Entrepreneur opening 100% gluten-free fast casual restaurant

A diagnosis of celiac disease in 2019 led Aaron Muller to embark on a journey he never imagined he would take.

Muller on Friday, June 3, will host a grand opening for his new 100% gluten-free restaurant, Papa Chops Eatery, at 2222 28th St. SE in Grand Rapids across from Pietro’s Italian Restaurant, in the building that housed Muller’s previous business, Rose Engraving Company, which closed in 2019.

As the grandson of Ben Muller Realty Company founder Ben Muller, Muller had a 17-year career in a commercial real estate, then was owner-operator of Rose Engraving for six years — an 80-year-old intaglio printing company that couldn’t survive the digital age, according to Muller’s July 2019 Facebook post announcing the closure.

What he didn’t say on Rose’s Facebook page was that earlier that year, Muller received a diagnosis of celiac disease, just two weeks shy of his 40 h birthday.

“That (diagnosis) basically took my entire diet and removed it, and so I was left with a completely different relationship with food,” Muller said. “… Afterward, it almost became a resentment, because (gluten) just constantly made me sick. I went through a very serious depression that lasted probably a good year.”

According to Mayo Clinic, celiac disease is an immune reaction to eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Over time, the disease damages the small intestine lining and prevents it from absorbing some nutrients. The damage manifests in symptoms including diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss, bloating and anemia, and it can lead to serious complications.

Muller said before receiving his diagnosis, he thought people’s issues with gluten were “fake.”

“I didn’t think gluten-free was a real thing; I thought people were just being picky and difficult,” he said. “Of course, life has its ironies, and I got a big old slice of humble pie.”

Because eating out suddenly became difficult, if not impossible, Muller enrolled in the Secchia Institute for Culinary Studies at Grand Rapids Community College and started cooking all his family’s meals at home.

“When I started cooking in the kitchen again, I found a lot of joy, and I loved chopping vegetables and making stock,” he said. “That’s when my kids started calling me ‘Papa Chops.'”

At culinary school, Muller was on a mission not only to deepen his cooking skills, but to get ServSafe certified in best food handling practices, learn about health department regulations and find someone he could partner with to open a restaurant.

Muller found that person in fellow student Thaddeus Whorley, who he describes as a “delightful young man with tremendous energy” and a positive outlook on food.

Whorley will serve as Papa Chops’ head chef. Muller expects to remain involved in the kitchen as a prep/line cook, so he can become proficient in all sides of the restaurant business.

Papa Chops’ goal will be “to make food that you cannot tell is gluten-free,” Muller said. The fast-casual restaurant will serve “munchies,” hamburgers, pizza, sandwiches, wraps, salads, sides and desserts — all of which will be 100% gluten-free in a kitchen with no cross-contamination.

The full menu is available here.

As far as Muller knows, Papa Chops will be Grand Rapids’ only full restaurant concept that is 100% gluten-free. Other restaurants have gluten-free items, and there are delis like Root Farmacy that are 100% gluten-free, but as far as he knows, there aren’t any other local restaurants with a dedicated focus on being fully celiac-friendly.

Muller’s initial concept for the restaurant was that it would be a drive-thru, but the labor shortage caused him to shift gears, and it will start out as a takeout and delivery joint that also has minimal indoor seating and outdoor picnic tables.

He is in the process of working with a brewery to develop a custom, gluten-free beer the restaurant hopefully will be able to serve soon, pending receiving a liquor license.

Muller said from labor issues to startup costs, the journey to launch a restaurant has been a difficult one. To make it happen, he and his family downsized from a house to a condo and threw themselves into the preparations.

He said he hopes the result will be a restaurant that is welcoming, with a food-positive environment and a kitchen that’s a safe space where everyone builds each other up.

Papa Chops’ hours will be 11 am-7 pm Tuesday-Saturday and 11-4 pm Sunday.

More information on the restaurant is at papachops.com. Those interested in applying for open positions can visit the restaurant’s Facebook page.