Gluten is the sinister villain of today’s diets. Like Superman to Lex Luthor, gluten-free claims shout from supermarket shelves and fly into your newsfeed, ready to save the day. Even hundreds of mobile apps have been launched to help consumers find gluten-free restaurants, stores, and recipes.
For many, gluten truly is something to fear. In the United States, an estimated four million people suffer from celiac disease — that’s about one in every 100 people. A very strict gluten-free diet is the only way to manage this autoimmune condition. Gluten sensitivity is on the rise, due to general awareness of today’s consumers. While gluten is not life-threatening to these millions of people, it can make life much more uncomfortable. Add this to the number of consumers who are choosing gluten-free fare because of increased awareness of healthful foods, and the market size booms to over 40 million individuals.
With a customer market this big, and in honor of Celiac Disease Awareness Month this May, do not dismiss having gluten-free fare on your menu. Understanding the trends and risks can lead to increased sales and traffic at your restaurant.
Healthy Eating Trend
Food trends come and go, from low-fat and low-sodium a few decades ago to low-carb and probiotic-enriched more recently. There is a continuing push for food that is real, not processed, and labeled with a claim. Now we have farm-to-table, certified organic, and gluten-free. The prevalent consumer perception is that gluten-free foods are healthier and will help with weight loss.
Chew on these gluten-free facts:
- Up to 65 percent of people who eat gluten-free foods, or used to eat gluten-free, believe that this type of diet is healthful. In addition to that, gluten-free mentions on menus increased 275% from 2009 to 2012, according to Mintel.
- Restaurants that add gluten-free menu options can realize an 8 percent sales increase, according to MenuTrinfo.
- The National Restaurant Association has listed gluten-free as a top trend again 2016.
Risks of Food Intolerances and Allergies
Gluten intolerance and sensitivity needs to be treated seriously. Wheat, which naturally has the gluten protein, is one of eight major foods that make up 90 percent of all food allergies. In 2013, the FDA issued a rule for gluten-free labeling: unavoidable gluten in food must be less than 20 ppm (parts per million). While packaged foods with a gluten-free claim are under strict observance, restaurants that claim gluten-free menu items must also comply with this ruling.
Whether the customer requesting a gluten-free meal is doing so because of a severe condition or simply just making a lifestyle decision, if you’re offering a gluten-free menu item, you must commit, as the potential liability in assumption is too high of a risk.
To mitigate this risk, make the small investment to become certified through groups like GIG (Gluten Intolerance Group) or GREAT (The Gluten-Free Resource Education Awareness Training). The National Restaurant Association also has multiple resources for managing a gluten-free menu, from ingredient selection to back of house operations and front of house training.
Lawsuits and enforcement by the FDA are a serious financial risk to a restaurant if a customer with celiac disease falls ill from an improperly prepared or handled gluten-free menu item. Even if a customer chooses not to take the road of litigation, loss of business is another financial peril. The gluten-free community is very close. They will take to social media and spread their experience via word of mouth.
However, a positive experience can lead to establishing a new and loyal customer base.
Increasing Overall Traffic to Your Restaurant
Restaurants that offer gluten-free menu items see up to an 8 percent increase in sales — not due to more expensive items on the menu, but because of an increase in diners. People generally do not eat alone. If someone in a large group has celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, the entire group will dine at a restaurant that can accommodate this dietary need.
Additionally, over 92 percent of customers with food allergies who find a restaurant offering the appropriate fare, including gluten-free items, will return. This will fuel loyalty and repeat business.
The gluten-free market is estimated to be as large as $12 billion by 2020, perhaps even as larger. With a little planning and some minimal investment, you can get your restaurant gluten-free ready. Here are a few goals to help:
- Have a separate menu or a special section on your menu highlighting gluten-free items.
- Train your servers on the menu and make sure they know how to answer questions appropriately.
- Set aside space in the kitchen and purchase color-coded cutting boards and tools.
- Train your kitchen staff on gluten cross-contamination.
- Most importantly, invest in GIG, GREAT or other third-party certification.
Embrace gluten-free and welcoming the burgeoning number of consumers driving this trend.