PROVIDENCE — Being gluten free often means having to be very careful at community events and potlucks that feature dozens of vendors serving food from all over. A festival in Providence next month is changing that.
GFree Fest is a gluten-free festival happening March 23, at WaterFire Arts Center at 475 Valley St. The event will feature 90 vendors and retailers, and dozens of restaurants, showcasing gluten-free bites and spirits.
BJ Mansuetti and his wife Robin Dionne are behind the festival, as well as other festivals Rhode Islanders are likely familiar with, including RI VegFest, a two-day festival earlier this month. Mansuetti and Dionne were inspired to launch GFree Fest after Mansuetti’s celiac diagnosis during the early days of the pandemic.
“After an entire decade in the beer industry, I found out that I was actually celiac, which explained so much,” Mansuetti said, touching on health problems he had experienced. “It was just a whole world that I did not fully know or understand.”
Mansuetti went deep researching his new diet, figuring out alternative foods, and talking to people.
“Everybody who is gluten intolerant, celiac, or just trying to remove more gluten from their diet is kind of in a different point of that journey,” Mansuetti said. “They’re learning where they can substitute things out of our diet, and try new foods, and meet new people, and they’re learning together.”
So it only made sense for their team, Ampersand Creative Co., to take gluten free on as a festival.
“We have a good amount of experience running large-scale food events, so after my own diagnosis, it just made sense to try to do a similar thing for the gluten-free community,” Mansuetti said.
The festival will feature food from 110 Grill, the event’s sponsoring restaurant, as well as from May’s Gluten Free, Jovial, Brazi Bites, and Queen Street Bakery. There will be spirits from the Industrious Spirit Company, and hard seltzers from Sprawl Hard Seltzer.
“What I love is how many brands are coming in from all over the country,” Mansuetti said. “We might have an item of something on the shelves here, but they can bring in a whole bunch of different things that we don’t necessarily have direct access to.”
And that’s how the food world works, Mansuetti added.
“Once you’re able to introduce some items and get some traction in an area, and show through sheer demand that gluten free is important to the community around them, then that’s when you start seeing a lot more change and a lot more options open up, and a lot more restaurants paying attention,” Mansuetti said.
The gluten-free food scene in Rhode Island is “great and growing,” he added.
Tickets are $8 and already in high demand. The festival’s $18 VIP tickets have already sold out. There will be about 2,200 attendees over the course of the day, and Mansuetti said the team is already planning to expand the event to two days in 2025.
Mansuetti said he’s most looking forward to trying the new gluten-free Jamaican patties from Ja Patty.
“I loved their patties so much, but they were never gluten-free,” Mansuetti said. “They’ve been working on it for a couple years now, and they’re debuting it at GFree Fest, which is super cool. I can’t wait to be able to try some of my favorite foods again.”