A tasty, truly gluten-free burger can be difficult to find, so Sean Wojtkowski is making it himself at Sassy’s Sandwich Shack, Burgers & More in Granger, Ind. (near the University of Notre Dame). The cruel irony of his wheat allergy is that Wojtkowski is an seasoned pastry chef whose Indulgence Pastry Shop & Café has been providing Granger residents with baked goods and pastries for years.
“The flour has come back to work against me,” he said. But his experience making gluten-free baked goods at Indulgence is serving him well at Sassy’s, which he opened in August 2015.
“In my area I struggled to go out and eat,” said Wojtkowski, who also has dairy issues. “So I wanted to develop a concept that had a great burger and where people like myself with food allergies could eat with no problems.” But he also wanted to create food that appeals to everyone so that a whole family could happily eat at Sassy’s even if one or more family member has food allergies. What he has created with Sassy’s is a template for how all restaurants soon will need to respond to the growing incidence of food allergies.
Wojtkowski said he knows from personal experience that restaurants may claim to have gluten-free (GF) options but don’t always take the problem seriously enough to do more than serve a burger in lettuce. Sassy’s kitchen is setup to avoid cross contamination. Nothing with wheat flour goes into the GF-designated fryer. Chicken wings (bone-in or boneless) are coated with coconut milk and tapioca flour. “The great thing is that tapioca flour produces a great crust. I don’t think anyone could tell that it’s a GF coating.”
“If you want a [GF] kitchen it’s not that hard to make it happen,” Wojtkowski said. “It takes training and an emphasis on how important it is. We have a separate grill for GF buns and to cook vegetarian items on. But there’s always the question of whether kitchen staff is changing gloves and not touching a wheat bun and then a GF bun. That takes training, but it’s not as hard as some people think it would be.”
Burgers (certified GMO-free USDA Premium Angus beef) are the focus of the Sassy’s menu. There are a simply dressed Classic Burger and Classic Cheeseburger, but Wojtkowski also creates some more sophisticated options like the Lobster + Bacon + Cheese Burger—topped with a lobster salad developed first at Indulgence Café—and a Goat Cheese and Avocado Burger. A vegan/GF Veggie Burger and Sweet Potato & Black Veggie Burger are menued as well. Hot Dogs cooked on the flat-top grill, grilled sandwiches (on regular or GF bread), wraps, soups and salads fill out the menu.
Beverages include a signature Sassy’s Shack Shake (with GF ice cream blended with cow’s milk), Not Your Father’s Root Beer float, GF frappes, craft beers (including GF choices) and espresso drinks with almond or soymilk.
Wojtkowski creates a Burger of the Month as a way to gauge customer reactions to new flavors, ingredients and builds. For June it’s a Sweet & Smokey Bacon and Gouda Cheese burger.
Last month, Wojtkowski added a Burger Brunch Menu, available on Fridays and Saturdays between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. As with the regular menu, all brunch items can be prepared GF and dairy-free on request. The brunch menu includes two special burgers: a Farmers Burger (with hash browns, cheese, bacon and an egg) and a Breakfast Burger (with lettuce, tomato, bacon, cheese and egg). Wojtkowski is proud of the Lumberjack, a pancake with grilled ham, bacon, a burger and another pancake and then topped with maple cream cheese. That cream cheese also is served with sweet potato fries tossed in cinnamon sugar.
But the brunch star is the Waffle Burger. Wojtkowski describes the build this way: “It’s waffle, hash browns, waffle, burger, waffle, bacon, waffle and an egg on top. When you cut it in quarters and stack it we have to stab a knife through to hold it all together. We’ll try the Burger Brunch and see where it goes. Maybe we’ll expand it.”
Wojtkowski ultimately would like to expand the concept itself, perhaps with a location in Chicago. “I just think this concept would do extremely well there,” he said. But he’s not in a hurry to add units. Finding the right management and kitchen staff is one hurdle. And then there’s the question of losing touch. “Small as I am, I can listen to customers and react faster than larger concepts,” he said. “So one of my biggest concerns about growing bigger is, how do I still hear what the customer is saying?”