old Chicago.

Have you been able to eat there successfully?  Feel free to share in the comments below!

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One Response to “Gluten Free Challenges at Old Chicago”

  1. I quit eating at Panera because I think the situation there is similar. They are all about bread. I don’t know where the dough gets mixed up, but I do know that bread is being handled and sliced extensively in the food-prep area. The last time I went there, the whole tray of GF menu items I’d ordered was liberally sprinkled with bread crumbs. They did take it back and replace it with a more carefully prepared tray, and I didn’t get sick, but the dangers inherent in the environment were brought home to me, and I haven’t been back.

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