Restaurateur Renee Tassone didn't really start out to be a restaurateur.
Tassone is the owner of Eat to Total Health on Ashland Street in North Adams. She has celiac disease, which is an extreme sensitivity to gluten and gluten-based products. Her restaurant is the only gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free restaurant in Berkshire County.
In addition to running a restaurant, Tassone is a consultant, a lecturer and expert on gluten-free diets and health.
Tassone's eatery is the only completely gluten-free restaurant in the area, but it is not the only restaurant that offers gluten-free options. In fact, gluten-free menu items are no longer particularly rare on local menus.
According to packagedfacts.com, a website devoted to consumer markets of all genres, about 18 percent of American adults are buying or consuming products designated as gluten-free, up from 15 percent in 2010. The market for gluten-free foods and beverages reached $4.2 billion in 2012, for a growth rate of 28 percent since 2008.
According to www.foodnavigator.com, about 4 percent of all the restaurants in the country now offer gluten-free items on their menus. In many cities in the Northeast and West, that percentage is up to 18 percent.
According to GlubHub.com, gluten-free takeout orders were up a whopping 60 percent in 2012. Stamford, Conn. reported the second-highest jump of 12 percent, while Albany, N.Y., is No. 4 at 11 percent. Detroit was tops at 18 percent.
Celiac disease is described as an allergy to gluten products. But the usual reaction to gluten contamination is often extreme nausea and disorientation.
And while many restaurants offer gluten-free items, the potential for cross-contamination of gluten-based items into a gluten-free meal are cause for the greatest concern among gluten-free diners.
"It's huge," said Tassone. "If I have a slice of gluten-free bread, and someone butters it with a knife that was used on a piece of regular bread, the bread crumbs on the knife alone are enough to make me very sick."
In Berkshire County, a large number of restaurants offer gluten-free items. One of the most popular among people with gluten sensitivity is Sullivan Station in Lee. And there is a reason for that, according to owner and chef Darleen Zradi.
"You have to be very, very aware of cross-contamination," she said. "It is essential. There are a lot of places out there who say they offer a gluten-free menu, but they don't pay enough attention to the cross-contamination side of it. And that is the key."
Zradi and her staff have a separate prep area, use color-coded utensils, plates and pots and change their work gloves every time a gluten-free request comes in.
It helps, admitted Zradi, that she herself has a gluten sensitivity.
Zradi began offering a gluten-free menu about two years ago. Now, she said, it accounts for about 40 percent of her business.
Tassone and other celiac sufferers usually avoid restaurants altogether, because of the potential for cross-contamination. Both she and Zradi have stories of eating contaminated food and the almost immediate bouts of violent illness that follows.
One of the principal reasons Tassone's restaurant is completely gluten-free, she said, "is because I want people who suffer from these problems to come into the restaurant and know there is no possibility for cross-contamination."
Tips for dining out gluten-free:
n Call ahead and make a reservation. Inform the staff that you or someone in your party has a gluten allergy. Be aware that if you call during off-peak hours, you'll get more attention.
n Bring a typed card listing your allergies. It's helpful for a chef and the staff to understand that your allergy is serious.
n Ask questions. And ask until you feel comfortable. Most chefs have no problem with questions. They understand food allergies.
n And the most important tip: Never, never assume anything. It's your health at stake. And when your meal arrives, it's a good idea to double-check what's on the plate.