How to Get In On the Gluten-Free Dining Trend

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.

About Kathryn Hawkins

Kathryn Hawkins is a principal at the content marketing agency Eucalypt Media. She's written about business, marketing, and entrepreneurship for publications including BNET, TheAtlantic.com, Inc.com, and owns and operates the positive news site Gimundo. Follow her on Twitter at @kathrynhawkins.
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