Thursday, October 8, 2009

Restaurant Non-Review: Abo's Pizza, Colorado

Earlier this week a friend had to cancel a dinner party because he was feeling sick and a co-worker had recently been diagnosed with H1N1. Kelli and I volunteered to host a change of venue so that the group could still get together. On such short notice, we weren't prepared (nor did we have the time) to prepare a scratch dinner. So we did the All-American thing...we ordered in pizza.

I first placed a call to Abo's Pizza, which has a location just a little more than a mile up the road from us. Originally founded in Boulder, there are now 18 locations throughout Colorado. Though the website didn't make any mention of a gluten-free pizza option, I figured it couldn't hurt to call and ask.

Much to my (initially) pleasant surprise, they did! But my joy was short lived. For starters, this sucker was expensive. The 12-inch GF pizza (plain) was available for the princely sum of $17.92. Add one topping, such as pepperoni, and jack it up to $19.81.

Then, as I always do, I started asking questions. "What's in your gluten-free crust?"

The guy on the phone dutifully grabbed one of the pre-made crusts and proceeded to read the nutrition information...calories, fat, carbs. etc.

"No," I corrected him. "Could you list the ingredients, please?"

He rattled off a straightforward list of ingredients (i.e. cheese, olive oil), with one glaring exception...something called the "Bistro gluten-free flour blend."

"What's in the Bistro flour blend?" I asked. "That's where the gluten would be."

"It's proprietary," was his response.

What? I couldn't help thinking. How could they not divulge the very ingredients that were meant to replace the gluten? (Never mind the questionable legality of this tactic.) In effect, they were forcing the customer to accept an implied "Just trust on this" with respect to the GF flour blend. And if I may speak on behalf of the GF community, we're not in the habit of "just trusting" anyone. We like to read the ingredients and make decisions for ourselves.

Meanwhile, the store manager was chiming in in the background, with the guy on the phone relaying the message.

"Umm, are you gluten intolerant or something?"

"Yeah, I have Celiac."

"Well, don't buy the gluten-free pizza if you're sensitive. My manager says it's better not to risk it."

End of conversation.

I ended up ordering other pizzas, and when I related this same story later that evening to our guests, one of them made a good point. "What if you hadn't asked those questions?" Indeed. What if I had simply asked if they had a GF pizza. They told me yes. And I said, "Great! Place me an order!"

This was a perfect example of when a little information (on the part of both the pizza parlor and the consumer) is more dangerous than no information at all. It hammers home a message I often try to share... be your own best advocate. Ask questions. Scrutinize ingredients. Experiences like these are what cause the GF community to so often be wary when dining out. We are sometimes forced to take a stance of Question Everything. Trust No One. (Sounds like a spy movie, doesn't it?)

But the story doesn't end there. As a follow up, I emailed Abo's corporate office with two basic questions: 1) What's in the Bistro gluten-free flour blend? And 2) What steps do you take to minimize the potential for gluten cross-contamination in your pizzerias? I pointed out that I wasn't asking for exact quantities or ratios on the flour blend, but that transparency in terms of the ingredients themselves was critical.

Founder Steve Abo replied: " of now only the Abos on [South Broadway] in Boulder has a gluten free crust that they purchase from one of our vendors. I don't produce a glutin [sic] free crust." In other words, only 1 of the 18 locations did a GF crust, basically flying solo in the effort. (Steve either ignored or was unable to answer my question about cross contamination.)

The GF pizza crust, meanwhile, is supplied by The Gluten Free Bistro in Boulder, Colorado. Julie McGinnis, one of the cofounders, kindly emailed me the ingredients of the Bistro flour blend: buckwheat flour, brown rice flour, tapioca flour, sorghum flour, coconut flour, xanthan gum, garlic salt, olive oil, and applesauce. Their premade pizza crusts are now being used by several area restaurants.

Stay tuned for an upcoming separate and independent review of the Gluten Free Bistro pizza crusts. I'll be getting my hands on some and making some pizzas at home to evaluate the crust. As for the Abo's in south Boulder...steer clear as far as GF pizza is concerned.

- Pete


Gluten Free Steve said...

Great posting Pete, as too often, when I hear "gluten free" I just presume it's safe, and never think to ask "what does that mean?!"

Congrats on the book launch!

peterbronski said...

Hi Steve... Thanks! You know it's funny, I don't always ask the follow up questions, but for some reason I did in this case. (And glad that I did!) I suppose we can never be too cautious. And thanks for the congrats! Kelli and I will be mailing you a copy ASAP!

Cheers, Pete

Live Art Fully! said...

So, my question is- if the south boulder Abo's gluten free pizza is made by the gluten free bisto- why not eat it? Is the concern cross contamination?

I'm just about to start a cleanse that includes eliminating gluten for a while from my diet, so maybe I'm ignorant, but what might be the effects of cross contamination?

I'm sensing a lot of frustration and intolerance in this blog. It must be really hard to eat out on a gluten free diet. Any tips for when I start my cleanse?

gfe--gluten free easily said...

I think we kind of have a sixth sense when things might be suspect. Sometimes I quiz in more detail than others, too. Another reason I eat gfe (just to avoid such possibilities), but oh, wouldn't it be nice to just order a safe, and delicious gf pizza now and then?

I'll repeat Steve's congratulations. Very, very exciting!


peterbronski said...

Hi Live Art Fully... For me on a personal level, there's not much frustration or intolerance, but there is a medical need to be vigilant and my own best advocate. At times it's wonderfully easy to eat out gluten-free. Other times not so. It depends partly on the restaurant, partly on what you're trying to eat (pizza vs salad, for example), and partly on your personal level of sensitivity.

Yes, the concern with Abo's would be cross-contamination. For people with Celiac Disease or those with gluten intolerance who are very sensitive, gluten cross-contamination can be as devastating as directly consuming a dish that includes a gluten ingredient. Because pizzerias deal copiously with wheat flour, the concern would be that some of the gluten in that flour (pizza dough) would be present on the gluten-free pizza, causing a reaction.

My biggest tip in terms of your cleanse and eating out is simply to be aware of a) places where gluten is obviously or covertly present in dishes (i.e. to thicken a sauce), and b) the potential for cross-contamination. Some restaurants do a much better job than others, but I have many places where I joyfully, confidently and easily eat out gluten-free regularly.

Don't hesitate to further comment or email me directly with any additional questions!

Cheers, Pete

peterbronski said...

Hey Shirley. It would be nice to just simply order a GF pizza now and then... which is why I'm grateful for BeauJo's. Never have had a problem there, and have complete confidence. It's a wonderful thing.

Cheers, Pete

Vani said...

Thank you for the info. It sounds pretty user friendly. I guess I’ll pick one up for fun. thank u

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