GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The yearslong wait is over: Grand Rapids’ gluten-free community can now step into Papa Chops Eatery and get their fast food fix without the allergen risk.
“It was a long time getting here to just sit down and eat a burger. Honestly it’s been years and years to just get to this point. It is, it’s nice. I’ve got to enjoy it. Gotta remember: slow down, enjoy it,” Muller said while sitting with his culinary team, enjoying a gluten-free hamburger and fries on the patio picnic table in front of his new restaurant.
Papa Chops Eatery will celebrate its grand opening Tuesday at 11 a.m. at the restaurant, located at 2222 28th St. SE, just west of Breton Road. It’s a dream owner and founder Aaron Muller began pursuing back in 2020, shortly after he was diagnosed with celiac disease.
“The pandemic hit, I closed down my shop and it was kind of a desperate time for my family. I did not have an income. I don’t have a degree. So I sat and thought, ‘OK, what do my skills lend themselves to? Well, I’ve been in business my entire life and I’ve frankly eaten food my entire life. So how do we marry those and where is the opportunity to bring something unique?’ And so then we started looking and said, ‘Well, my disease prevents me from so many restaurants. What if we created one that people could come in, even if they’re not gluten free, but just come in and feel safe. What would that feel like?’ And that’s really what I want to give back,” Muller said.
Early on, Muller enlisted the help of executive chef Thaddeus Whorley, whom he met at culinary school. Together in Muller’s kitchen they spent about 18 months perfecting Papa Chops’ menu, which is exclusively gluten-free dishes. The pair also traveled to Seattle to experience its gluten-free restaurants, returning to Grand Rapids with perspective and matching tattoos of the gluten-free symbol.
Meanwhile, Kozak Construction worked to transform Muller’s former intaglio printing shop, Rose Engraving, into a restaurant complete with an industrial kitchen, 16-seat dining area and outdoor patio area. Muller said they took “quite extreme measures” to make sure the facility remained gluten free throughout the process, even asking the general contractor to post signs prohibiting their workers from bringing in any outside food – a rule that remains in effect for all visitors to Papa Chops.
“The whole point of dining is to go somewhere a carefree and eat some good food. And so when you have what I have, it’s, it’s next to impossible — until now,” Muller said.
Two weeks before he turned 40, a doctor told Muller that gluten was the culprit for his illness. Muller says it takes just five parts per a million of gluten to leave him bedridden for days. Muller says he can ingest that trace amount just by contact with one of his children who had gluten at school and didn’t wash afterward.
“I’ve never seen somebody taken out like that before it’s really opened my eyes,” Whorley said.
Muller said it took about 18 months to get his condition under control and another 18 months to crack the secret to tasty gluten-free onion rings, French fries, pizza and hamburgers — all foods he had been missing since his diagnosis.
Last week, he celebrated his 43rd birthday at Papa Chops by testing out the menu on family and friends. Muller says almost all of them were not on a gluten-free diet.
“(We got) a lot if wows. A lot of ‘that’s amazing,’ even a round of applause. It was pretty cool,” Muller said.
“When people can’t tell that it’s gluten-free, you know that we’re doing our job well,” Whorley added.
ON THE MENU
The Papa Chops culinary team has a combined 70 years of experience in the kitchen, but aside from Muller, none of them have celiac disease. Muller says that’s an advantage in honing flavors.
“They are more used to the competitor’s food that has gluten in it. And so if they’re telling me they love the food (here), then that’s a wonderful sign because although I’m targeting a specific audience, the best compliment I can get is that people can’t tell this is gluten-free,” Muller said.
“We’re not trying to reinvent anything. We’re just trying to make it better and safe for people who are gluten-free,” added Whorley, who visited about 20 restaurants for food research.
Muller says there’s also an upside to Papa Chops’ form of fast food for those who can tolerate gluten.
“Although it’s not a lot healthier, it’s still healthier. The ingredients are simple, it doesn’t have preservatives, it’s not loaded with salt, sugars, all those things, so you’re going to feel better (compared to other fast food) after you eat it,” he said.
Papa Chops’ menu features 15-20 items, from the Bull Rider hamburger topped with jalapenos, pepper jack cheese, barbecue sauce, bacon and root beer-infused onions to pot roast poppers filled with peas and carrots, which are a favorite for Muller and Whorley. Prices range from $4 to $13 per item.
“I want to keep the prices people are already used to paying as close as I can because gluten-free people, they spend a fortune on food. I have a family and we spend probably five times the amount of money we used to spend before I was diagnosed. And so that’s the case with a lot of people, it’s just incredibly expensive. So it’s key to me for people to be able to come back multiple times in a week and not have their account broken by doing it,” Muller said.
Eventually, Papa Chops plans to expand its menu to include wraps and gluten-free beer.
Opening a restaurant during the pandemic comes with challenges, and Papa Chops is no exception to the supply chain and labor challenges. The restaurant’s pizza preparation table arrived a week before the grand opening, and Muller was still waiting on a couple pieces of equipment.
Muller says he’s “blessed” to have an a great experienced team in his kitchen, including a former employee of Rose Engraving. But he still needs more.
“We’re evolving, we’re adapting. Every day’s got it’s challenges,” he said.
But the overwhelming response from the Grand Rapids’ gluten-free community has reassured him at every step.
“I had a lady call me … and say that her son’s extremely excited and that he has not had onion rings in probably 10 years,” he recounted.
“I did not know what our audience would be. I know I have celiac, and so I know there’s more of them out there, but I did not know how many — and there’s a small army of them. So I think the funnest part is the ownership that Grand Rapids has taken in this,” Muller said. “If this is anybody’s project, it’s not really mine. It’s Grand Rapids’ and the people that helped make this. So thanks to them.”
“At the end of the day, we’re just two guys trying to cook some good food and help people out through the food,” Whorley said.
Muller eventually plans to add drive-thru service to Papa Chops Eatery. The business’ starting hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For updates, follow Papa Chops on Facebook.