Last week, I received an email from Benny Solomon, the founder of celiac and gluten-free resource website called OnTrackCeliac. The website is still in its infancy, but the goal is to include restaurant listings, product recommendations and other tools for living gluten-free. Nothing out of the ordinary, but here’s what caught my attention: Benny is only 14 years old.
After reading Benny’s email, I just had to find out how a teenager decided to shelve some of his social time and spend it developing a gluten-free resource.
NFCA: What inspired you to start OnTrackCeliac?
Benny Solomon: I was diagnosed with celiac disease in late 2009, and immediately switched to a completely gluten-free diet. Within days, I noticed that many people knew what eating gluten-free was, but had no knowledge of cross-contamination. I did not feel comfortable eating out and not knowing what was happening in the restaurant’s kitchen. I realized that most places did not fully understand celiac disease.
For about a year and a half, I refused to go to more than about four different restaurants that I felt comfortable in, simply because I didn’t know which ones I could trust. It was at this time that I realized that those with celiac needed a place to go to be sure that there was no need to worry.
Many websites have huge, outdated lists of restaurants with gluten-free menus. If you were to go to about half of the restaurants on those lists, you would find that most of the staff has no familiarity with celiac. People with celiac disease needed a place to find gluten-free options that were reliable and where they did not have to worry about cross-contamination. In February of 2011, I started OnTrackCeliac to satisfy this need.
NFCA: Why did you decide to do a restaurant and food finder?
BS: I wanted to work with restaurants and foods since they are the base of starting a gluten-free diet. My plan was to develop more resources around these two categories over time.
This was not my first time making a website or app, but it was the first time that I seriously took on a technology-related task. For a few years I worked on a few iPhone games, and later I ran a small website that featured “the best videos on YouTube.” OnTrackCeliac truly felt like an idea where I could apply my computer experience to something I am passionate about.
NFCA: How do you choose the restaurants that you feature?
BS: My policy is that any restaurant that is safe for people with celiac disease should be listed on OnTrackCeliac. I don’t exclude any restaurants for quality of the food, or any other reasons. I try to provide as many options for restaurants as possible, as there are very few that have a strong knowledge of celiac. Although the main focus is on gluten-free safety, I will be starting a new star system, so that restaurants that have exceptional food and go above and beyond expectations will be recognized.
NFCA: How do you create your list of gluten-free foods on the website?
BS: When creating a list of gluten-free foods, I generally start by exploring the company’s website. I try and ask myself if the company looks reliable, and if they are promoting gluten-free foods. If they actively publish a list of gluten-free foods, that becomes a strong indicator of the company’s reliability. If not, I generally call companies to find out if they have a list of gluten-free foods, but do not publish it online.
The company must show significant knowledge to pass the test and make it onto the site, and if they do not have any apparent efforts for showing which products have gluten and which do not, they do not make the cut.
NFCA: How do you juggle this project with school and other activities?
BS: Working OnTrackCeliac development into my schedule is certainly difficult. I generally don’t work on the site every day (after homework is done); instead, I find that I work best when a large chunk of time is available. On a break from school, for example, I sometimes sit down and work on the website for 3-4 hours a day. I do give OnTrackCeliac a quick check every day though, just to make sure nothing has gone wrong, and that everything is working smoothly.
NFCA: Some people get discouraged about having to live gluten-free. You seem to have a passion for it. How do you stay so positive?
BS: I have mixed feelings towards having celiac disease. At times, I like having it, because it gives me something that I feel is unique to me in the way that I deal with it. At other times, I do experience frustration, such as on trips and when I go to a restaurant at a last minute’s notice. The way that I stay so positive is by knowing that OnTrackCeliac helps other people. By encouraging people to stay informed about celiac, we can only encourage progress for the future.
For the first year I worried about having celiac, but realized that worrying wasn’t getting me anywhere. By educating others, I hope that someday celiac will not be a burden at all on my lifestyle, and I am motivated to teach others to have the same outlook on eating gluten-free.
NFCA: What advice do you have for teens who feel tempted to cheat on their gluten-free diet?
BS: To any teens with celiac that want to cheat, I would say it’s simply not worth it. After having spent the first part of my life eating gluten without knowledge of celiac, I can assure anyone that the best substitutes for gluten-free are just as good as regular food. The trick is you have to find the best (I cannot stress that enough) brands. For example, there are hundreds of gluten-free breads out there, but in my opinion, only about two of the brands taste like “normal.”
Cheating might not initially seem like a big deal, but the long-term consequences are extremely serious. There is nothing to gain from eating gluten. Set a goal for yourself to not eat gluten, and reward yourself when you reach points along the timeline (but not with eating gluten!). If you ever need advice on the best foods, check out OnTrackCeliac’s food page!
NFCA: Is OnTrackCeliac something you’d like to turn into a career?
BS: At this point in development, I hope for OnTrackCeliac to become even more of a resource for people with celiac disease. I would like my career to be somewhere along the lines of what my website strives to accomplish, but I just can’t predict what lies ahead. I hope that OnTrackCeliac has a long future, and I want people to have the mindset that it encourages: To embrace celiac, find reliable ways to live your gluten-free life, and educate others.