GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Grand Rapids’ gluten-free community is getting its first drive-thru restaurant that will serve up some fast food favorites.
“I wanted to create a place that people can come to, that they don’t have to worry. They don’t have to get a manager and talk about their condition or allergy. They can just simply come in and it’s already taken care of,” said owner Aaron Muller.
Thursday, the Grand Rapids Planning Commission unanimously approved Muller’s plans for Papa Chops Eatery, located near the southwest corner of 28th Street and Breton Road, directly across the street from Pietro’s.
The site was previously home to Rose Engraving, where Muller offered intaglio printing services.
“That type of printing actually is now all but extinct. I was the last (commercial) printer in Michigan, one of only a dozen in the entire country,” Muller said.
A doctor’s visit more than a year ago led Muller down this new business path.
“I found out roughly two weeks before I turned 40 that I had celiac disease,” he said.
CELIAC DISEASE: MILLIONS UNDIAGNOSED
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the body mistakes gluten for a virus and attacks the small intestine, damaging the villi which prevents proper nutrient absorption.
Gluten is a family of proteins found in wheat, barley, rye and triticale, and can be found in an array of foods at your grocery store, from bread, crackers and pasta to soups, sauces and salad dressing. Some medications even contain gluten.
According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, 1 out of every 100 people worldwide are believed to have celiac disease, but 2.5 million Americans remain undiagnosed. The impact can be devastating, ranging from digestive and developmental issues in children to liver problems, anemia, arthritis, migraines, anxiety and even seizures in adults.
If left untreated, celiac disease puts people at risk for other autoimmune diseases, heart disease and some cancers, the foundation says.
RESTAURANT EXPERIENCE REPLACED
When Muller found out he had celiac disease, he cleaned out his kitchen, bought new equipment and began exclusively preparing his families’ meals. His children dubbed him “Papa Chops.”
Muller left the restaurant and drive-thru experience behind after cross-contamination issues with their gluten-free fare.
“After stopping at a few restaurants and getting sick, you realize that you don’t want to pay to make yourself sick, so you end up staying home and cooking. And if you’re celiac, you end up really getting trapped in a bubble. You can’t stop at a gas station to just grab something, you can’t stop at a fast food chain to grab something. You make it, you pack it, that’s what you got,” Muller said.
MASTERING THE MENU
With a desire to break that bubble, Muller enrolled in culinary school at Grand Rapids Community College’s Secchia Institute, where he met Poppa Chops’ chef, Thaddeus Whorley.
“To cook gluten-free…it’s a very big challenge, but I feel like it makes us better cooks and better chefs as well when we can cater to those allergens,” Whorley said.
With commercial test kitchens closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Whorley and Muller have been mastering their menu in their kitchens at home. Food Whorley tries from area restaurants inspires some of their gluten-free dishes.
“It’s been very, very fun, testing all of that. I feel like Guy Fieri in a way. Going around, ‘Welcome to flavor town,’” Whorley said with a laugh.
So far, the pair has come up with pizzas, hamburgers, salads and a grilled cheese sandwich. They also plan to serve up subs, wraps, onion rings, mozzarella sticks and French fries.
“Right now, as it stands, we’re going to stick with a lot of the things that I missed that I wished I could get,” Muller said.
Whorley says the menu will also tap into the area’s German and Dutch roots with deep-fried pot roast balls and pork schnitzel.
“Ultimately the mission is to have it be where you wouldn’t even know it’s gluten-free,” Muller added.
Papa Chops also wants West Michigan’s gluten-free community to weigh in by sharing desserts they’d love to see on the menu. Ideas are welcome on the restaurant’s Facebook page.
“I want Grand Rapids to fall in love with this and take ownership of this,” Muller said.
AN EYE ON EXPANSION
Muller was aiming to open Papa Chops in April, but the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted delays in construction. When complete, the restaurant will be open from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week.
While the restaurant will start with takeout only service, Muller hopes to eventually expand to the adjacent storefront and develop a dining area.
He also wants to add take-and-bake meal options for families.
“It’s something that I personally wished existed because I have to cook every meal for four kids and my wife, and so I wouldn’t mind a break myself,” Muller said.
The men behind Papa Chops plan to apply later for a liquor license to serve gluten-free beer and wine, including a craft brew specially made for the restaurant.
GROWING GLUTEN-FREE OPTIONS
The restaurant will join a small but growing list of gluten-free exclusive food establishments in Michigan.
Margaret Clegg, who tracks and reviews gluten-free restaurants on her blog MI Gluten-free Gal, has found only one other Grand Rapids spot dedicated solely to gluten-free fare: Root Farmacy, which opened in the former home of Marie Catrib’s in November.
“(It’s) an up and coming and very tiny world,” said Muller.
To see Clegg’s entire list of Michigan gluten-free restaurants, visit https://miglutenfreegal.com/