A Complete Guide to Serving Gluten-Free Restaurant Customers
According to market research conducted in 2017, 11% of customers used a gluten-free "eating approach" in the previous year. That's one percent more than vegetarian and over twice the vegan market. On top of that, despite the fact that the prevalence of Celiac disease didn't change between 2009 and 2017, the amount of Americans going gluten-free tripled.
This means it isn't just those with Celiac disease who are removing gluten from their diet—far from it. It's a huge niche that more and more restaurants are waking up to. But for millions of Americans, gluten-free diets are a medical necessity, not just a dieting fad.
It requires careful forethought, but there are ways for any business to tap into the GF market without endangering any of its customers. It's like every other business decision you've made: do your homework, choose the approach best suited to your business, then execute it to the best of your ability.
Here are five solid guidelines to secure your success.
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Five Rules for Serving Gluten-Free Customers
Rule #1: Understand Gluten-Free Motives
There are many motives for eating gluten-free (GF) diets. In the rush to keep up with the latest eating trends, it's easy to throw GF options in with low carb, low fat, or paleo—as a selection you can offer that caters to a dietary preference.
For many Americans, that is what GF diets represent. That 2017 study found that 30% of GF consumers simply believe it's a healthier way to eat.
But for 6-8% of the population, consuming gluten can have serious medical consequences:
- For the 1 in 141 Americans with Celiac Disease, gluten triggers an autoimmune response that attacks the person's own intestinal lining.
- Somewhere between >1% and 3.6% have a wheat allergy that can lead to anaphylaxis.
- Up to 6% may have the diagnostic criteria for non-Celiac gluten sensitivity. While we don't understand the mechanism yet, consuming gluten causes unpleasant symptoms that can be resolved with a GF diet.
- Some follow a GF diet to relieve the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
For any of these folks, even trace amounts of gluten might result in bloating, gas, a painful tummy, diarrhea, constipation, and more.
Not the dining experience you want to give customers, right?
Rule #2: Don't Say "Gluten-Free" Unless You Commit
Because gluten can have serious medical consequences, you shouldn't put "gluten-free" labels on your menu unless you take measures to eliminate the possibility of trace gluten from certain dishes.
Providing meticulous GF service can result in an extremely loyal and grateful following from those who suffer from a medical condition. Some restaurants can manage this, and some can't. That's okay; decide what's best for your business. The key is to avoid making promises you can't keep. Especially ones that can make your customers sick.
If you're not able to go all-in, you can still offer items that are friendly for the "it's just healthier" crowd. A 2013 market study found that 70% of GF consumers are fine with trace amounts or more. In other words, most of the business you're worried about losing just wants to avoid the problem ingredients when they can.
Offering gluten-free ITEMS without a gluten-free LABEL is a good way to cater to the "trend" without endangering anyone's health. Here's how you do it:
- List out the ingredients for each dish on your menu, description-style. If you only have a dish name, it's hard for GF dieters to confirm that they'll have options.
- Add a note to your marketing materials (like your website, print menu, and online menu) that you can't guarantee dishes free of trace gluten.
- Train your front-of-house staff to provide that same warning when asked about GF
- Check out rule #5 below for menu ideas (#3 and #4 won't apply to this strategy)
Rule #3: Avoid Cross-Contamination
If you do use the label "gluten-free," you need to avoid cross-contaminating GF dishes with gluten by creating a strict separation of anything that touches food. That must include:
- Separate Prep Areas. A dedicated surface is necessary to keep any crumbs or particles away from GF food. If you're baking items from scratch, you'll also need distance or physical barriers—flour becomes airborne and gets in everything.
- Separate Cooking Surfaces/Equipment. You can't put GF items directly on shared oven racks or grills. You can't use the same fryer for GF and breaded items. You contaminate GF pasta by re-using normal pasta water. Dedicated cookware resolves most of this.
- Separate Utensils. You need a dedicated version of any utensil that touches GF items. Even thorough washing might leave particles. Examples include colanders, graters, serving spoons, pizza cutters, and ice cream scoops. Staff also need to change prep gloves.
- Make Dedicated Items Obvious. Use color-coding or some other clear distinction to reduce the chances of someone the wrong utensil or cookware on accident.
- Careful Storage. Store GF items ABOVE gluten-containing ones, and store GF utensils on their own. Consider storing everything together in a GF "kit" for safety and convenience.
- Bulk Prep Without Gluten, where possible. Food items that have touched gluten are no longer safe to serve as gluten-free. In other words, make croutons the last thing you add to a salad.
There are resources out there to help restaurants avoid gluten cross-contamination, including videos.
Rule #4: Train All Staff in Gluten-Free
If you're going to advertise gluten-free, your entire staff needs to be trained in what that means.
They need to know:
- What gluten-free is and why it's medically necessary for some
- What ingredients contain gluten (especially the less obvious things, like soy sauce)
- Why they should treat it more like an allergy than a dietary preference
- How cross-contamination happens and how to prevent it
- To never remove a gluten item from a dish and serve it as gluten-free
- To be certain before they say an item is gluten-free, and to say no when in doubt
This training (with regular refreshers) will help them avoid mistakes and allow front-of-house staff to be confident when answering customer questions.
Rule #5: Cheat (with Pride)
Making tasty GF baked goods is tough unless you specialize. So…don't. Use cheat codes, like:
- Going Local. Is there an excellent GF bakery nearby? Forming a partnership might be good business for both of you.
- Going Store-Bought. Find GF baked goods in-store or through suppliers and use those.
- Going Halvsies. Buy GF mixes for baked goods. Then experiment to make the final product your own.
Your GF customers deserve to enjoy their meals like anyone else. So regardless of sourcing, take pride in what you serve—check product reviews, taste-test GF dishes, and experiment with defrosting and heating store-bought products for best results.
Get creative within the logistical constraints of your kitchen and cross-contamination protocols:
- Think Naturally Gluten-Free. It depends on your cuisine, but there are plenty of dishes whose ingredients simply don't include gluten. And plenty of them can be just as big a hit with non-GF customers (flourless brownies, yum).
- Don't Just Take Ingredients Out. Any ingredient worth keeping in a regular dish adds something to the experience of eating it. Croutons add a crunch. Crumb toppings add texture and flavor. Don't deprive your GF customers of that experience. Find ways to accomplish the same thing without gluten.
- Provide Variety. Don't just grudgingly offer one item so GF party members don't starve. Give them choices. Think about substitutions you can offer for regular items. Provide at least one GF item or substitution for every menu area.
And if you can't make an item up to snuff with your whole menu, find an alternative that will be.
The degree to which you offer gluten-free food isn't what will make or break your success in the industry. How you offer it will. Every customer you market towards is a customer that deserves first-class treatment. Take gluten-free food as seriously as any food quality or safety issue and then train your staff accordingly.