The East Valley is known for its innovative culinary options – and a growing trend among restaurants and bakeries involves patrons with food allergies or special dietary needs.
Three area establishments are among those that are coupling fresh ingredients with safety precautions in main entrees and baked goods.
Intentional Foods Café & Market, Spooky’s Swirls and Drink Me! Tea Room all appeal to diverse niches with delectable menus.
Drink Me! Tea Room
One step into the Drink Me! Tea Room, on the Chandler-Tempe border in the Countryside Specialty Shops, has customers spiraling down the Rabbit Hole to Wonderland, complete with storybook décor and treats that inspire a magical high tea experience.
“I decided to open the tea room after being inspired on a family trip to London, said owner Melissa Harlan. “We went to London over spring break 2019 and experienced afternoon tea a number of times over the week. We all enjoyed the experience so much that I started writing my business plan on the flight home.”
Harlan had been planning to leave her corporate job that year and thought, “This would be a great idea for my next chapter.”
“I am both vegan and gluten-free and it’s a challenge to find the combination of both when eating out. Afternoon tea is such a fun experience,” she explained. “I wanted to be sure that everyone could enjoy the experience and not feel as if they are missing out due to their food challenges.”
Harlan was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, an autoimmune disorder, and quickly realized that eliminating gluten from her diet allowed her to feel better and rely on nutrition to help heal.
Additionally, she is vegan and has found the East Valley has quite a following when it comes to seeking out delicious vegan cuisine.
“Our kitchen and our menu are both 100 percent gluten-free and plant-based,” she said. “When we confirm our guest reservations, we also ask if there are any additional food allergies. Most of the time we’ve been able to modify our items to accommodate any additional food allergies such as soy or nuts.”
Harlan said guests are often overwhelmed and grateful that they don’t have to ask a lot of questions or worry about the food when visiting Drink Me! Tea Room.
“I’ve had a guest cry happy tears and want to hug me – if it weren’t for COVID-19 – out of gratitude for being able to eat without worry,” she said, adding guests “express their gratitude for our opening and our offering of something that is a fun experience where they feel cared for.”
She recalled one guest, named Sonya, who “surprised us one day by coming back in with a thank you gift about a week or so after dining with us – a handmade tea cozy that she had knitted in colors to match the tea room.”
“This one brought tears to my eyes and filled my heart,” Harlan said. “She enjoyed her experience at the tea room so much that she took the time to make us a gift. Meeting all of our lovely guests has been the best experience for me.”
With touches of whimsy reminiscent of childhood. Drink Me! offers specialties such as Wonderland Tea, an almond chess board cake wrapped in homemade purple marzipan, cucumber and cashew cream crisp on a house made cracker, vanilla shortbread “Eat Me” cookies and a combination of lemon curd and coconut cream served with scones.
Spooky’s Swirls in Chandler is the brainchild of owner Lola Forbes and pastry chef Chris Szydlowski, who combine their passion for baked goods and motion pictures.
Everything in their bakery is gluten free, which means it is safe for those with celiac disease to enjoy a treat or who seek a custom creation for special occasions.
“We decided to go gluten free with our business because we felt there was a lack of fun, fresh baked, quality items in the area,” Szydlowski explained.
“Most kids can get a birthday cake at a grocery store or bakery so we really wanted to take care of those kids with allergies that are usually left out. We feel everyone deserves a cake on their birthday.”
During Halloween celebrations, for example, Spooky’s Swirls developed a horror movie theme for its sweet treats.
Szydlowski and Forbes are movie prop collectors.
The shop houses an impressive museum of their collection. Though it is currently closed due to COVID-19, many of their cinematic horror items were on display in the bakery.
The bakery is a dedicated gluten-free facility, Szydlowski said, stressing “We don’t take any chances when it comes to any possible cross contamination and have extensive knowledge of our ingredients. Gluten-free is our main focus at this time.”
Recently, a 4-year-old boy requested a gluten-free cupcake for a friend who was attending his birthday party.
“His birthday wish was for her to have something to eat at his party because she usually couldn’t,” Szydlowski said. “My partner and I both teared up…It’s times like this that absolutely make everything we do worth it.”
“Our namesake is the ‘Spooky’s Swirl,’ our freshly made cinnamon bun, which is still our best seller,” Szydlowski said. “We try to put our spooky theme on all of our items – we do many non-spooky special requests as well. Being pop culture junkies, we try to get creative with names and descriptions. For example, our cheesecakes are SCREAMcheese cakes.”
Intentional Foods Café & Market
Intentional Foods Café & Market has quickly built a brand with allergy-safe items that are both unique and thought out.
This mission is personal for owners Lisa and Ned Heath, whose establishment is on the Gilbert-Mesa border.
With experience in the restaurant industry, they wanted to be a change-agent for diners with food allergies – like their own daughter.
“At only 6 months old, our middle daughter Sarah was diagnosed with a life-threatening nut allergy,” Lisa said. “We didn’t realize how serious it was, nor were we educated on life-threatening food allergies. But we’ve learned all too well just how scary having food allergies can be.
“Everything changed for us the day she took one bite of a granola bar at preschool. One bite almost led to us losing our daughter.”
The couple began to ask the questions – including “What if she could have everything on the menu?”
The Heaths built a worry-free dining environment to give people with food allergies and celiac disease a sense of normalcy that they were missing due to the real worry of a life-threatening reaction to food.
“Our café is free from all nuts, gluten, wheat, eggs, dairy, soy, seafood, shellfish and sesame,” Lisa said. “We contact every manufacturing facility for every single ingredient down to the salt and pepper to ensure that it is free from cross contamination of any of the top nine allergens.”
“If there is an allergen in our kitchen that is outside of the top nine allergens, we prepare the dish in a new pan with new tongs, change gloves and assemble in a separate area of the kitchen.”
Popular finds at IF include fresh baked doughnuts, cookies, lemon bars and cupcakes, along with cinnamon roll and churro donuts.
“Many times, we have cried with fellow allergy mamas witnessing children eating at a restaurant for the first time. Our favorite is when they surprise their allergy babe with a visit to IF and then tell them they can order anything they want from the menu.
“Seeing families gathering around a table creating memories, for birthdays, dance recitals, after sports games, or just hitting a Taco Tuesday because they can – seeing the joy – it fills our cups. It fuels us to keep going.”