Mark Dirnberger can spot a cheater almost instantly.
When the owner of Bella Italia walks through his restaurant he notices their tables, empty but for a glass of water. No soda, nothing sweet. If they venture to have sweetened tea, it's always Sweet and Low, never sugar. No bread, and if they order a salad, they are very deliberate in selecting its ingredients. But when they order their pasta, they go hog wild, piling on as many decadently high-carb ingredients as they can.
The real giveaway, however, is that look on their face while they're eating.
"They always have that little look of guilt on their face," Dirnberger said. He knows that the patrons in question will have to diligently ration carb grams for the next week to make up for this self-indulgent lapse. But Dirnberger and some of his fellow local restaurateurs are working to alleviate some of the guilt for these low-carb dieters.
"It's catching on. We've just got a hold of it," Dirnberger said of the low-carb diet frenzy that's taught a nation of weight-loss fanatics to loathe the Pillsbury Dough Boy and lust over a juicy hamburger wrapped in lettuce. "We're really getting a crash course in low-carb dieting."
As the proprietor of an Italian restaurant, Dirnberger said that the low-carb craze hasn't really affected his business from an economic stance. Pasta lovers know it is high in carbohydrates. Nevertheless, two weeks ago Bella Italia introduced two dishes made with whole wheat pasta, which has five net grams of carbs compared to the 42 in regular pastas. Atkins dieters who've come to expect a higher price for the special low-carb substitutes won't be surprised to learn that the whole wheat pasta costs four times as much.
But even for dieters on a budget, Dirnberger said there is no reason to avoid your favorite restaurants, no matter how carb-infested they may seem.
"We still have steaks, seafood, salads and soups," Dirnberger said. "Every restaurant in town has low carb items on their menu. You just have to know where to look."
Gary Scholl, owner of West End Tavern in Frohna, Mo., tops his menu with bunned burgers and fried potatoes, and after 32 years in the business, he's not about to advertise a low-carb menu. But he is sensitive to the desires of his customers, and he works with them to meet their low-carb needs.
"All they have to do is ask," Scholl said. "We've served cheeseburgers and Cajun beef and cheese sandwiches on plates without buns for years."
Scholl said his regular customers know when they come in that they get pretty much whatever they want the way they want it just by asking.
Wes Kinsey, manager of My Daddy's Cheesecake, said the low-carb craze has had a huge economic impact on his business, and that's left him scrambling for alternatives. He said that even the popular Cape Girardeau cheesecake bakery has low-carb items on its board of fare, and soon they will not be relegated to the eggs and bacon on their breakfast menu.
"We're getting ready to launch a sugar-free, carb-free cheesecake," Kinsey said. He said the key to developing the low-carb dessert was the advent of a sugar substitute called Splenda. Unlike Sweet and Low and Saccharin, Splenda can be measured cup for cup as a sugar replacement in a cheesecake recipe. Kinsey said it also reacts better, not leaving the cheesecake dry or crumbly as other substitutes often did.
Kinsey said the new carb-free cheesecake will replace the normal 50 grams of carbohydrates found in normal cheesecake for those low-carbers with a persistent sweet tooth.
After dinner and dessert, perhaps low-carbers would be interested in a little late night libation. Even the alcohol market has been affected by the low-carb movement.
Manager Don Swanner said that Buckner Brewing Company is marketing its Buckner Light as a low-carb alternative to other beers, like Bud Light and Michelob Ultra.
Swanner also said the restaurant facet of Buckner's is toying with the idea of creating a low-carb section to its menu.
"I don't know what to think about it," said Swanner about the new dietary trend. He said that in his 20 years as a restaurateur he's seen a lot of diet fads come and go, but somehow this one seems bigger.
"Only time will tell," Swanner said.
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