Conferences can be many things: A great opportunity for networking! A chance to see a new city! A time to catch up with colleagues! A place to learn about the latest trends in your field! A way to accrue air miles! For people with a food allergy, conferences are also a time when you worry you may not have safe-for-you meals for days.
Once I learn that I will be going to a conference (either as a presenter or as an attendee), I start mapping out all of my options for food. There's not a lot of down time once a conference starts, so having as much information available before you land. Here are my suggestions to you, after a few rounds of putting my research skills and my interest in being a concierge to work (with some 90's allusions thrown in for fun).
Step 1: We Can Have Lots of Fun
Admit it, it is exciting to use our research skills to figure out a map of Places to Dine. I recommend starting with thinking about what it is that you need. Will you be provided with meals at the conference and solely needing a location for a networking dinner? Will there be multiple locations for the conference, or is everything based at a hotel or an event venue (e.g., a convention center)? Take a look at the schedule, and see where the food lulls may be.
Step 2: There's So Much We Can Do!
Now that you have your locations, and a basic overview of the times you'll need food, you can start making a list!
Places to search:
Yelp. You can search for a number of terms, such as "gluten-free," "gluten-free lunch," "gluten free bakery," etc. It sounds obvious, but just as with JSTOR, changing the terms even a bit can alter the search results. It's important to make sure that the results aren't just there because they say that the restaurant has nothing safe for people with a gluten allergy, as that will show up in the search terms (ah, data, you've tricked me yet again!). Scroll down to the "recommended reviews," and see why "gluten" came up.
Hit up Google with similar terms.
Step 3: It's Just You and Me!
This step doesn't work well in this list, but it's part of the song.
It may be worth posting on your society's social media sites, or tweeting using the conference hashtag, to see if there are other GF attendees. Maybe you can have a lunch club, and the strengthening of social capital is important as well.
Step 4: I Can Give You More
Often times, restaurants will either have a gluten-sensitive menu, gluten-free bread, or accommodations that are not listed in Yelp results ... or even clearly on their website! If there are a few restaurants or cafés within a quick walk of the conference site, give them a call, tweet them, or message them and see what their options are. Some GF-friendly places do not openly advertise their options (sometimes even on their menu!). One of my favorite restaurants of all time makes GF pizza, but it is not on the menu (and it's affordable and delicious). If you call and they say "yeah, we serve meat," then you're probably out of luck for GF understanding. :-p Also, some eateries will proudly market their GF menu options, but a call or further examination of the menu may show that "GF menu" means "that plain salad" and little else.
You can also contact the hotel/event site and see what options are available within the premises. Hotel gift shops and snack bars are not known for their reasonable pricing or their allergen-free treats, but you may be able to find a package of almonds or some string cheese that you can grab in a pinch.
In addition, some event sites or hotels have coffee shops in them. The lines are often long during breaks, and it can be frustrating to wait to not find anything other than glutenous cookies! However, larger Starbucks now carry individual blocks of Tillamook cheese (called "Tillamoo" for some reason), GF cookies, bananas, almonds, and you can purchase the blueberries that accompany the oatmeal.
Peet's offers a GF Morning Glory muffin in some locations, and their coffee is gluten-free as well. They also offer some GF nut snacks as well.
An increasing number of hotels will offer Udi's bread. It might have to be defrosted, but it's something to help you get a proper sandwich!
Step 5: Don't You Know that the Time Has Arrived? (HUH) (Fiddle Riff)
You should have a few places on your list now. Airports are starting to up their game with GF options as well. Here are a few examples:
Boston: GF buns and fries at Wahlburgers, a variety of options at Legal Sea Foods (Legal was one of the very first chains to offer a GF menu, and they do it well)
Philadelphia: Chipotle and Chick-Fil-A (CFA has THE BEST GF buns, and their delicious waffle fries are all gluten-free)
D.C. (Reagan): fresh fruit, Lucy's Cookies, and Mary's Gone Crackers at the news stand (thanks to In Johnna's Kitchen for that tip!)
As far as conference cities, here are some terrific places that I've found:
Manhattan: Tu-Lu's Gluten-Free Bakery, Glaze Teriyaki (fast casual right near the Strand Bookstore! They also have locations in Chicago and Madison, WI, and San Francisco), multiple Whole Foods locations
Philadelphia: Sweet Freedom Bakery (not just GF - allergen-free as well, and their coffee rolls are DELICIOUS), Paesano's (home of THE BEST sandwich in the history of time - the Paesano), and Taffet's
Indianapolis: Pearings (GF crepes and super-friendly service!), Caf Patachou