A customer walks into Serendipity Café in Dunedin, steps to the counter and starts telling Kim Mohr how awful she has felt for 14 years. Insomnia. Fatigue. Malaise. Digestion issues. Then she thanks Mohr for opening her cafe. They've been talking for five minutes, and the customer hasn't ordered anything yet.
In the past several weeks, the customer says, she learned about gluten intolerance. She decided to try a gluten-free diet, and her condition changed immediately. She can sleep. She is energized. Aches and pains are gone. She implies changes in the relationship with the man she's having lunch with. She is vague about those changes, but she is giggling. She is probably close to 40.
Mohr nods, and smiles, and patiently awaits an order. She knows this story. She has heard it before. She has her own.
Serendipity Café is a gluten-free restaurant, one of several healthy-fare spots that have opened in the bay area in the past year. For people with an intolerance to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, navigating a menu can be treacherous. Not so at Serendipity.
The customer's testimonial was similar to others that Mohr has heard since opening in March. Except for one thing.
"It isn't unusual for there to be tears," she says.
Plenty of customers
In a time when more restaurants are closing than opening, the bay area has seen these specialty businesses set up shop:
• Viitals, a gluten-free and vegetarian cafe and bakery in Tampa.
• Serendipity Café in Dunedin, which doesn't serve anything with gluten or high-fructose corn syrup.
• Healthy Hut in St. Pete Beach, a breakfast, lunch and dinner cafe inside a new health food store.
On top of those, Gourmet Pizza Company in South Tampa added a gluten-free crust and breadsticks to its menu this year, using dough made by Viitals. Initially it added the option for a single longtime customer after he was diagnosed with gluten intolerance. But within months, gluten-free products have joined the restaurant's bestsellers.
"It is inspiring to me that these places are popping up," Mohr says.
She envisions a "clean-food network," where health-oriented restaurants with different specialties cross-promote their business to share customers. "That way, people get to try different foods that are all good for them."
The customer base is growing. The National Institutes of Health estimates that more than 2 million Americans have celiac disease, the most serious manifestation of gluten intolerance. But other research estimates that 10 times that many people have various levels of intolerance, and advocates say that because of the nature of the symptoms, the number of undiagnosed people could be much higher still. Common symptoms are bloating, diarrhea, constipation, joint pain, fatigue and headaches.
John Osegovic, 37, has been a customer of Gourmet Pizza Company since 2001. About three years ago, his brother was diagnosed with a gluten intolerance, so he got tested and found he had it, too.
"I had it all my life, but I only found out after my brother got tested," he said. "I felt better as soon as I stopped eating wheat."
But no wheat meant no pizza at his favorite hangout. He kept going, because of the social scene.
"It was a good place to meet friends and go before a movie. I would just have salads."
One of those friends was owner Kristina Lima. She noticed the switch to salads.
"We spent almost all of 2009 researching crusts to find out which ones he liked," she says. "It started out all about him. Then we found out there was a demand for it."
Osegovic said he tried a lot of gluten-free pizza doughs that year. Some tasted good as breadsticks, but not as pizza. Some tasted good as pizza, but didn't hold up well for leftovers. But everyone was happy when they tried the dough from Viitals, which is made with, among other things, garbanzo bean flour, potato starch, sorghum flour, tapioca and fava bean flour.
"This dough allows for the quality of their ingredients to come through," Osegovic says.
Initially, the restaurant stocked a supply for Osegovic, but then word started spreading and more people were asking for it. As people who hadn't been able to eat their favorite pies found out about them, Lima began dedicating more space and effort to them. Now the gluten-free pizzas have special cooking screens and cutters to avoid cross-contamination. All pizzas are dusted with rice flour to minimize airborne wheat. Most toppings are gluten free, and the ones that aren't are clearly marked.
"It was a much larger response than we ever anticipated," Lima said. "It has been very emotional. We had a 9-year-old boy come in recently, and he was able to have his first pizza here. We feel like we are really helping."
'I re-engineer food'
Ivan Nikolov isn't allergic to gluten or any of the major food allergens that he has eliminated from his food. He started baking without them when he was a bodybuilder, competing mostly in events that had stringent antidoping rules.
"I was sick of drinking my food," he says, "so I started making muffins and pancakes for myself."
After he got out of competitive bodybuilding, he worked to perfect his baking and opened Viitals Café and Bakery in Tampa.
"I'm a self-taught baker. I am a trained engineer. Now I re-engineer food to make it more nutritional and functional to the body."
He started Viitals about a year and a half ago as a wholesale bakery, then opened the cafe last October so he could serve his food to customers. He makes panini with his gluten-free bread and has flatbreads and salads. He also makes meal-replacement muffins and smoothies.
Something for everyone
Serendipity is a fortunate discovery made by accident. That's how Kim Mohr discovered her gluten issues.
"I was in my mid 30s and I was always tired and I thought I had cancer. I was thinking, 'Am I dying?' Or, 'Is this what it's like getting old?' "
She enrolled in a program to become a health counselor, and during one of the sessions, the instructor talked about gluten intolerance and celiac disease. All the symptoms sounded familiar: exhaustion, joint and muscle pain, dry eyes, digestive distress. So she followed a gluten-free diet to see what would happen. It worked. She said she has never been tested for celiac disease because it required inducing symptoms. She wasn't that interested in knowing the precise name of whatever it was that she didn't suffer from anymore.
Then she got back in the kitchen.
"I always loved to cook before, and I love food. So after I got over the abandonment issues (of losing so many food options), I started creating food again, just without gluten."
This led to her teaching cooking classes, where students told her that the food was great, but they didn't have time to make it. So she should make it for them, at a restaurant.
She found a spot on Main Street in Dunedin and spent nine months converting it from a music store to a diner. There is a large open kitchen, with a long, low counter facing into it. From every seat, diners can see everything that is going on in the kitchen — and talk to Mohr about it. She talks about "cooking with love" with a degree of credibility that constantly eludes anyone who ever claims it on television cooking shows.
Her strategy for the menu was to make everything easily recognizable and accessible. Breakfasts are eggs, cornmeal pancakes, French toast made from gluten-free bread she makes. Lunch is pressed wraps made with brown rice tortillas. Meat and dairy choices are there for those who want them, and are easily avoided by those who don't.
"The core of my philosophy is: If I wouldn't eat it, I won't feed it to you," she says. "I wanted to make it so that people who are gluten free can bring their friends in and everyone can enjoy the food. So much of our socializing is centered around food, and people who have restrictive diets can get left out."
Soon a natural food store is opening in the strip mall next to Serendipity Café. That fits in perfectly with Mohr's idea of a clean-food network. Her goal for that network is modest.
"When people are eating better, it improves the way they feel, and that improves the way they think. I just want to make the world a better place."
Jim Webster can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8746.