Gluten-free toast on a plate.
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People who have adopted a gluten-free diet want to celebrate special occasions as much as the next person, but fear of eating the wrong thing can put a damper on holiday spirits.

How Restaurants Can Court Holiday Diners with a Gluten-Free Marketing Campaign

Transparency is key.

While labor and supply chain issues from COVID-19 have slowed recovery for many businesses, restaurants are returning to standard operations in hopes of bringing business back to normal, and the upcoming holiday season provides a perfect opportunity to do this. One strategy for attracting more business is for restaurants that already offer safe, gluten-free dishes to find creative ways to showcase their expertise in preparing gluten-free dishes to attract new customers and turn them into loyal patrons year-round.

Promoting gluten-free offerings is good for business

More than any other time of year, the holiday season provides plenty of opportunities to gather for a celebratory meal. Even if you eat your main holiday meal at home, numerous breakfasts, office parties and other occasions arise throughout the season. This year, with COVID-19 still a lingering concern, more people will be dining out in small groups, providing restaurants with plenty of opportunities to impress guests with their gluten-free dishes.

If your restaurant is experiencing delayed deliveries or staffing shortages, you might wonder whether this holiday season is the right time to launch a new marketing campaign. Despite ongoing challenges, marketing your gluten-free offerings makes sound business sense, especially when you consider that 3 million Americans and one out of 100 people worldwide have celiac disease, an autoimmune condition triggered by gluten consumption. The prevalence of celiac disease, along with other forms of gluten sensitivity, means that a quarter of U.S. households have at least one person who requires a gluten-free diet. With numbers like these, marketing to gluten-free diners and their loved ones is a profitable endeavor that is well worth the effort.

Because the consequences of eating gluten can be severe for people with gluten intolerance, they often determine the choice of restaurant when dining in groups. And of course, the bigger the party, the more likely it will include at least one gluten-free diner. Failing to meet the needs of this population can even have a ripple effect on those who don’t require a gluten-free diet; they will likely remember that their party decided not to eat at a particular restaurant, even if they don’t remember why.

How to build trust with gluten-free diners

Although the holidays can be a joyous occasion, dining out can be a challenging experience for people with gluten intolerance. Fear of eating something that will make them sick can take the fun out of even the most festive occasions, so finding a restaurant that can safely prepare gluten-free dishes is paramount. With savvy marketing, you can reassure patrons that you know how to safely prepare gluten-free food and deliver the treasured holiday experiences all of us hope for.

Preparing gluten-free dishes doesn’t have to be elaborate. If you’re short-staffed, keeping things simple by, say, offering a limited number of gluten-free dishes is usually the best policy. Start by identifying menu items that are inherently gluten-free, like potatoes and steamed vegetables. Once you’ve decided what’s on your gluten-free menu, figure out how to get those dishes safely from kitchen to table.

Transparency is also key. Many restaurants use ambiguous terminology like “gluten-friendly” or “gluten-conscious” to avoid committing to gluten-free claims in case someone gets sick from consuming their food. However, this tactic does little to reduce liability and can raise red flags for savvy gluten-free diners. Providing clear messaging about your gluten-free menu items is also important. To avoid any misunderstandings, clearly indicate which items on your menu are gluten-free. Include details about how dishes are prepared and any other information that makes your gluten-free items special. If you serve condiments like gluten-free tamari, make sure they are clearly labeled as such on the packaging.

Pursuing validation is also an avenue for building trust with the gluten-free community. Organizations like the Gluten Intolerance Group’s Gluten-Free Food Service (GFFS) allow validated restaurants to use their logos on menus, social media, websites, and virtually any other promotional material. Gluten-free diners are familiar with these logos and often select restaurants that are validated over those that aren’t.

Once you’ve promoted yourself as a gluten-free establishment, make sure your staff are trained to answer questions about ingredients and how dishes are prepared. Gluten-free diners can tell within two or three questions whether or not restaurants know what they’re doing, so make sure your front of house staff understands what it means to be truly gluten-free.

Creative marketing ideas to promote your gluten-free menu

If you’re wondering how to market your gluten-free menu items, the sky’s the limit—as long as your messaging is clear. Try posting videos on your website or social media that show gluten-free dishes being prepared, start to finish, to demonstrate your knowledge of best practices for gluten-free foodservice. Or offer free samples to your local media (provided you have enough staff). Everybody likes a delicious treat and media outlets will often provide free publicity in exchange for samples.

Another idea is to provide food for teacher appreciation days, especially around the year-end holidays when schools are eager to acknowledge the contributions of their faculty. Social media is another great marketing tool: providing a free meal to an influencer can get you pretty far, as long as it’s someone who is trusted by the gluten-free community. 

The holidays are all about creating cherished memories, and those often involve food. People who have adopted a gluten-free diet want to celebrate those special occasions as much as the next person, but fear of eating the wrong thing can put a damper on holiday spirits. Providing transparent, accurate messaging about your gluten-free menus can do a lot to assuage these fears. The gift to you this season is publicizing your gluten-free offerings can mean converting first-time diners into loyal, repeat customers long after the holiday season ends.

Lindsey Yeakle is the Gluten-Free Food Service (GFFS) Program Manager, Food Safety, for the nonprofit Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG). Yeakle has a culinary history working at 4-star and 4-diamond rated restaurants. A celiac disease diagnosis encouraged her to attend culinary school at Indiana University of Pennsylvania Academy of Culinary Arts. In June 2016, Yeakle decided to use her background and education to help the gluten-free community by working with GIG.

Jeanne Reid is the Marketing Manager for Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG). Reid is a marketing and advertising professional with 20 years in the retail, restaurant and CPG industries as well as cause related efforts. A difficult family battle with celiac disease was an eye-opener for Reid and provided an opportunity for her to gain extensive knowledge and expertise on the gluten-free market.

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