Yonatan Schkolnik

#nimatested Restaurant: How Pica Pica Became a Gluten-free Destination

#nimatested Restaurant: Pica Pica storefront

Pica Pica is a restaurant located in SF’s colorful and diverse Mission District that specializes in delicious Venezuelan eats (specifically handmade, slow-cooked, arepas). We sat down with Adriana Lopez Vermut, the owner and co-founder, and talked with her about her restaurant’s unique relationship with the food allergy community and how becoming Nima verified has helped her customers.  

“Pica Pica’s signature dish is the Venezuelan arepa. Our arepas are made by hand daily, the fillings are slow-cooked and they are best eaten with your hands.”

Tell us about your restaurant

#nimatested Restaurant: Adriana and her father

Pica Pica Arepa kitchen was founded in 2008 by my father [Leopoldo López Gil] and I. We started out in the Oxbow Market in Napa, and then opened locations in SF’s Castro and Mission neighborhoods. We are now only in the Mission St. location.

Pica Pica is steeped in Venezuelan tradition, our main product is the arepa, a grilled corn flour pocket which is stuffed with slow-cooked, savory fillings. Pulled pork, shredded beef, and crispy chicken are only a few of the options. We also serve “La Vegetariana” (a vegetarian option) that is filled with sweet plantains and grilled tofu.

Everything here is handcrafted and made from scratch daily. Our sauces are unique to Pica Pica and not particularly Venezuelan since sauces are not as common as in the US. We developed an aioli, a smokey ketchup, and a sweet hot sauce among others.   

Why is it important to you to serve the free-from gluten & peanut community?

#nimatested Restaurant: Pica Pica arepa

When we started in 2008 we only had one item on the menu – the sweet yellow corn arepa – that had wheat flour. But we still got asked by many customers with celiac disease to warm the gluten-free arepas in a separate pan to avoid cross-contact. This reminded me of my maternal grandmother who was both dairy and gluten intolerant. I remembered how hard it was for her to participate in family social events because she always got sick. Over the years she became increasingly isolated with the exception of all of us coming to her place.

When I was younger I didn’t understand the gravity of my grandmother’s situation, but now that I have kids myself I realized that with little effort we can create a safe place for people with food allergies. We removed the wheat flour item from our menu and now offer a 100% gluten-free menu. We get many emails from customers thanking us – like one from a parent telling us they were able to celebrate their daughter’s birthday at a restaurant for the first time.

We also get many people coming up to the counter to thank us, and lots of people writing Yelp reviews saying the food was delicious and gluten-free and thanking us for existing. That is a big statement and a motivator for us.

Describe how you cater to gluten-free (or other free-from) customers.

#nimatested Restaurant: Pica Pica arepa

Everything in our restaurant is 100% gluten-free and is naturally so. Our main ingredients are corn, yuca,  plantain, and taro root. All of these are traditional recipes that are naturally gluten-free so we don’t need to modify any recipes…that’s what makes Pica Pica special.

Can you describe an interaction with a customer who is gluten-free?

They vary. Some people come to Pica Pica as the first place they have eaten out at since they discovered their gluten intolerance, and are scared and hesitant because they have gotten sick at other restaurants. On the other end of the spectrum are people who are eating a gluten-free diet out of preference.

We recognize that people can get really sick, so we care about making people feel comfortable and assuring them that we are indeed free from cross-contamination here. Many customers find it hard to believe that our whole menu is gluten-free. We advise people to see our lab reports online that show our menu us under 5 ppm.

What percent of your customers are gluten-free?

On the low side, it is probably 25-30%. We are sought out as a niche restaurant. Once we satisfy someone who lives a gluten-free diet they tend to come back… a lot of these customers are repeat customers. The gluten-free community also operates on word of mouth a lot, so we get a lot of people who come in from outside of San Francisco. It’s a very loyal community.  

How did you hear about Nima?

I met Shireen (Nima’s CEO) when I opened this location, she was part of the Gluten Free Glutens’ group that celebrated their anniversary here at Pica Pica. Meeting her and the group helped me understand how important it was for people with this food sensitivity to have a place to meet and eat safely.

It’s been a few years since then, and Shireen and I have kept in touch. In fact, we just collaborated to get our Pica Pica’s whole menu tested by Nima. When the confirmed results showed everything to be gluten-free, we put on our website that our recipes were Nima tested to be gluten-free.

What would be the value of being Nima Verified for Pica Pica?

It would go a long way, particularly since there is no restaurant industry certification say like the organic certification. If we can move in a direction where people’s comfort level increases that there are processes in a restaurant to ensure they are actually gluten-free, I think it will help support a restaurant’s statement (of being peanut and/or gluten free).

How do you see Nima fitting in at your restaurant?

We have different ideas. One of them is we would like to test different dishes on a weekly basis, essentially testing all of our menu items in a rotation, and share the results with our customers on social media and on a display in the store.

We are also thinking of having capsules available for customers who would like to test their own dish.

Now that you have your Nima, what is the first thing you are going to test?

*Adriana and the Pica Pica staff have recently received both the gluten and the peanut Nima sensors*

I would like to test one of our condiment heavy dishes. We are less concerned about dishes with mostly fresh ingredients. Something like our Pulled Pork with Pica’Pun (original hot sauce) that has many spices would be an interesting thing to test.

We are looking forward to hearing more about your, and the Pica Pica staff’s experiences with the Nima Sensor!

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A special thank you to Pica Pica for chatting with us!

Do you know of any other restaurants using Nima in their kitchen? Let us know in the comments!

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