Jackfruit sliders at Speak EZ Lounge
I was listening to the radio a few weeks ago and heard a woman voice her dilemma to the talk show host, which was: “How do I cater to the many different dietary requirements and preferences of my holiday guests?” She went on to say how, in years past, she may have had a vegetarian in her midst, but now it seems the dietary needs of individuals have expanded so much and she was feeling overwhelmed trying to come up with a menu. Her conundrum made me think how this could also apply to restaurants. I wondered how restaurant menu offerings in the EatGR coverage area have evolved over the last several years to address the dozens of various dietary requirements and preferences.
Roughly twenty years ago I was a vegetarian. I was also a teenager with limited funds and didn’t branch out as much as I do now in regard to the type of restaurant or travel distance. I recall “vegetarian options” being quite limited. I would order a cheeseburger minus the meat patty. In my experience, an “impossible burger,” was not something I ever recall seeing on a menu. I also don’t remember hearing much about dietary needs or preferences such as vegan, gluten-free, nut-free, Paleo, Keto, allergy-friendly, organic, locally-sourced, and so on. There were different diet trends and a lot of “fat-free,” “sugar-free,” and “caffeine-free.” “Atkins” and “Weight Watchers” were popular then and today diets such as “Whole 30” have taken over. “Gluten-free” and Celiac Disease, along with the growing number of allergies and food sensitivities seemed rare, not widespread. Is it possible that we are more aware of the various diets or even deciding to follow a certain way of eating because of the influence of social media? Are there more restaurant patrons seeking out specialty items todaycompared to a few years ago or a couple of decades ago? How does a restaurant decide whether or not they will offer special menu items or modifications? My curiosity got the best of me, so I decided to ask a couple of local chefs what their experience has been with the evolution of restaurant offerings.
MThe first person I spoke with was Chef Michael Alexander of Noble Restaurant. For those of you who are not familiar with Noble Restaurant, it is tucked away in a strip mall on the north side of 44th street in Wyoming, just west of Burlingame Ave. Noble Restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch and offers a variety of menu items that include gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan selections. When speaking with Chef Michael he agreed that there has certainly been an increase in the number of individuals seeking out specialty fare in recent years. Gluten-free is in first place for what is most frequently requested and ordered by a wide margin over any other category on the menu. Chef Michael points out that most restaurant-goers are dining out with other people who may not follow a special diet, so it’s nice to have a menu that has options to meet everyone’s dietary wants and needs. It’s also great to be able to share a waffle with your gluten-free dining partner and actually enjoy it. All of the waffles at Noble Restaurant are gluten-free and they taste fantastic! If you’re looking to step outside your breakfast comfort zone, the Noble Nosh is a very popular item for vegans and non-vegans alike and is a favorite of Chef Michael along with several of the restaurant staff members. Chef Michael adds that there are diet trends, but the gluten-free movement is only growing and Noble Restaurant plans to continue to evolve their menu and work on their best practices in order to meet this need in the community.
The next person I reached out to was Chef Scotty Petersen of SpeakEZ Lounge. This is another hidden gem in Grand Rapids that you will not want to miss! SpeakEZ Lounge is on Monroe Ave NW near Sixth Street Park and the Brass Works Building. If you are a fan of Premier League (Soccer), then you are probably familiar with SpeakEZ, as this is the place to cheer on your favorite team. Did you know that they have a separate gluten-free and vegan menu? Chef Scotty agrees that there are absolutely more people in search of specialty menu items than ever before. He went on to say that in his experience, the change over the past decade was slow, but with the popularization of social media platforms it has accelerated more quickly. He states that, in the last 12 months in particular, there has been a noticeable increase in previously unusual menu item requests. “There will always be fad diets and nutrition trends that come and go, but there definitely seem to be more people these days actively taking interest in how their restaurant meals are prepared. More people knowing more about food and what goes in it is a good thing!”
Both Chef Michael and Chef Scotty have similar experiences in relation to the evolution of the menu and growing desire for specialty food in Grand Rapids. Not surprisingly, they also shared similar thoughts regarding my point that some chefs see this as an opportunity and others possibly find it too challenging for any number of reasons and opt not to cater to special diets. Chef Michael spoke to me about the potential challenges one may face due to constraints in the kitchen, training of staff, and whether or not a restaurant is interested in seeking certifications. Chef Scotty also spoke to me about the variety of reasons why a chef or kitchen may not be able to offer specialty menu items. “…I don’t look negatively on a place that simply cannot be gluten-free or dairy-free or anything because of limitations of space, storage, or other issue.”
Although I received some similar answers to my questions from the Chefs, I also found they each have their own unique way of creating menu items. Chef Michael advised that he creates a specific item for a category. If it appears they need to include a new gluten-free or vegan item, he will work on crafting a dish specific to meet that need. Chef Scotty, on the other hand, said he goes about creating a fantastic dish and sometimes it is a happy coincidence that it can reside on the gluten-free or vegan menu. Regardless of how the Chef comes up with menu items or if you have a special food requirement, you should check out both of these restaurants. EatGR is all about food discovery and I think that means not only discovering new restaurants, but also new cuisines. I recently tried jackfruit for the first time and was quite pleased with how much I enjoyed it! Both Noble Restaurant and SpeakEZ Lounge offer menu items including jackfruit, which has become a popular meat substitute and is often featured in vegan dishes. I’d love to hear what “specialty item” you’ve discovered and where you found it! – This is a guest blog post. Any and all opinions are that of the author and may not necessarily reflect those of EatGR or its affiliates. – About the Author. Amy Bierling is a wife, mother, and food lover based in the Grand Rapids area.