I’m not really sure where to begin.
My name is Ben. I was born in San Francisco and I’m 22 years old. When I get bored, I try to think of wild ideas I can pitch to my friends. Most of these ideas — like my plan to visit every Springfield in the United States — are ridiculous and never happen.
This one is ridiculous. But it did happen.
Early in the pandemic, I had this idea to “eat an entire menu.” I had no clue where to begin, but I figured it would help support local businesses (and maybe even support my appetite). So I called my buddy, Hart.
There’s some important backstory here. When we were in college, Hart and I contacted the owners of Legal Sea Foods and asked to try all of their Boston locations in one week. After several emails, the nice folks at Legal declined but sent us some gift cards and a “sea bag” (pictured below). In retrospect, this was probably better than eating a week’s worth of fish during midterms.
Hart and I graduated shortly after. We both moved home and prepared to wait out the pandemic. I started a job in tech, while Hart started medical school remotely. And quickly my “crazy menu idea” turned into a project…
Step 1: Choose a Restaurant
Hart and I love Asian Box. We have eaten at the restaurant’s San Francisco location many times, and it seemed like the perfect place to launch our project. At any given time, Asian Box has 10–15 “boxes” on the menu, each of which is a different combination of rice, noodles, veggies, and protein.
The restaurant is also 100% gluten-free, which is great because I have Celiac Disease. Repeated exposure to gluten (even a breadcrumb) would put me at risk of developing cancer. Seriously. The most trustworthy restaurants have dedicated gluten-free kitchens or special prep areas. There are fewer than ten restaurants in the Bay Area like this.
So we had our restaurant. Sort of.
Step 2: Email the CEO
There is a boring way to do this. Anyone can drive to Asian Box, purchase each item on the menu, and eat everything over the course of a few weeks. But that’s too easy. It also costs money.
Instead, we wanted to partner with Asian Box and turn this into an event. So we drafted an email and decided to send it to the CEO. This is key: if you can get a CEO to forward your idea to someone else, the new recipient will act on it (because it came from their boss). All you have to do is humor the person at the top. So we wrote about our “passion for well-done Ox Boxes.”
We tested different combinations of first/last name and initials until the mail server didn’t reject us. Luckily we didn’t have to try much: our second email went through.
Step 3: Negotiate
Three days later, we got a response:
How would this be promoted as in what is your expected social media reach? What did you have in mind as far as Asian Box help?
I remember calling Hart in a frenzy. We hadn’t expected a response at all — and although this wasn’t a full endorsement of the idea, it certainly wasn’t a rejection. We could work with that.
We had to plan our next move carefully. A two-sentence email isn’t exactly a firm commitment, so Hart and I decided to do the opposite of our humorous first email. We responded to the CEO with a three-page marketing plan.
We proposed that Asian Box provide the food, and in exchange we would publicize our experience and spread Celiac awareness in the process (more on this later). We saw it as a win-win-win:
- We eat food.
- Asian Box becomes a gluten-free staple in the Bay Area.
- The Celiac community benefits from increased support and awareness.
After a few more emails, we settled on a 10-day event. We would try every item on the menu and circle back to our favorites. To honor social distancing guidelines, we would eat our first and last meals just outside the restaurant, and pick up the remaining meals to eat at home. Bon appétit.
Step 4: Eat
First: Asian Box did a fantastic job with COVID safety. The restaurant staff provides q-tips to use on the credit card machine, and hand sanitizer bottles are scattered throughout the restaurant. We masked up.
And then it was time to eat.
The food was glorious. We started with The Chef’s Salad — a box with rice noodles, toppings, and our choice of beef or chicken. The restaurant staff also gave us Tofu Spring Rolls and homemade, gluten-free chocolate chip cookies.
The meals just kept coming. That first day, Hart and I left the restaurant with five boxes each; enough to get us through Day 3 of the project. Those first boxes were some of our favorites, including The Workout (chicken + brown rice) and The Ox Box (double beef + lots of toppings).
Our second batch included some newer dishes. One highlight: Chicken & Veggie Green Curry. I’m no food critic, but this box is easily a 9/10. It’s the kind of food that tastes really good but doesn’t make you feel guilty afterwards. We also loved the Banh Mi. The restaurant prepares this Vietnamese classic on a gluten-free baguette, and I substituted steak as the protein. 10/10 as far as gluten-free baguettes go.
Step 5: Finish Strong
I want to be very clear: this is not Super Size Me, and we did not use the phrase “food challenge” anywhere in our correspondence with the restaurant. Hart and I chose Asian Box because we knew the food was healthy enough to eat twice a day (for ten days) without destroying our stomachs. We intentionally ordered salad or tofu boxes for lunch so we’d have room for heavier dinners, and we stayed active throughout the project.
This also was not difficult. If anything, the luxury of having fresh meals prepared twice a day was hard to pivot away from at the end. By Day 7 or 8, Hart and I had eaten everything on the menu, and we were able to circle back to our favorites for some “reevaluation.”
We’ve long joked that “game theory” prevents most people from trying new food. If you’re like me, you always order your favorite meal — because any other decision could result in a meal you don’t enjoy. This project afforded us the opportunity to challenge game theory and expand our palettes. The Ox Box is still my #1, but now I have a few others to throw into the mix.
The Last Step: Spread Awareness
I don’t want to scare you, but roughly 1% of people have Celiac Disease. And research shows that 97% of those people don’t know they have it. These people won’t follow a gluten-free diet, and as a result will suffer long-term consequences. They may have no short-term symptoms at all. If we tested more people at a young age, we could prevent this pain and suffering.
We promised Asian Box that this project would spread Celiac awareness. Please help us by doing any of the following:
- Ask your doctor about getting tested. Statistically, if this story reaches even a few hundred people, one of you has Celiac and doesn’t know it.
- Know that a salad without croutons is not always “gluten-free.” Celiac is not a gluten allergy or an intolerance. If a knife goes through regular bread and then through my food, I will suffer the consequences. In fact, any amount of gluten above 20 parts per million will increase my risk of cancer. If you’re hosting a friend with Celiac or serving someone at a restaurant, please be as transparent as possible. It’s okay to say you don’t have any safe food!
- Support Celiac-safe restaurants and consider donating to the Celiac Disease Foundation, any institute working towards a cure, or any organization supporting people with Celiac.
May is Celiac Awareness Month. Tell a friend, support folks with Celiac, and grab some Asian Box.