According to Statista.com, the market for gluten-free foods is expected to be a $7.59 billion market by 2020.
Gluten, the protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and their derivatives, continues to see competition from foods made without it. Quinoa, for example, has been having a moment, thanks to diners who either have a gluten intolerance or dietary preference.
Yet restaurants still aren’t always offering enough gluten-free dishes, for reasons that go beyond menu building.
“Being a gluten-free option without trying to be, we get the best of both customers.” -Pete Downing, owner of Da Kine Poke
Near Orlando, Florida, former restaurant and catering employee Jennifer Ryan, who maintains a gluten-free diet, says concerns around cross-contamination may have some restaurants approaching gluten-free fare with some trepidation. “It’s too hard to manage and keep things 100-percent safe for those with severe allergies,” she says.
Meanwhile, Orlando-based chef Victor Iaconis says that cross-contamination issue can lead chefs and kitchen staff to feel restricted.
“Think of food as art,” he says. “An artist has all these beautiful paintings he’s worked very hard on making as perfect as possible, and someone walks in and [says] they want one without blue paint; also, the painting can’t have been painted with any brush that’s ever touched blue paint.”
But depending on the type of eatery, gluten-free choices may be easier to offer.
According to Pete Downing, owner of Da Kine Poke, a fast casual poke restaurant with locations in Winter Park and Orlando, Florida, the gluten-free element developed organically when he and co-founder Aaron Smith opened the business.
Since they started with a food truck in 2016, 95 percent of the menu has been gluten-free, he says.
“To be honest, it wasn’t even a factor when building my menu. After I broke it down so staff would know what items contained gluten…I realized I had a primarily gluten-free menu,” he says. “Being a gluten-free option without trying to be, we get the best of both customers.”
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Sarah Weihs, owner of a WT Cafe food delivery franchise in Orlando, agrees.
“If you’re making food from scratch like we do, there are absolutely no obstacles,” she says.
Cost is another consideration.
Iaconis, who managed an Olive Garden kitchen for years, remembers gluten-free pasta costing about 10 times more than the standard dried pasta the restaurant used. “And that’s not including the additional labor to cook, chill, store and reheat it separately from all our other pastas,” he says.
But even with cost, creativity and cross-contamination as concerns, the demand for gluten-free fare appears to be here to stay, at least for now. Organizations like Gluten Intolerance Group help by offering a restaurant certification program to promote safe practices, while other groups continue to spread the word.
What can restaurants do to better transition to a more gluten-free menu?
Food Safety Magazine suggests restaurants team up with a gluten-free organization such as GIG in developing menus. “These organizations will go ingredient by ingredient within each dish on your menu and help establish which of your current dishes makes sense to offer in gluten-free versions,” writes Shane Schaibly, vice president of culinary strategy at First Watch.
Partnering with a local bakery that provides gluten-free baked goods is another strategy, as is having a stock of gluten-free cooking tools, like sanitized tongs, spatulas, grill brushes, sauté pans and cutting boards.
“A gluten-free kit…is also an easy way to make sure that sanitized tools are ready for use when a guest orders a gluten-free menu item,” Schaibly writes. “Staff can grab a kit to make preparation a breeze.”
Expanding gluten-free choices and preparation processes comes down to a commitment to education, both for staff and guests.
Ryan, in addition to having worked in the industry, also follows a gluten-free diet. She knows it’s tough to manage a gluten-free restaurant, but as a customer, the effort means everything. “I love when they ask and I’m able to say they don’t have to change their gloves or utensils,” she says. “It’s nice to know that some places actually pay attention to this.”