What is there to say about a shop that ONLY sells mac and cheese? It’s America’s perfect comfort food and you can have it in any variety you want at this quick counter service restaurant. Amazing right? End of story right? Amazing yes but not the end of the story. Especially from the gluten free perspective.
This mac and cheese is literally perfect. You can get basically any kind of variety you can think of and you can customize any dish fully to your liking. I got two dishes to try. One was the alpine which has Gruyere cheese paired with slabs of bacon which was delicious. The other was the cheeseburger version which had seasoned ground beef, American cheese and cheddar cheese. Both were out of this world delicious. If you eat these in the shop then they are served in a piping hot skillet which adds to the experience. What doesn’t taste better in a skillet? “Take and bake” is also available where they prepare it for you and package it up cold for you to take home and heat up.
You’ll find better service at a Chipotle than at a S’mac. Not sure what that says but the service from a gluten free perspective isn’t the best. Two reasons for that. The first reason and the heart of this bad score is that you place your order on a kiosk screen. Anyone with celiac or a severe gluten sensitivity knows just how scary this can be. Especially with a mixed kitchen involved. The idea of not being able to communicate my gluten free needs to someone always makes me nervous. At other fast casual restaurants such as Chipotle, you at least get to interact with your counter person and watch them go down the line with your meal (after they hopefully changed their gloves). This gives you some assurances at Chipotle that you won’t get here at S’mac.
The second reason is the following. I attempted to talk to one of the workers behind the kiosk asked him how safe this would be for someone with a gluten “allergy” (I always hesitate to mention Celiac if the person doesn’t understand what it is). He responded that everything is done separately. I asked if he would go back into the kitchen and relay my concerns to the chef when my order comes through and he obliged which I appreciated. Where is the problem here you may ask? The issue is training. These workers aren’t servers or even fast casual food preparers and aren’t trained as such. They also don’t communicate with customers constantly like a server does or have built in incentives like tipping to make sure their customers are taken care of properly – even though that system is far from foolproof.
Now let’s talk about another problem that involves the kitchen. I recently wrote a review of Jersey Mike’s in Secaucus NJ and how the staff did everything they reasonably could to make sure my order was safely gluten free. But the kitchen is FULL of gluten and the grill is used to cook bread so wiping it down, as they did, can only do so much, if anything. I didn’t get sick thankfully (maybe luckily) but the effort they made is truly all anyone can ask for if they choose to take the chance like I did.
Here at S’mac, the mixed kitchen problem is very similar except for two things – you don’t get to watch or interact with the chef like you do at Jersey Mike’s. The kitchen is behind closed doors and out of sight. Based on reviews from Find Me Gluten Free, it seems that switch ups have happened before where they accidentally served regular pasta instead of gluten free pasta. I’m not really sure how those people knew they were served actual gluten filled pasta but maybe they were right. Or maybe it has to do with cross contamination. You just don’t know because this fast casual restaurant has a kitchen behind closed doors.
The other hidden issue I believe regarding cross contamination is the skillets. Skillets are meant to be slightly porous on the top layer (not all the way through) and are extremely tough to fully wash out and clean. That’s the point to them. They are meant to retain flavor and enhances the taste of the food that is cooked in it. This is a great thing for the taste of the mac and cheese here but I wonder about long term cross contamination. There are many more positive reviews on the Find Me Gluten Free then negative ones so maybe this isn’t an issue? Maybe those that got sick did get the wrong order? Hard to tell. Maybe someone on Instagram can shed some light.
Overall though, a huge improvement would be for S’mac to have some sort protocol involving employee oversight of the gluten free order and bringing out the food with a gluten free flag in it. Similar to Friedman’s handles gluten free orders. If staff was trained accordingly, and the protocol was communicated to us along with the gluten free flag – I think the negative reviews on Find Me Gluten Free would never have occurred and the potential for issues would go down drastically here.
It was brought to my attention by a loyal Instagram follower that S’mac does in fact have strict protocols in place when cooking gluten free mac and cheese. They use separate utensils, equipment and space to prepare gluten free mac and cheese and are all trained in this protocol. The Instagram follower who shared this info spoke to the owner of S’mac. The owner did also mention as an extra level of precaution and care that gluten free eaters should order their mac and cheese in a to go container instead of the skillet to avoid any possible cross contamination. I couldn’t get that level of information from the employee I spoke to as he was not very communicative so I can’t confirm this information.
Everything on the menu can be made gluten free using their gluten free pasta. And the breadcrumbs they use are all gluten free which definitely helps things.
Did I Get Sick (NO)
I’ll be honest I felt pretty bad the entire next day. But S’mac was a dinner spot (we were out with friends all day in NYC and had eaten somewhere else earlier in the day) so it is hard to tell if I was glutened in a minor way from S’mac or if I just generally didn’t feel good. I didn’t have my “normal” symptoms such as throwing up, being in the bathroom constantly and in heavy brain fog for a few days. So because of that, I’m going to say I wasn’t.
Although S’mac scored a 7.6 here and I think they deserve this for their amazing menu, gluten free offerings and outstanding mac and cheese. I do have a tough time recommending this place to those with celiac and severe gluten intolerances. The service (or lack thereof) and potential kitchen issues I mentioned for the gluten free eater are just too problematic and too risky from my point of view. That’s what brought down the overall score here. I might be overblowing it, especially since my experience wasn’t that bad. But the potential for problems is what irks me and what ultimately will stop me from going back. Some may disagree with me and may have had great experiences at S’mac. Some may fully agree with me. My last note though will be that the mac and cheese was outstanding and probably the best I’ve ever had. I’ll leave you with that.
UPDATE: Read the update above at the end of the service section. My review and rating still stands since the owner isn’t there all the time and I can’t personally confirm this information. Also, the fact that a fast casual restaurant has a kitchen behind closed doors still worries me.