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Understanding the gluten-free customer

Celiacs may have spurred demand for gluten-free menu options, but experts say that only 1 percent of the 44 million people estimated to be in the gluten-free audience have celiac disease. While some of these consumers may be gluten intolerant, research shows that about 29 percent simply perceive gluten-free as a healthier way to eat.

These statistics confirm a trend with staying power. “Gluten-free is not going away anytime soon,” dietician Michelle Dudash declared during a session at last week’s Restaurant Leadership Conference.

Restaurants would be smart to expand their gluten-free offerings, she added. “Studies show that 92 percent of allergic customers will return to a restaurant where they have a positive experience.” Plus, a gluten-friendly menu guards against the “veto vote” from groups in which one guest has celiac disease or intolerance.

During the session, chef Todd Downs offered attendees some practical tips for going gluten-free in the front- and back-of-house:

  • Create a separate menu section for gluten-free items and train every staff member to know exactly which items are gluten-free.
  • Make laminated cheat sheets for servers matching all allergies with appropriate menu items that can be eaten by an allergic guest.
  • Identify gluten-free items and other “allergy-friendly foods” with icons on the ticket or order form so no mistake is made in the kitchen.
  • Establish a gluten-free zone in the kitchen. Train kitchen staff regularly on cross-contamination—once a wheat-based product touches a gluten free item it is contaminated.
  • Purchase color-coded utensils and equipment for gluten-free preparation and cooking. Color-coded cutting boards, storage bins, knives, etc. are available from several manufacturers, as are gluten-free kits.

The session’s two other presenters talked about the power of the gluten-free community. According to Cynthia Kupper, executive director of the Gluten Intolerance Group, “the gluten-free community is very tight-knit and vocal. If you don't get it right...they will spread bad rumors about you...they are brand loyal and aggressive. Restaurants and manufacturers must be transparent and trustworthy.”

GIG offers help through a certification program, third-party audits and educational materials for foodservice. In addition, manufacturers can apply for a GIG icon to put on packaged gluten-free products. “You must treat the gluten intolerant the same as the celiac and not distinguish between the two,” Kupper noted. “That sets you up for liability. Even a little allergy can cause serious illness.”

Added T.J. McIntyre, executive VP of Natural Brands Smart Balance, a manufacturer of Udi’s gluten-free products, “quality and transparency are very important to this group. Social media is the number one way to connect and build relationships with the gluten-free community.

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