Thursday, February 9, 2017

You Had Me at Pizza

How many of you knew that today February 9th is National Pizza Day? Did you hear about this and just kind of shrug and mope away because you haven't found an allergy-friendly place to actually go to get pizza? What better way to share my love of pizza than to let you all in on a secret located in the heart of Westview, Pennsylvania - friends, I am talking about Mandy's Pizza.

Let's see if you notice what I noticed when I saw the logo.... do you see it? "Allergen Friendly"  "Vegan" are you getting excited about it now? If you are worried about some of your family who wants a good Italian meal but doesn't have food allergies you are in luck again- Mandy's Pizza has both traditional Italian food and allergy-friendly food so all of your family can have a meal together. As I read through their webpage, I was touched by the reason they began this for others so I reached out to them directly. Listen to what they shared with me:

NM: I came across your website and I have to say, being Italian and growing up in New Jersey, it made my mouth water! You offer both traditional Italian menu items as well as allergy free, gluten free and even Vegan options. Can you tell me why this was so important to you? 

MP:  The whole premise of our business was to afford everyone the opportunity to eat out safely. However, we refused to serve off-the-shelf products which are mass-produces and tasteless. 

NM: Brandon's story states he was just 9 years old when he started his cooking adventures. As a parent and him not only having food allergies but being a bit younger, did you help him out in the kitchen? Or did you let him do his own thing so he could understand it all?

MP:  In the beginning, we just let him "Have at it". Honestly, I had no idea on how to make these items and I was working at our business while he was at home making our garbage disposal fat with all of the rejected attempts.

NM: Do you think growing up around other foods helped to motivate him to help others with food allergies eat safe foods?

MP: This was the main motivator. Moreover, when I would bring him a tasteless steak salad and pizza for the rest of us, it was truly saddening to see how upset he was. Back then, there weren't very many other options for those with severe food allergies. Steak and potatoes or a plain burger and no bun were the staples of the day.

NM: What were some of the reactions of those coming into your restaurant for the first time with food allergies?

MP: Honestly, it's quite humbling and truly the only motivator that keeps me in this business. Kids to adults will come in and at times, will cry when they take their first bite. No, it's not just because of the product itself but the realization that just for a moment, they can feel normal. Sometimes when a newbie comes in and asks if we sell "allergen free pizza" I'll say "Oh, no...that place went out of business about a week ago." as a joke. I'm so evil.

NM: Have you ever had someone have a reaction while eating? If so, please explain.

MP:  Only once. Their toddler was diagnosed with Celiac Disease that week so they came in and ordered a gluten-free pizza. A short time later, it was discovered that he was likely also intolerant to dairy. The parents were not upset with us at all. In fact, our knowledge of different aspects of these diseases helped them feel more at ease.

NM: How do you prepare your menu items safely since your establishment does offer both allergy friendly AND your typical other menu items?

MP: Separate equipment, tools and strict processes. Quite frankly, it's not that difficult if you take the time to educate your staff, both young and old.

NM: I noticed that in addition to supporting those with allergies and certain dietary needs that Mandy's Pizza also has fundraisers and contests. How often do you participate in these?

MP: Fundraisers and contests are truly insignificant to our whole approach. We are more proud of the events we hold for kids with food allergies. While Brandon was young, he quickly realized how having food allergies can keep you from enjoying some of the most simple of celebrations like trick or treating or just sitting on Santa's lap. As a result of this, Brandon started holding events like allergen-friendly trick or treating for kids or allergen-free donuts with Santa. We hold these events along with Naturally Soergel's- a local business which is situated on a local apple farm but focuses on those with food allergies and gluten issues.

NM: I noticed your events are for BOTH kids and adults, I love that! Which event do you feel has drawn the most attention?

MP: OMG, allergen-free donuts with Santa! In fact, we will need to change the rules for next year so that only two parents can attend since many of the seats are taken buy "extended" family members, which reduces the number of children who can attend. This event sells out in about two hours.

NM: For those who want to try some of Brandon's foods, you offer an online store under Brandon's Best Allergen Free- what is the top selling item?

MP: Either the Cinnashugga or Vanilla Nilla Donuts. We make these cake-style donuts just like a bakery would by deep-frying them in an allergy-friendly oil. These donuts taste exactly like a traditional cake donut without the slimy or mushy texture of gluten-free only donuts. I just brought home two of our Jimmies Gone Wild donuts and Brandon yelled at me for eating one.

NM: I love the "Food Allergies Are Cool" t-shirt, who's idea was that?

MP: That was me. I am a former ad agency guy and wanted to use some reverse psychology so that kids can see the positive in being different. Frankly, they really are the cool ones since everything they eat is made just for them and not just some meal whipped up in a microwave.

NM: Being a mother of a food allergy child myself, I did notice that there are no ingredients listed on your menu items. How can your customers access these to be sure they are safe for their allergy needs?

MP: I do not list ingredients for one simple reason- safety. Others have tried to replicate what we do in an effort to just make more money. We worked hard on our menu and Brandon worked hard on his products. We don't want people viewing this as a competitive edge but rather a way of preventing others from trying to replicate what we do without the concern for safety taken into consideration. At the pizzeria, we have a handout that customers can see very easily and which items that they can eat. We take it one step further by knowing that the only real allergen in the allergen-friendly menu is corn and it's only in tow of these items. That said, all of the other items are free of the top ten allergens which is our prime focus.

NM: I see you are a part of DineSafeApp* why did you feel this was important to be a part of?

MP: Yes, in fact we have more of a business friendship. Mandy's Pizza is a strong supporter of the DineSafeApp as a result of it's focus solely on safety while dining out. While there are "other" technology solutions, this is the first that we have encountered that is not advertising focused, nor confusing to understand which items are safe to eat. We feel that DineSafeApp focuses on the true aspect of dining safely

NM: Any thoughts of expanding in the future, maybe a franchise of Mandy's Pizza so everyone can try it right in their own neighborhood?

MP: No! I went that route with a partner and it was the biggest mistake. It wasn't about making more money, it was truly so that this larger venue could accommodate parties for kids or adults with food allergies. Soon after opening, it became apparent that they didn't take this as serious as us since we had some situations that set me over the edge. Because of this, shortly after opening, I felt it necessary to remove our name and any references to our business from that location.

Honestly, I would rather see Brandon have the ability to expand his business into a larger wholesale opportunity. His new allergen-free Cookie Dough in a Jar is awesome (coming in about 30 days). I literally just made some of his NottaNuttaButta Cookies before replying to your questions. Tomorrow he has hockey and three directors of this huge facility have been pestering me for more of his cookies. None of them have food related issues.

Thanks to Mandy's Pizza and their family for everything that they do for our food allergy community! (who says food is not love?!) Their allergen-friendly menu includes: six types of gluten free and allergen free pizza (smoked kielbasa, meat eater, bbq chicken, buffalo chicken, spinach ricotta and Hawaiian), hoagies, french fries, chicken nuggets, pasta meals (pasta & meatball, pasta with sausage bruschetta and lasagna) and two types of chicken wings. You can find Mandy's Pizza at 512 Perry Highway, Rt. 19 North in Westview, Pennsylvania. Whether you are close to them or just curious, you can also visit them on the web, on Facebook and Twitter.

Don't forget to give Brandon a shout out too (you can order his items)! Brandon's Best Allergen Free can be found here.

* DineSafe App is an app that works with restaurants, eateries and resorts to offer personal menus for food allergies and dietary preferences

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