How to Get In On the Gluten-Free Dining Trend

kathryn by Kathryn Hawkins on April 16, 2013
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An increasing number of restaurant diners are passing on the bread basket and other wheat-based items these days.

About 1 percent of Americans have celiac disease, which makes them intolerant of gluten, a protein found in wheat. But many more adults in the U.S. — an estimated 30 percent — avoid eating wheat for dietary reasons.

As a result, many restaurants and other food-related businesses are working hard to accommodate them. Mintel Menu Insights reports a 275 percent increase in gluten-free menu items between 2009 and 2012.

If you run a restaurant or specialty foods shop, here are a few ways to cater to these customers.

1. Make sure you understand what “gluten-free” really means. Gluten can be found in soy sauce and other surprising sources, not just breads. To make sure you understand how to prepare gluten-free foods, attend a local gluten-free cooking workshop, enroll in the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness’ GREAT Kitchens online course ($200), or work with a consulting group. Go over the details of gluten-free food preparation and how to avoid cross-contamination. Make sure that your staff is educated in the process, too. For example, when launching a gluten-free crust, Domino’s Pizza developed a series of training videos about safe gluten-free baking and handling for all managerial staff to review.

2. Develop a gluten-free menu. Once you understand how to prepare gluten-free foods, you can either create a separate gluten-free menu or mark your gluten-free items as such. Many of your dishes — such as soups, salads, and meat and seafood entrees — may be inherently gluten-free. For those that aren’t but can be easily adapted, come up with gluten-free variations. For instance, Wildfire [PDF] restaurant in Chicago offers pizza with a gluten-free crust and pasta dishes made with rice pasta.

3. If you aren’t absolutely sure that an item is gluten-free, include a disclaimer. People with celiac disease can become ill from even minute amounts of wheat gluten. There is always a slight risk of cross-contamination when a gluten-free dish is made in the same kitchen that prepares wheat-based dishes. For that reason, unless you run a kitchen dedicated to gluten-free foods, or your gluten-free items come prepackaged from a gluten-free bakery or other provider, it’s important to specify that you cannot guarantee that your foods are completely gluten-free. Domino’s makes it clear that, although its pizza has a gluten-free crust, it is prepared in a kitchen with the risk of gluten exposure; gluten-intolerant diners eat at their own risk.

4. Promote your establishment to the gluten-free community. If you’ve made a concerted effort to provide gluten-free options on your menu or in your specialty foods store, get the word out. Submit a listing to the Gluten Free Registry, a resource for gluten-free diners nationwide. Next, tag your Yelp, UrbanSpoon, and other online profiles with “gluten-free,” so that customers can find you whenever they’re seeking establishments that can accommodate their needs.

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