4 Reasons to Serve Gluten-Free Diners
In recent years, lots of restaurants have started (aggressively) wooing gluten-free diners. In 2015, most restaurants (even if they do not have a gluten-free menu) can usually accommodate a gluten-free diner, especially if that diner knows the right questions to ask.
Why all this sudden interest in all things gluten-free?
There’s a huge potential to make cash-money. Moola. Cheddar. Loot.
(I could go on, but I think you get it.)
The gluten-free food and beverage industry is a multi-billion-dollar-per-year industry, and it’s still growing. According to Technomic’s 2014 Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report, “gluten-free” is one of the top health claims for the 500 largest chain restaurants in the United States because gluten-free is no longer viewed just as a medical necessity for people with gluten-related disorders—it is now also considered to be a healthier eating choice for the general population (and restaurants have taken advantage of the opportunity to promote gluten-free options as such on their menus).
What does that mean for gluten-free diners?
Well, it’s good…and it’s not so good.
It means a lot of restaurants are designing gluten-free menus and advertising their GF-friendliness (yes, I made up that word). HOWEVER (and this is a big however), a lot of these restaurants are not responsibly serving their gluten-free customers—whether it’s failing to educate their staff about hidden gluten in common ingredients, working carelessly with gluten on shared surfaces, and/or simply discounting the concept of gluten-free as a medical necessity for the majority of their gluten-free customers.
How can restaurants improve their service to gluten-free diners?
At first glance, it may seem like a lot of effort.
Is it really worth it?
(Hint: Yes. Yes, it is.)
There are lots of potential customers waiting for you to get it right.
According to the Gluten-Free Agency, the gluten-free customer base is “44 million strong.” In fact, FastCasual now
defines “gluten-free” as an industry trend versus a passing fad with “special needs” and “choices” diners driving increases in revenue for restaurants that offer allergen-free menu options. Shawn Warner estimates that up to 40% of her customers note some allergy issue when ordering.
Gluten-free diners are hungry for a great dining experience. Once you establish your reputation as a truly gluten-free dining option (see below), you will gain lots of loyal customers—customers who will return (often) to eat and who will also tell their friends (and maybe their blog readers) all about your restaurant.
However, there are REAL consequences if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Yes, there is an initial (time and money) investment for gluten-free education, staff training, additional appliances/equipment, etc. However, being halfway gluten-free is dangerous for the gluten-free customers who need to be on a gluten-free diet as a medical treatment for one or more health conditions. Gluten-free diners will get sick—really sick—if they eat gluten. The last time I got glutened, it took an entire month to feel better. It’s a big deal.
In regards to your return on investment: If your customers get sick from eating at your restaurant, they will NOT come back. They may tell their friends not to eat there. They may even post an online review warning other GF-ers away. Those reviews are REALLY important for getting new gluten-free diners to try your restaurant. I heavily rely on a restaurant’s online presence/reviews to select new restaurants because, for me, going out to eat is rarely a convenient option.
For context, if I want to try a new restaurant or am in a new area, I have to:
1) Research gluten-free options online via free GF apps (I prefer DineGF and Find Me GF) or review websites (Yelp), read reviews of places nearby, sort those reviews by date (to better ensure it is run by the same management) and type of food (based on who I’m trying to eat with), look at the menu online, decide how much money I’m willing/able to spend to eat out, and/or call or walk in to the restaurant to ask preliminary questions (“Can you accommodate gluten-free diners? Do you have a gluten-free menu? May I speak with the chef?”).
2) Decide whether it’s even worth all the trouble to eat out or if I should just pack a food bag and eat in the car.
4) Order my meal, making sure to specify it needs to be gluten-free. Then, double-check that my meal is actually gluten-free when some unlisted ingredient arrives on my plate.
5) Hope and pray that I didn’t get contaminated while trying to eat outside my house.
A lot of GF-ers take dining out very seriously, myself included, and it can really affect the dining experience. If you prove yourself to a restaurant that is committed to keeping us healthy, we will become very loyal customers.
“It’s actually not as difficult as you’d think.” –Shawn Warner
Yes, there is an initial investment of time and money. Planning and preparation are certainly a requirement. You will make mistakes and need to adjust your systems as you go. But, let’s be honest, that could be said when starting any new restaurant venture.
Partnering with a company that specializes in food allergy training may be worth your while. Current training programs include:
AllerTrain, AllerChef, AllerTrainU and AllerTrain K-12 — Gluten and Allergy Free Passport, MenuTrinfo, and the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE)
CSA Recognition Seal Program (restaurants and products) — Celiac Support Association
Gluten-Free Food Service Certification Program — Gluten Intolerance Group
GREAT Kitchens, Schools, Colleges, and Camps — National Foundation for Celiac Awareness)
GFI Restaurant Certification Program — The Gluten Free Institute
ServSafe Allergens ™ — National Restaurant Association
There are also a variety of free training resources available online. Selected resources are listed below:
Free Training Materials for Restaurants — GlutenFreeIndy
Gluten-Free Restaurant Dining — Today’s Dietitian
Server POV on Gluten-Free and Allergen Training — MenuTrinfo
Six Tips for Establishing a Safe and Effective Gluten-Free Kitchen — FoodSafety Magazine
Understanding the Gluten-Free Customer — Restaurant Business Online
Additionally, it is important to partner with vendors who are knowledgeable about all things gluten-free. Shawn Warner noted that there are lots more (and better quality!) options from her vendors since Choices By Shawn opened in 2009.
When in doubt, go to the grocery store and look at nutrition labels so you know which brands offer gluten-free products. Shawn Warner shared that her staff purchase all condiments from local grocery stores to ensure they are serving gluten-free products to their customers.
Why is it so important?
As a part of the service industry, you have the opportunity to provide a significant contribution to the large (and growing!) gluten-free community. Although not a traditional means of philanthropy, providing safe and delicious meals for GF-ers will not only cement your place as a valuable part of the gluten-free community but also allow for unique marketing opportunities. This whole blog series is a direct result of me wanting to support the awesome-ness of Choices By Shawn.
Please allow me to share a portion of the actual email I sent Shawn after my first experience dining at Choices By Shawn:
“The wheels in my head started spinning when our server told us about the unique way that you set up your kitchens as well as the ordering process. The more I have thought about it over the past few days, the more impressed I am. It’s simple, efficient, and yet so innovative. The separate kitchen allows for minimal gluten contamination during the food preparation process. The ordering system both highlights the need for special attention and prevents common miscommunications between servers and the kitchen. Lastly, the red plates allow for the diner to feel confident that they are being served a truly gluten-free meal.
The combination of the welcoming atmosphere of the restaurant, being able to eat pretty much anything off the menu, and enjoying my (delicious!) meal without the typical contamination anxiety was such a blessing. I have lived gluten-free for more than 8 years, and this was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had dining out. Thank you for your service to our community.”
So is it worth the extra effort? Let’s review:
1) There is huge potential customer base,
2) Your customers won’t get sick and will come back
again and again (and again),
3) There are lots of resources to help you do it right, and
4) You become invaluable to a large, growing, and appreciative community
(and can market yourself as such).
Now, I’m no restaurant expert, but that sounds like a formula for a successful (and lucrative) business to me!