Since the first time I visited NYC over ten years ago, I’ve loved it. When I went in 2008, well into my gtuten-free journey, I wondered how much engineering work was there, in case I could convince my husband to move there. If there was such a thing as a gluten-free NYC tourism board, people would think I was on their payroll due to all the shout outs I give the gluten-free options in the Big Apple. Part of the reason that NYC has so many fabulous options is that the NYC Celiac Meetup.com Group is very active in affecting change in the city. Erin Smith runs that group along with some other volunteer helpers.
In addition to being gluten-free for most of her life and running the Meetup.com group, Erin finds time to write the blog, Gluten-Free Fun. I’m not sure where she gets all the energy to do so much but I’m sure glad she does what she does. No trip to NYC is complete without checking out Erin’s blog for all the latest and greatest gluten-free news. Recently, this gluten-free super hero took some time to answer some questions I had about how she has grown her Meetup.com into such an impressive size.
TJ: Erin, your group is now 1000 members strong. I’m sure organizers of similar groups would love to know how you’ve grown your group to such an impressive size. What are your tips – or secrets – that others might be able to use to improve their own groups?
ES: The rapid growth of the NYC Celiac Disease Meetup group is something that surprises me every week. As the organizer, I receive an email every time a new member joins the group. Not a day goes by that we don’t get a new member. I really contribute most of our growth to search engines on the Internet. If you type in “New York City” and “Celiac Disease” we are the very first link that comes up and I believe this is how most people find us. On the Meetup.com website, I can choose topics that closely align to our group. Our current Meetup topics include Celiac Disease, allergies, and gluten-free. These keywords on our website also help others to find our group on the Internet. With the increase of social media over the past few years, I have also tried to connect our groups across various websites. Our Meetup group has a Facebook page and I am always promoting our group events on my blog, Gluten-Free Fun. Additionally, many of our group members have Twitter accounts and they post about our upcoming events. All of this publicity helps our NYC Celiac Disease Meetup group grow each week. I think any group, whether on Meetup.com or not, should have a webpage or blog. This puts your name out there into the digital world and helps others find your group.
TJ: Is it true that when the group first started, the meetings were held at place that didn’t offer anything safe for you to eat?
ES: The NYC Celiac Disease Meetup group was founded in October 2003. The very first Meetup I went to was in the summer of 2004 and attended by less than 5 people. The meeting was held at a bakery in lower Manhattan where we could not eat anything! Originally, Meetup.com organized the venues which is why we went to a place we couldn’t really enjoy due to the gluten-filled menu. The others in the group were nice, but I was kind of turned off from the group due to my disappointment with the location. I started actively going to events later that year once the group got an official organizer and the events were much more gluten-free friendly. Shortly after I rejoined the group, I volunteered to help organize events and the rest is history!
TJ: I’ve noticed that many places in NYC are certified GFRAP establishments. Is that seal of approval from GIG important to most of your members?
ES: Although many of our events take place at GFRAP establishments, not all of them do. We are lucky in New York City to have so many gluten-free options, so I like to plan events that expose our members to a variety of cuisines and locations. A small portion of our group members choose to only attend events at restaurants that do have the GIG seal of approval, but that is the minority.
TJ: How often does your group “meetup” and what type of activities are planned besides dinners?
ES: We try to have one or two organized events each month. Sometimes members plan to meet with each other outside of organized events via our message board. In addition, we often advertise other support group and Meetup events on our website. Besides gluten-free dinners, happy hours, and dessert outings, we have had many different kinds of events. We recently had two successful Whole Foods tours that focused on shopping for gluten-free products. We have attended open houses at both Joan’s Gluten-Free Great Bakes on Long Island and Everybody Eats in Brooklyn, NY. In March, we are helping to promote a fundraiser for the Celiac Disease Center at a modern dance performance by the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Last year, we had an information session with a representative from GIG about the Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program (GFRAP). I try to make our events as appealing to the widest audience possible. I really do wish I could hold more events, but I volunteer as the organizer of the NYC Celiac Disease Meetup group and my full-time job takes priority.
Wow! Just look at the progress this group has made in a fairly short amount of time, relatively speaking. Like I always say, three people a group makes – then it will grow from there. I so hope this information inspires someone to start their own such group.
Special thanks to Erin for your time, not only for this interview, but for all you do in the gluten-free world. You’re appreciated in more ways than you’ll ever know!