The recent slowdown in dine-in makes this a good time to revamp your menu to include gluten-free options.
With COVID-19 continuing to impact retail operations, restaurants are looking for creative ways to remain financially viable. Adding menu items to serve populations with dietary restrictions is just one strategy restaurants can use to add new revenue streams. For diners who have adopted a gluten-free diet, eating at a restaurant that has introduced gluten-free dishes can provide some much-needed variety after months of shelter-at-home orders. While serving the gluten-free market can increase sales, restaurants must nevertheless take care to source ingredients properly and take the appropriate precautions in preparing gluten-free dishes.
When considering a gluten-free menu, many restaurants wonder whether serving this market is worth the time and effort it takes to safely prepare gluten-free dishes. What many restaurants don’t consider is the sizable amount of revenue they forgo by ignoring the gluten-free population. Approximately 3 million Americans have celiac disease, and diners who adhere to a gluten-free diet out of medical necessity are often the deciding factor in choosing restaurants. Ignore gluten-free diners, and you’re potentially losing money on every friend, colleague and family member who dines with them.
The recent slowdown in dine-in eating makes this a good time to revamp your menu to include gluten-free options. After months of cooking at home, consumers are craving opportunities to vary their eating habits, but finding gluten-free favorites at the grocery store has become more challenging. Due to social distancing measures, many food manufacturing plants have cut back on staffing, which has slowed production and caused restocking delays at local grocery stores.
For restaurants looking to serve the gluten-free market, sourcing quality ingredients is a crucial first step, but managers often wonder where to start. For many, a simple Google search provides ready access to information, but this approach can lead to some mistaken assumptions about gluten-free dining. One of the biggest misconceptions is that options for gluten-free dishes are extremely limited and that ingredients without gluten are hard to find. However, with the proper research, it is possible to offer a varied menu of delicious gluten-free meals.
When sourcing ingredients, first look for any gluten-free claims or certification marks on the packaging. Products that make gluten-free claims must meet the FDA standard of less than 20 ppm gluten, while products that carry gluten-free certification logos must meet additional requirements for preventing cross-contamination via staff training, product testing and manufacturing policies and procedures.
Ingredient lists provide even more information. When evaluating a product, check for the presence of wheat, barley and rye, as well as any ingredients derived from these grains. Any product that lists malt, beer or beer flavoring is also likely to contain gluten. Soy sauce also commonly contains gluten because most brands contain wheat. There are, however, some good soy sauce brands on the market that are wheat-free. The bottom line is that you can find plenty of quality gluten-free products if you do your homework.
Attending food shows and trying samples can provide a helpful (and tasty) introduction to gluten-free products, but participation requires planning and resources. A more accessible option is to check your supplier’s website. Most suppliers provide information about gluten-free offerings in their online FAQs and product descriptions. If you require further details, supplier websites also include information for contacting someone at the company who can answer your questions.
When reaching out to suppliers, ask about their allergen and gluten prevention controls. If their plants package gluten-free brands alongside products that contain wheat, barley or rye, ask what procedures they have in place to prevent cross-contamination. Asking questions about a supplier’s general food safety program can also yield important information.
When developing recipes and testing new dishes, prioritize flavor. Many restaurants try to replicate wheat products when gluten-free diners are used to subtle variations in texture and are far more concerned with taste. Since figuring out what works for your menu can take some trial and error, you’ll want to try several products and/or ingredients to find those with the desired taste and consistency for your dishes. In most cases, suppliers are more than happy to provide samples, especially if it means getting their products into restaurant kitchens or national chains.
Once you’ve sourced your ingredients and perfected your recipes, you can update your menu to include your new gluten-free dishes. Because real estate on menus is limited, simply indicating that dishes are gluten-free is usually all that’s necessary, provided you have people on staff who can answer questions about ingredients and preparation. By investing time in staff training, you can inspire confidence among diners that you understand how to safely prepare gluten-free food.
Pursuing validation of your food handling practices through an independent program is the gold standard in gluten-free preparation and will certainly reassure customers that you know what you’re doing. This will clear up any misconceptions about gluten-free ingredients and verify your food safety procedures for diners. This type of validation can also be helpful in training staff to prepare and serve gluten-free dishes safely.
With more Americans adopting a gluten-free diet for medical, health or lifestyle reasons, offering a gluten-free menu makes sound business sense, particularly as COVID-19 continues to impact eating options. Taking the time to research ingredients and find what works for your menu will allow you to adapt to evolving challenges while building a devoted following of gluten-free customers for years to come.
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.
Laura K. Allred, Ph.D. is the Regulatory Manager for GIG’s Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO). Allred’s experience includes a background in immunology and eight years of directing a food testing laboratory and test kit manufacturing operation. The GFCO certification logo is the symbol of trust for the gluten-free community, with more than 60,000 products certified worldwide For more information, visit www.gluten.org