By Vic Dolcourt
Goodbye, New York City – Hello, Santa Cruz
The Bay Area gluten-free community is pleased to be the landing spot for celiac advocate Erin Smith, who moved here from New York in January. Erin’s name, vitality, and smile may be familiar to members of our community who are active in national and regional gluten-free events.
As a longtime blogger, experienced traveler and successful community organizer, Erin is a popular speaker with a busy schedule. She is starting to focus her energy on the Bay Area, including establishing a new support group in Santa Cruz and attracting California clients to her gluten-free consulting work. You can also catch up with Erin when she speaks at the Celiac Disease Foundation’s National Conference and Gluten-Free Expo in Pasadena the weekend of April 30th and May 1st.
NYC Celiac Disease Meetup
Erin can’t remember the time when she wasn’t gluten-free. “I was diagnosed with celiac disease when I was two and a half. Being gluten-free has always been a part of me, and advocacy for our community is what I do personally and professionally, both within the gluten-free community and outside of it as well.”
During the past ten years, Erin organized and spearheaded the New York City Celiac Disease Meetup, the largest gluten-free Meetup in the country with a roster of more than 2,000 people in New York City and the surrounding Tri-state Area. The Meetup’s community calendar includes a variety of local gluten-free classes and events, as well as the group’s restaurant meetings, sometimes several a month.
“It wasn’t always that way, certainly not ten years ago,” Erin said. “This was a chicken and egg situation. People wanted to meet up and enjoy the NYC dining scene, but restaurants were iffy at best, and celiacs were afraid to eat out. So, I had to solve both ends – helping people to feel comfortable eating out and educating chefs about our community. But if a restaurant is adept at preparing a safe gluten-free meal, how will the word get out? This was another aspect I needed to solve, and it turned into a business opportunity.”
Consulting work that helps gluten-free businesses and consumers
Erin noted that chefs are very good at creating appealing ambiance and delicious gluten-free meals, but they generally don’t have the time, knowledge, or energy to spread the word about their services to the gluten-free community online and in social media. This is one service that Erin provides through her consulting work as the Gluten Freelancer, where she offers a variety of media, writing, event and travel services.
Erin said, “When a restaurant is capable of safely serving the gluten-free community, people come back time and time again. We’re a very loyal constituency, and we bring in our friends, many of whom aren’t gluten-free. Chefs need to get the word out, and I’ve been helping them do that for the past nine years. It’s win-win for both our community and for the chefs.”
“Sometimes I’ll find a restaurant that is either naturally gluten-free or so close to gluten-free that a small change will make it completely gluten-free,” Erin said. “One example is a pop-up restaurant in Santa Cruz that switched over to 100% gluten-free because the proprietor has a friend who needs it. He said he wanted to make his restaurant safe for his friend.”
“I also work with chefs to help them understand that serving food to people with celiac disease goes beyond gluten-free ingredients. Although eating out in a restaurant with a shared kitchen is a risk, when I plan an event at a restaurant I feel responsible to do everything I can to work with the venue before the guests arrive. It is a lot of work that goes into putting together a gluten-free event, but it is worth it,” said Erin.
Not “All work and no play”
“I thrived on the excitement, energy and community in New York,” Erin said, “but Santa Cruz has incredible beauty, wonderful weather and amazing beaches. Over time, and as I learn more about the Santa Cruz area, I would like to plan fun events like wine tastings, a potluck picnic on the beach or a hike,” Erin said. “I planned many social activities in New York City, and I want to do it here. I reached the celiac community through my blog and social media channels. I’ll be redesigning my website in the future and there will be some changes, but look for announcements of this type and more at glutenfreefun.blogspot.com.”
Fundraising for medical research
The NYC Celiac Meetup isn’t only about people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity having a good time with one another. In late March, the Meetup hosted an annual benefit for the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, and supported the arts at the same time. The event was an evening with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, with a portion of the ticket sales benefiting the Celiac Disease Center. “Although Santa Cruz is too small a community to host an event of this scope on its own,” Erin noted, “the greater Bay Area has both the resources and the population, as well as celiac disease research at major medical institutions. As a community there are a lot of things we can accomplish.”
Safe gluten-free adventures
Erin is often asked to present her perspective on traveling safely with celiac disease, and she documents her adventures on her travel website, glutenfreeglobetrotter.com. “I haven’t been to Newfoundland before, and I’m excited to be invited to speak at the Canadian Celiac Association’s annual conference in St. John’s in June. St. John’s is a city on Newfoundland Island, way out in the Atlantic, and it is about as far east as you can go in North America. I will most definitely write about this travel experience.”
“There are cities that are especially friendly to safe gluten-free dining, and one of my projects has been to highlight them,” Erin said. “My travel website also offers tips to travelers about what to bring along on a trip and itinerary planning assistance. Gluten-free dining cards are important when you go to a restaurant where staff members do not speak English as their first language. I’ve even found that a travel card is important in New York when I go to a Chinese restaurant.”
If you live in the Bay Area, meet Erin in person at a Santa Cruz event or invite her to speak at your Northern California support group (and buy her a tank of gas).