How Fast Casual is Catering to Gluten-Free Diners

By Kerri Adams, Editor-at-Large

Today, individuals with dietary restrictions are less limited when it comes to dining out.

It has become a standard in the industry to offer options for vegetarians and vegans, along with those who have food allergies.

One of these common food allergies is to gluten. Gluten is usually found in food staples at restaurants, including pasta, breads, crackers, spices and seasonings. And about one in every 133 Americans have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder leads to damage in the small intestine when gluten is eaten

But, the gluten-free trend is being influenced more so from a change in Americans’ lifestyle. 20 million Americans see gluten-free diets as healthier and 13 million have cut gluten from their diets to lose weight.

As more Americans embrace this dietary lifestyle, the gluten-free trend continues to gain momentum. 

Around 22% of adults try to avoid gluten. This market developed into over a $8.8 billion market, which grew by 63% from 2012 and 2014, according to research from Mintel.

Due to the influx in eaters avoiding gluten, there are many different food manufacturers offering gluten-free products which makes it easier for restaurants to serve dishes without gluten.

Paving the way with gluten-free menus are fast casual brands. 

These brands are particularly attractive to consumers due to their customizable food options, so it makes sense that they cater to those with dietary restrictions.

We have decided to take a closer look at the restaurant brands with impressive gluten-free selections.

Pei Wei

This Asian fast casual concept has an extensive gluten-free menu featuring the Spicy Chicken & Shrimp Salad, Spicy Chicken, Sweet & Sour Chicken, Vietnamese Chicken Salad Rolls, Traditional Edamame and more. The brand also offers gluten-free options for kids.

The menu features different labels to indicate plates appropriate for different dietary restrictions.

It looks like more gluten-free dishes are to come. Pei Wei opened a test kitchen late last year where foodies can give their input on new dishes. The restaurant will also be rolling out new items in the brand’s 2017 rebrand.

"The Pei Wei Test Kitchen will offer our guests innovative new dishes, reflective of our Pan-Asian approach, unlike anything currently available in the fast casual category. Our strategy continues to deliver on our brand promise of flavor with purpose – bold taste, optimized by fresh ingredients with nutritional benefits," said Clay Dover, Pei Wei’s chief marketing officer in a press release. "We will leverage our open concept kitchen to gather essential feedback from actual guests in real time to guide future decision-making. Our goal is to respond quickly to their input and market trends as we evolve our menu."

Chipotle

Chipotle, which paved the way in the fast casual segment, is also leading the pack with a menu that is entirely gluten-free. The brand’s flour tortillas are the only product with gluten.

The fast casual takes catering to diners with allergens and special diets to a whole new level. With a chart breaking down what menu items have milk, soybean, wheat & gluten, sulphites, and what items are vegetarian or vegan, making it easy to see which dishes fit a guest's dietary needs.

Allergens & Special Diet Chart at Chipotle | Chipotle.com

Allergens & Special Diet Chart at Chipotle | Chipotle.com

“If you avoid gluten, don't eat our flour tortillas. If you are highly sensitive to gluten and would like us to change our gloves, just let us know at the start of your order. You should be aware items containing corn, including corn tortillas (chips, soft corn, and crispy corn tortillas) and corn salsa, may have a small amount of gluten from potentially co-mingling with gluten-containing grains in the field,” according to Chipotle’s website.

Honorable Mentions

There are emerging brands, many of which are in the new better-for-you category, that have menus are especially friendly to gluten-free eaters. 

Sweet Greens identifies each menu item with a "*" if it contains gluten.

HoneyGrow identifies gluten-free items with a (GF) label.

Modern Market offers gluten-free bread options and all sauces are gluten-free.

Lyfe Kitchen serves an array of the menu items feature a GF symbol.

Shake Shack just started offering gluten-free buns for an extra $1 at all stores, except for the stadiums and ballpark locations.  

How to Jump on the Gluten-free Bandwagon

Not sure if you should jump on the gluten-free bandwagon? Here are some reasons why you should. 

Or are you not sure how to incorporate some gluten-free items onto your restaurant's menu? Here are some ways to do so.

Test a Gluten-Free Dish

Introduce a new gluten-free dish for a period of time and determine if your guests order the item. If the dish becomes popular, then it’s safe to say you have a market of gluten-free eaters that you should be can tapping into.

Offer a Dietary Breakdown

Offer your guests more information about each dish. Alert them of the menu items with common allergens either with a nutritional chart or through menu labels.

Stay Ahead of the Pack

In August of 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officially defined the term “gluten-free” for food labeling. This term applies when the gluten limit is “less than 20 parts per million (ppm) for foods that carry the label “gluten-free,” “no gluten,” “free of gluten,” or “without gluten.”

So how does this apply to labeling at restaurants?

“Given the public health significance of gluten-free labeling, FDA also encouraged the restaurant industry to move quickly to ensure that its use of gluten-free labeling was consistent with the federal definition.

In addition, state and local governments play an important role in oversight of restaurants. FDA works with state and local government partners with respect to gluten-free labeling in restaurants, and will consider appropriate action as needed, alone or with other agencies, to protect consumers,” according to the FDA.

As the FDA increases menu labeling at restaurants laws over time, it’s smart to get ahead of the rest.