Saturday, May 18th found me in the region I grew up to explore the 7th Annual Gluten Free Food Fair at the Deltaplex. Only in Grand Rapids would one section of the Expo space be a Gluten Free Expo and the other be a Magic: The Gathering event! =)
One of the things that makes this event so unique is that, it is sponsored and run by a church (Anchor Baptist Church) as an outreach they developed after discovering several members of their small (60 people) congregation have Celiac. Since I wanted to learn a bit more about the event, I took a couple of minutes and spoke with Rachel Coin, the wife of the pastor and a super organizer. The first couple years of the event it was held at Kuyper College and was free for vendors and guests. In the last couple of years they started to charge vendors to attend, which then brought in more of the bigger names in the GF community. This year was the largest event yet, with 62 vendors and over 2,000 attendees. What is truly humbling, and one of those rare examples of a group doing something out of the goodness of their hearts to give back when they saw a need, Anchor Baptist Church makes sure that the parking is free and there is no fee for people to attend. The vendors are charged enough to cover the expo hall and associated fees, any left over money is set aside for next years event. Many church members arrived at 7am to set-up, during the event they staffed or assisted at several booths, then helped with tear down. Other volunteers were from the local Celiac Support Group. So many volunteers from these two organizations, and they were the backbone of this entire event. BRAVO!
This event saw the return of She-Liac! One of the best things about her appearing is that it opens up conversations with people I might not get to talk to. The costume is slowly being redesigned so that it is not so “Superman”-esque, but today she was rocking a fabulous tee by Celiac and the Beast.
2 things really impressed and surprised me about this event.
- The very visible presence of two major Grocery Store Chains: Meijer and Spartan Stores. The Meijers booth had their Black Bean and Salsa Tortilla chips, while the Spartan row had a small number of samples from many GF companies along with pasta and a couple items from their Full Circle brand. I had a fun conversation with the rep from Meijers corporate office about some products/brands that would be great for the stores to have. She had a list with suggestions from others, and it was great they were taking an interest in what the consumer was interested in seeing in store.
- A number of national chain restaurants had a presence at the expo: Red Robin was handing out coupons and had a raffle for $20 gift certificates, Qdoba had the makings for a chicken bowl (rice, black beans, chicken, salsa, jalapeno, guacamole, sour cream, cheese) and had their allergen information and a coupon on a dinner, Zoup has soup, Outback Steak House had their chocolate thunder from down under (and a coupon for a free one! Hello chocolate!), and The Melting Pot was there with chocolate fondue and fruit. Not to mention local restaurants Brann’s (yummy ribs and they had greens!) and the Gilmore Collection having a strong presence at the event.
After some thought, and consideration knowing my experiences in the area, I decided to attend as She-Liac. I am still working on what to do with this character, but I wanted to see if she would be a success in Grand Rapids like she was in Chicago. To change things up a little bit, I decided to wear one of the fabulous designs by Celiac and the Beast. The shirt was a hit, and I think I talked some of the bakers to purchase her cupcake tee. =) It was a slow start to the day, and I got several funny looks, but as the day went on, vendors were taking my pictures, I started having conversations with kids (the highlight of my day), and I was actually asked to attend an event later in the year!
Ok, now on to what I KNOW you have all been looking forward to — My Expo Favorites!
I can now say that I have tasted award-winning pizza, and I want MORE! Willy Olund, of Willy O’s Pizza and Grille won 1st prize in the United States and 2nd prize in the World in the non-traditional category at the 2010 International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. On top of that, at the 2 Mari in Lecce, Italy his gluten-free pizza was #1 in America! His booth always had a line, and after tasting the pizza it was easy to see why! Tasty, with a nice crunch, it left me wanting to make a stop in South Haven on my next trip through West Michigan. Plus, Willy is a character, so you KNOW we hit it off in a big way! Seriously, if you find yourself travelling along Lake Michigan in Michigan, make it a point to stop in and get one of these pies! If you don’t think you will make it to Michigan, give them a call as they will ship their pies for you to bake.
My next favorite thing goes to the West Michigan Whitecaps and 5/3 Ballpark. Not only do they have a pretty extensive GF menu (but no buns), next to each item on the menu board there is a green “GF” sticker indicating which items are available Gluten Free. More parks can learn from them!
In the GF bakery category, 3 bakeries got my attention. The Sugar Bowl Bakery from Muskegon had these fantastic eclairs that made me think of my Grandma, who was wishing something like that was closer to her. When they told me they only brought 50 packages with me, I should have jumped on it, instead of waiting to buy them when they were out. D’oh! The Flour Uprising in Mount Pleasant (Fire Up Chips!) does both GF and non-GF options. In a long conversation with one of the owners, Annette, she informed me that all of their GF baking is done first thing in the morning and all of their GF baking supplies, pans and dishes included, are stored separately from everything else. For $4(!) I purchased a tasty Peanut Butter Chocolate bar and a Chocolate Ginger scone. My last winner in the bakery round is Ethel’s Edibles om St Clair Shores. I really did not want to purchase any muffins or anything, but then I tried their Humming Bird muffin. Oh. My. Goodness!! And then a big SQUEE! Then maybe one other sound of joy as this touches your taste buds. Imagine if you will a muffin containing the following: pumpkin spice, pineapple, coconut and raisins, then cover it with an orange cream drizzle. It is a surprise and wonder that I have not hoovered the four I purchased.
The last merchant is one that I met in Chicago, Keeki Pure and Simple. I bite my nails and I am forever on a search for nail polish I can put on and then chip off. It’s weird, I know. I liked the 2 colors I purchased in Chicago along with the yummy tasting chapstick, so I wanted to pick up more. This time I got a base coat, another nail color, and some of the Cherry Body Lotion. A full review of what I tried is in the works, but it was fun to meet Keeki, the inspiration for the brand. One of the silly asides from the event is, after purchasing my items, I left them on the Keeki table. Of course, I did not realize it until I was back to my parents and went through everything. Natalie, the CEO and Keeki’s mom, had her cell phone on her business card and met me at a local mall to give me what I had purchased — and she remembered the name of the nail polish even! Thanks for the fantastic customer service, Natalie and Keeki!
One of the BEST things about the Expo was getting to meet up with a couple of friends. At the Chicago Expo, I had the chance to meet Keeley McGuire. Being a West Michigan girl, she came to the Expo with her mom and Little Miss. It was such a joy to see her again and meet everyone. I also got to catch up with Cece Otto, who was working for Schar while on a break from her American Songline journey along the Lincoln Highway. If you can picture Kermit the Frog doing his crazy arm flailing, that was how I felt inside seeing these wonderful ladies.
There were 2 downsides to the expo. One is that one of my favorite brands had next to no presence at the event, and what they had was so ridiculous it was depressing. The other is that this event emptied out around 2pm after being super busy. I had honestly never seen anything like that!
Bravo to Anchor Baptist Church for putting together another successful event and here is to many more!
If you had not already guessed from my Gluten-Free Disneyland-Days 2-5 post, I love breakfast. Specifically pancakes, french toast, waffles, and crepes. You know, the gluten-y, yummy stuff that is pretty much poison to my body. Not quite skull and crossbones I am going to die poison, but bad enough that I feel like I am going to die and am miserable (and miserable to be around). And even though I know how to pop some frozen waffles in the toaster, or dunk a GF bread in eggs, milk, and cinnamon, or even use Bisquick or Pamela’s to make pancakes, there is something nice about going out to a nice brunch. While I know omelets are always an option, I am looking for the taste, textures, and aromas that make my mouth do a happy dance and make me wanting to lick my plate because I cannot get enough. That is not too much to ask, right?
My first adventure in GF brunching was at Meli Cafe. This corner cafe is located in the heart of Greektown, and was chosen by an amazing mezzo-contralto,and fellow Glutard, Cece Otto. Since I knew nothing about the restaurant, I poked around their website a bit and saw that they were well-reviewed by the Chicago media. Maybe I should have raised a couple of red flags when their site’s “About” section talked more about the eggs they used then about the food they made…
Cece arrived before I did and went back into the February air to wait for me with our pager from the restaurant. I am not sure how long we ended up waiting, but Cece had been told about 20 minutes. We heard people coming out saying upwards of 40, so the wait kept getting longer. Inside the decor is bright and welcoming, with sunshine yellow paint on the wall, natural wood stained trim, beautiful paintings of flowers and some interesting floral displays on the walls. Other than the insane crowd, this place was saying, “Welcome, enjoy yourself and your meal.”
One of the things that attracted us both to Meli was their selection of smoothies. Cece ordered the Vegan (almonds, pecans, soy milk, maple syrup), while I tried the Peanut Butter (peanut butter, banana, frozen non-fat yogurt, milk, chocolate, and whipped cream). They were pretty tasty and something I would go back for again.
Upon opening the menus we were shocked and surprised in the very best way. The second page of the menu was their GF offerings! Page 2! Of the regular menu! Since this is not something you see very often, our smiles got wider by a few degrees.
After looking it over, and weighing the pros and cons of trying the Polenta Pancakes, we both decided to try the Vegan Gluten Free French Toast. To me, the polenta pancakes did not sound as appetizing as GF bread dredged through a soy milk custard, topped with raspberries, blackberries, banana, and paired with an agave syrup. It sounds AMAZING!!!! Plus, add a side of bacon to the mix and it is almost a brunch lovers dream. Sadly, the dream ended with the visual presentation of the meal. After putting that little bit of butter and then drizzling that warm agave nectar syrup over my slices, I eagerly dug in. What I found was dry, dry, dry, weird texture, not delicious at all. Did I mention dry as the Sahara Desert? I slogged my way through a slice, ate all the berries, drizzled a bit more nectar on it and still could not bring myself to finish it.
This is where the service started to get weird. Our server comes back, asks how everything is, I mention being less than pleased with it, and she whisks it away. Oooookay. About 5 minutes later she comes back and asks Cece if she is done (clearly she is not), and I mention that I would like to look at the menu to see if there is anything else I would like. While all of the following is going on Cece is letting her french toast sit, and sit, and sit in a puddle of agave syrup. For 20 minutes! At this point she declares that her french toast have enough moisture to not be a torture to consume.
Menu comes, I look it over and decide that a crepe look really good (in small print under the crepes I saw they had a GF crepe batter). We ask about the preparation of the crepes and discover that, while they do not have a separate crepe maker, they clean it really well between batches. Seeing as how I was still hungry (and hearing Sapps voice in my head calling me an idiot for risking it), I decided that the Symphony Crepe (chocolate infused crepe filled with Nutella, strawberry, and banana, topped with banana, strawberry, and pecans) sounded pretty freaking amazing. As I ordered, the waitress let me know that I would still have to pay for my french toast, and I assured her that I was willing to do that. Maybe because I have a service industry background, but I found it weird that she felt the need to tell me that fact. However, I know there are people out there who want something for nothing, so whatever.
My crepes arrive and they look DELICIOUS!!! By this point in the meal, I am very apprehensive. Not 5 minutes after the crepes are set in front of me, and BEFORE I EVEN HAVE A CHANCE TO TRY IT, the waitress is back asking if I am done and if she can box everything up. Wha-WHAT!?!?! Do you not see this fresh, untouched plate of food sitting in front of me? Do you not see Cece’s 1/2 drunk smoothie and the french toast still on her plate?? Instead of getting irate, we calmly told her I had just been served and we were going to be a while. The crepes, by the way, were tasty, but by this point in time the service and overall experience had been so bad that I was losing my appetite.
The final nail on the coffin of my desire never to return came not long after when they brought us our bill. Along with a plastic cup and straw for the remains of Cece’s smoothie. Tactless, classless, and rude. At that point, we knew we decided to talk to the manager.
I don’t really know if it was because they were super busy, I do not really care. But the fact they advertise gluten-free, yet cook it on the exact same surfaces as everything glutenous, is the first reason that I will not return to Meli Cafe. The second is the service issue. Brunch is a time to relax, catch up, gossip a bit, and enjoy the company you are with. It is not something for the servers to rush you through.
Another friend of mine told me that their omelets are good, which I may (but probably may not) keep in mind in case I ever want to go back. But for me, the cross contamination possibility paired with not enough indoor waiting space and poor service is enough to keep me from making a return trip.
PS: Cece is preparing to go on a cross-country trip along the Lincoln Highway doing an American Songline (basically singing the songs of the road from the time when it was a popular path across the US). Check it out and think about contributing to her Kickstarter campaign.