The Demand for Gluten-Free

An increasing number of restaurateurs are responding to 18+ million Americans with a gluten intolerance and another three million who actually have been diagnosed with celiac disease (the only autoimmune disorder with a known trigger: gluten). This number is likely to grow – according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA), only 3-5% of those with the disease have been diagnosed to date. The Wall Street Journal estimated the market for gluten-free foods at $2.6 billion in 2010 alone. From featuring gluten-free options to separate menus and customized preparations, more chefs are paying attention to this market. In fact, 1,500 chefs participating in the NRA’s Hottest Menu Trends survey named gluten-free/food-allergy-conscious meals in the top ten for 2011.

When the owner of Zpizza, headquartered in Irvine, CA, discovered he had a gluten intolerance, a gluten-free pizza was added to the menu. Now, in addition to gluten-free dough, all dough is rolled out in rice flour to eliminate cross contamination. “We don’t advertise gluten-free pizza, but we’ve discovered many of our Facebook fans and Twitter followers do that for us,” says Brandi Babb, VP training/franchise relations. She says they’ve discovered that many allergies are linked, and quite often those who are intolerant of gluten also have dairy and soy allergies, so Zpizza hired a company to verify that the gluten-free crust and some toppings are gluten-, dairy-, and soy-free. Employees go through extensive training, available in English and Spanish, and managers go through an NFCA-certification process. Mitchell’s Fish Market, headquartered in Orlando, FL, decided to create a separate menu with 20+ gluten-free items four years ago after receiving numerous requests. “All items on this menu have been confirmed gluten-free by an outside company,” reports Will Wadsworth, executive development chef. “Plus, our ordering system allows waitstaff to mark gluten-free orders clearly.” At Maggiano’s Little Italy, based in Dallas, TX, when guests say that they have an allergy or are gluten-intolerant, the server asks the chef to speak with the guest. “The chef discusses items on the menu that are gluten-free and also offers to create gluten-free dishes for them,” says Jeff Mann, senior culinary manager. “We want these guests to feel special and comfortable and to know they can trust us.” Jeff adds that to increase the number of gluten-free dishes on the menu, they’ve removed flour as a thickening agent from most sauces, using cornstarch or reducing sauces. They also use a gluten-free fusilli. Chefs report 5% of visits each day are by guests with gluten issues.

All restaurants that offer gluten-free items must use separate pans, utensils, and designated prep areas to avoid cross-contamination. “Before developing gluten-free options, look at where wheat, rye, and barley are in your kitchen,” advises Peter Pollay, owner, Posana Cafe, Asheville, NC. “Nothing that touches these things – grill grates, fryer oil, etc. – can come in contact with food that needs to be gluten-free. This is not a fad; people with celiac disease have zero tolerance.” Because his wife has celiac disease when he opened the cafe, he made a point of offering a number of gluten-free dishes. “I really wanted a safe place for my family to eat,” says Peter, who adds that 20-25% of his business is from customers who have celiac disease or an intolerance to gluten. Through a customer Peter found out about the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America and the cafe has recently completed the Gluten- Free Accreditation program and audit by the Gluten Intolerance Group. “We’ve started working with the Asheville and Charlotte GIG chapters and have a table at their events, plus I’m on a panel at their annual convention this year, which is great word of mouth for us.” Brandi adds, “Don’t promise big and deliver small, especially when it comes to the gluten-free community. This is a serious issue for many guests, including children, and your business must commit to keeping them safe. They are the most gracious, grateful, and loyal group of guests.”

To advise those who are gluten intolerant and restaurants that want to appeal to this group, there are many organizations around the country, some of which offer specific guidance and accreditation for restaurants.

The NFCA’s GREAT foodservice program, approved by the American Dietetic Association and American Culinary Federation, equips chefs, restaurants, and cafeterias with the knowledge and tools to safely provide customers with gluten-free meal options. A systematic curriculum provides specific protocols for preparing gluten-free foods. The online program includes a toolkit containing training for managers and a bi-lingual (English/Spanish) training DVD for staff. Cost: $200/kitchen with sliding scale for chains and those with multiple kitchens.

The Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) has two programs for food services restaurants created by registered dietitians: Gluten-Free Food Service Accreditation program helping restaurants set up policies and procedures, identify core best practices and changes that are reasonable to do at little or no cost. Staff training is customized to the location and auditors are sent in periodically to conduct GF safety audits. The Gluten Free Restaurant Awareness program provides restaurants with menu review, training manuals and ongoing support and includes 1600 restaurants.

On the Menu LLC provides gluten and allergin identification, including a detailed review of ingredients used in recipes along with a kitchen inspection to determine areas where cross-contact is a concern. Staff training materials and training sessions are also provided.