SBW: Bethesda’s Gluten-Free Haven

Lilit Cafe, Old Georgetown Road

This is Small Business Weekly, a recurring feature in which we’ll spotlight a small, independently owned business in Bethesda or Chevy Chase. Got a business you think we should check out? Drop us a line at desk[at]bethesdanow[dot]com.

Lilit Cafe was among the first restaurants in the Washington area to go all the way in on the gluten-free concept.

In a Bethesda restaurant scene filled to the brim, it has proven to be the unique aspect that’s kept the Old Georgetown Road spot around.

“The first couple of years, it was really hard. Slowly, slowly people started coming,” said owner Davidner Singh, who opened Lilit in 2008. “Bethesda is a tough place because there’s so much choice. To come up and survive, you have to do something different or special. Then you’ll be able to survive in this place.”

Singh moved to the U.S. from India, first to work as a sommelier on a cruise ship, then in hotel management and finally as a restaurant manager. Eight years ago, he finally opened his own place at 7921 Old Georgetown Rd., near the very edge of downtown Bethesda.

Lilit Cafe, gelatoBecause of a family member with a gluten allergy, Singh decided to start Lilit by offering some gluten-free items right away. That eventually built up into an entire separate menu of gluten-free pitas, baguettes, bagels, donuts, sandwiches, paninis and even gourmet gelato. Gluten-free customers began vouching for Lilit online and, eventually, Lilit Cafe became a destination for those with celiac disease and those who believe gluten-free diets provide health benefits.

This June, the DoubleTree Bethesda held a gluten-free expo with vendors and about 2,500 attendees. You can guess where many of those people ate out.

The cafe doubles as a beer and wine store and occupies a spot on what many call the dividing line of downtown Bethesda — Old Georgetown Road.

Singh said that means less foot traffic than Bethesda Row and other sections of the Central Business District, though more accessible parking is an advantage.

He’s also buying more expensive gluten-free ingredients (a typical gluten-free loaf for Lilit might cost $10) and making sure to keep the preparation of regular and gluten-free dishes separate. In the long-run, it’s an approach that has worked out.

“Because my advertising is all word-of-mouth, it’s the best type of advertising but it’s slow. It takes time for people to get to know us,” Singh said. “It took us a few years.”

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