The owner of Boris Bistro never planned for his restaurant to be the only certified gluten-free safe haven in Quebec for those with celiac disease.
But in 2018, when Jean-Marc Lebeau was diagnosed with the disease himself, he realized how few options there were to eat out — so he created one himself.
"Everywhere I was going, there were almost no options for celiac people," he said.
"I told my staff, 'we're going to switch totally to gluten-free.' And they thought I was crazy, maybe I was ... but it worked."
The bistro, located on McGill Street in Old Montreal for the past 23 years, will be shutting its doors on Aug. 20 — serving a blow to the gluten-free community and those who need these options most.
'The whole menu is for me'
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that can be triggered by gluten. There's no treatment — except to avoid foods in which gluten is found, such as bread, pasta, cereal, crackers and many other foods. It can also be hidden in unlikely places, like spices, sauces and cheeses.
The disease affects roughly one per cent of people in Canada — meaning around 360,000 Canadians, including more than 82,000 Quebecers.
Even the tiniest amount of gluten can cause problems for a person with celiac disease, which is why Lebeau makes sure there is no cross-contamination at his restaurant.
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He says customers appreciate a menu curated to their dietary needs.
"They're so happy because they tell us, 'finally, I can order what I want ... the whole menu is for me.'"
Staffing, cost of gluten-free food a challenge
Boris Bistro is the only restaurant in the province approved by Celiac Quebec's certified gluten-free program. The three other certified establishments are catering businesses.
"To have a restaurant that is certified, I would say the main advantage is the reassurance," said Edith Lalanne, executive director of Celiac Quebec.
"The majority of celiac people are hesitant or will simply stop going to restaurants because they are afraid of getting sick," she said.
Lebeau says finding staff after the pandemic has been a challenge — one faced by many businesses.
"We have only one-third of the staff we need to run the restaurant," he said.
That, along with the more expensive cost of serving gluten-free food, has made keeping the restaurant open impossible.
While the closure of this beloved bistro will leave people with celiac disease even fewer options to eat out, both Lalanne and Lebeau hope more gluten-free restaurants go through the process of being certified to provide those with the disease the comfort and safety they're craving.
And although Lebeau is retiring, he says he'd like to work as a consultant with other restaurants that want to go gluten-free, offering up the wisdom he's acquired on the job.
"There is a community, there is demand, and I think somebody else should open one."