Monday, December 19, 2011

Where does the road that is paved with good intentions lead? CIBO, Flat Top Grill, Martin's and SBN airport

It's been an interesting couple of days.  So many things came across my plate, yes, figuratively speaking too.

My trip took me through Chicago's O'Hare airport.  I planned to pick up a Seitan Burrito at CIBO which had previously carried Soul Vegetarian's offerings, (now it's Soul Gourmet).  So of course there wasn't a Seitan Burrito there from Soul Vegetarian.  They did have many other offerings though.  I tried to take a picture to show you, my loyal readers, but here's what happened:

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As I took the picture of vegan offerings I was approached by this employee who told me that picture taking wasn't allowed and to delete the picture.

I'm just following orders
I have to find a lawyer to ask but in the absence of any kind of sign, in the absence of any kind of National Security Risk, isn't taking pictures in a public place legal?  Despite the claim by CIBO executives that this is how they thwart corporate spying?

Hi Marty,

I am writing to you in response to your question regarding our policy on photographs of our products in CIBO Express Gourmet Markets.  We do, in fact, have a policy prohibiting pictures taken of our product within our stores.  We have had this policy in ORD since we opened almost 4 years ago. It is, unfortunately, to help prevent pictures being taken by our competitors. Yes, that is a very real issue here.  Please understand that we do have to maintain that policy for everyone, to be as fair and consistent as possible.

I know you were interested in our vegan offerings - I will be happy to provide with you the contact information of the local vegan company, Soul Gourmet, that is our business partner.  I am sure they can provide you with pictures of their products as well company background.  I will also be happy to give you information on our other offerings if you would like.  I believe since you were here last, we did change our vegan business partner from Soul Vegetarian to Soul Gourmet.

I hope you understand that it is not that we want to lose the opportunity to be a part of your endeavor! Like many things - if we do it for one, we have to do it for all.  If I can be of further assistance, please feel free to contact me anytime! 


Kathy Contreras
CIBO Express Gourmet Markets/OTG Management

I will follow up to get you a complete menu or else I'll just have to buy everything in the store that's vegan including a whole lot of "health" bars and take individual pictures of them.  

I did buy the Vegan Eggplant Parmesan and sat at the gate eating it.  It most definitely would have been better had I been traveling with a microwave.

If you blow this pic up you can see that the ingredient list is small and the vegan cheese is home made.  It's not Daiya or Follow your Heart.

The main ingredient was eggplant and it was nicely seasoned.  I ate about half at the gate waiting to board.  I'd have liked to taste the "cheese" in it's warmed state and from a consistency standpoint this wasn't all that palate pleasing as I hacked at the contents with my plastic fork.  Still, it was nice being able to purchase something vegan without the 20 questions game.  Next time I'll try another of their offerings that might be better eaten cold.

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Next we get to South Bend.  I actually had to stop and take a picture of this.  It makes me think.  It especially makes me think because I'm a pilot.  Why do we need a special place in an airport terminal to pray?  Isn't praying on Sunday enough to cover you for the week?  Does a special "preflight prayer" give you any more insurance against crashing or is it just a good time to reflect on the afterlife?  Does praying sort of short circuit me, the pilot, from making mistakes?  Yup, makes me wonder.  I mean, if you're that scared, there's always Amtrak ... although the hand of a Supreme Being certainly has slapped a few trains off of their tracks too.

Next I'm in Elkhart, Indiana.  I scour the internet and come up with two possibilities, both in Mishawaka.  The vegan websites say over an over again, "void", "wasteland", and "limited vegan options."  Not very positive.  You'd think with so many colleges, including the tiny Notre Dame that there'd be a ton of vegan options on Happy Cow.  One, "New York Boys Pizza" held out some hopes.  Man I could use a slice with Daiya.  I call up and I speak to someone who has no clue of what I'm talking about.  "We have mozzarella," is the best I get.  "Vegan"?  No clue.  So I remember seeing something about mock meats and do a search and find The Flat Top Grill.  I'm amazed and enthralled.  Mock meats at a chain restaurant?   A do-it-yourself stir fry place?  Oh well, they'll throw my stuff on a big grill with the steak and chicken and fish right?  Nope, they actually say they prepare the food separately.  I'm in awesomeness land.  I go.

Looking at the food prep area.  The buffet is to the left.
You go down the buffet line and put your stuff in a bowl.  Then they put your stuff on a grill in piles.  Yuck if you're a vegan right?  Nope.  Watch ... 
But lets start at the beginning.

Brown rice.  Yes, brown rice.  The noodles you see above are also vegan.

The line of fresh veggies including 5 mock meats, 4 of which are vegan.  (Maybe 5 one day now that Quorn has a vegan product). 

All of this is freshly prepared.  

There are some veggie pre mixes like Pad Thai mix, (shredded carrots and purple cabbage amongst others),  and Asian Veggie mix (baby corn, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots).  There's bok choy in one of those containers.  My favorite green veg.

The Veat is vegan although regularly available Veat is not.  

After you load up on veggies and mock meat you choose your sauces.

Here's what I dropped off at the cooking station.  The wooden stick has my table number and name on it.  The white stick is the "add tofu" stick.  And the red stick is the "dietary allergy" stick. 
Now watch what happens.  This impressed even me and you know how jaded and cynical I am, right?

You can't see it but my bowl is isolated just in front and to the left of the chef on a shelf next to the fridge.

He takes a wok and puts it on the burner, not the grill, and then adds water.  Or vodka, I'm not sure.

Now what you are seeing, in this amazing split second photo, is my vegan food being tossed into its very own wok ...  all by it's lonesome.
And here's what was put down in front of me.
A few other shots of the restaurant and then the review ... and the bad news.

It's amazing to see that in the Heartland of America there is a chain restaurant progressive enough to offer mock meats.  I am truly blown away.  The veggies cooked up well, for the most part none were overdone, and that's the way you have to cook this kind of thing because you can always eat a veg with a tad of crunch left in it if it's undercooked but can't undo the mush if it's over cooked.  The bowl made it hard to eat the little things, like edamame with chop sticks but I'm not too proud of a New Yorker to grab a spoon to put the finishing touches on a consumption episode.

The flavors of the sauces were interesting.  I thought they were one dimensional but with so many to choose from they end up being quite complex when you add a few together.  I wanted to stick my finger in each one to taste but there were people watching.  How do you know what's vegan?

The bottom row shows a "v" for vegan and all of the sauces are listed on top.

Allergies like gluten free, seafood, peanut, are plainly marked.
Or so you'd think.  Ahh.  Now the next picture is a list that vegans are supposed to get when identifying as vegan.  It plainly states that you can have everything except what's on the list.  It even identifies the honey in the Korean BBQ sauce.  Some of the ingredients in some of the sauces, (in the secret recipe book that I was given a look at), are listed as other sauces, such as Bulgoggi Sauce and Char Siu sauce.  Later, with the manager Gabe, we drilled into the ingredient list.  I wasn't given this by my waitress for some reason but I suggested that every vegan be given a laminated card with a printout of this when they sat down.

This is where the restaurant shows every other restaurant how it's done ... or should be.  You say, "I'm vegan," and they say, "Here's the list of what you can't eat."  I'm not sure it needs to have ice cream and cheese on it because these are obvious to us but it's the hidden stuff that goes into sauces that creates a "gotcha," for us.  I suggested they make up laminated cards for us to carry around.

Now here's where the problem occurred.  I had asked Phil, an assistant manager what was in the Teriyaki sauce.  It was a pretty random request.  I had no idea it wasn't mixed in-house like some of the other sauces.  Phil brought over the jar and one of the ingredients was anchovies.  I'm amazed that with so many things being made in-house they use jarred Teriyaki sauce.  I think in it's most basic form it's soy sauce and sugar with maybe some clove, 5 spice, or ginger thrown in.  This was a sucker punch.  And I had just eaten some.  It was explained that they had recently changed suppliers.  Well, there needs to be some sort of trigger that when something is changed or substituted it triggers a full and comprehensive review of ingredients.   This review would't happen at most restaurants but at The Flat Top Grill, as in others which try very hard to cater to our needs, I expect it.  Sadly, it didn't happen.

Gabe later told me the next day, when I went back for a second dinner, that he was going to cover the pre-printed menu board with a blank square where the Teriyaki sauce indicated it was vegan.  This was the day after I brought the issue to his attention and it wasn't yet done but I'm sure Gabe did it.  He seemed genuinely interested in making sure that we get what we wanted.  I was just a little surprised that it wasn't done before my return visit.

Here's a sample of the ingredient list.  As you can see, some sauces have other sauces as ingredients and you really have to drill down deeply to get the full list of what's in there.   For instance, the second to last sauce, Garlic Sesame Sauce, has  Black Bean Garlic Sauce in it so you'd have to check the ingredients in that.
We found that the Bulgoggi sauce was vegan but the Korean BBQ was not as it has Char Siu sauce and that also has honey.  I didn't have time to see if there was Char Siu sauce in any other sauces.  The Flat Top Grill sauce was vegan as well.

So do we accept these errors?  I think we have to.  Humans make mistakes.  They weren't trying to slide anything by us or get away with anything.  They changed a product.  I do call them out for taking more than a day to get the change on the menu board made, or put up a label on the Teriyaki sauce that it contains fish, or something.

The real question would be if the ingredient in a new product involved an allergy instead of a moral choice.  What if shellfish was an ingredient, or peanuts?  Kudos to Flat Top for showing what all restaurants need to do to keep pace with the healthier eating habits this country is heading towards.  Kudos for providing info to those of us, for whatever reason, want to know what's in our food.  Kudos for giving enough thought to vegans that you are one of the few restaurants to plainly display our food choices.  Now all that remains is to tweak the process, develop a checklist for when products or suppliers change, and take care of errors in a more timely fashion and you'll be the leader of the pack.

A second trip to the bar is $2 for dinner or $1 for lunch ... if you're THAT hungry.  
The next day for lunch I stopped by Martin's supermarket.  I grabbed an organic spring greens mix, (surprising that there were numerous organic options), and some Maple Farms Fat Free Balsamic dressing, (vegan of course), and finished up the salad with a few things from the salad bar.  Impressive.  Colorful.  Healthy and tasty lunch.  Inexpensive too.

Leave it to South Bend to show me something I've never seen before.  A water fountain specifically designed to fill  your sports bottle.  Someone please tell me how well, (or poorly), it works as I didn't have an empty, (or full), sports bottle with me at the time.  Neat idea though.  Very Green.

One last thing that I found in the vegan wasteland of Northern Indiana.  At the airport there is a small cafe.  There's a Boca Burger listed on the menu sign.  I asked and was told, "It's a Boca burger."  When I asked which one I was once again told "Boca."  I asked, "Is it vegan?"  Lo and behold, it's a vegan veggie burger.  Now if the airport has a vegan boca burger then I would imagine that there are a few other places where vegan food can be found.  We're making inroads almost everywhere, fellow vegans.  Kudos to the airport cafe SBN.

Update to the Flat Top Grill:
Last month, in June, I had the opportunity to return to The Flat Top and much to my surprise and joy I saw the vegan indication had been removed:

Hopefully they'll do something to make the sauce vegan again instead of just living with an ingredient they hadn't intended to serve.  Still many vegan options and still a great value for the fresh stir fry.  I do very much enjoy eating where they make it easy to choose tasty, fresh, vegan food.

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