Food Safety | February 2014 | By Terah Shelton Harris

Their Life Depends On It

Fast casuals cater to customers with food allergies like gluten intolerance through customizable menu options, employee training.

Fast food brands use gluten free and allergy friendly menu items and preparation
Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill began testing gluten-free pita in select Colorado units and trains employees to reduce the risk of cross contamination. Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill
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Surging demand for dining options that are sensitive to dietary allergens has led to a change in offerings and operations for much of the restaurant industry, especially fast-casual concepts, where the customizable dish reigns. Gluten, the latest focus of the food allergy community, has had a particularly powerful impact on menus—and on employee training.

By the end of the year, the gluten-free market is expected to grow into a whopping $7 billion industry, according to research firm Mintel, driven in part by the estimated 1.8 million Americans suffering from celiac disease—an autoimmune reaction to gluten—or coping with gluten sensitivity.

Mintel also reports that it’s not just the gluten-intolerant driving the craze for wheat-free products. Rather, the 65 percent of consumers who eat or used to eat gluten-free foods do so because they think it’s healthier, and 27 percent do so because they feel a gluten-free diet assists weight-loss efforts.

Paul Antico, founder and CEO of industry resource group AllergyEats, says the value of better serving consumers who need to eat gluten free for medical conditions is huge, given the 1 percent of Americans who require a gluten-free diet and the almost one in three who now eschew gluten. Based on this, Antico says, brands could see as much as a 5 percent market share shift and 10–15 percent growth in profit.

“That’s big numbers with an incremental margin of 40–45 percent for a restaurant,” he says. “For a really minimal expense, quick serves can not only serve the community safely, but make a lot more money doing it.”

Whether a diner’s decision to eat gluten-free stems from medical necessity or an overall healthier diet, fast-casual restaurants are responding by expanding menus to include gluten-free items.

Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill is testing MyBread’s gluten-free pre-baked pita in its Colorado locations through April 2014. Certified by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (gfco), MyBread is a gluten- and nut-free wholesale bakery located in Chicago. Pending satisfactory test results, Garbanzo plans to expand MyBread’s pita to more units.

“Our guests were telling us that they wanted it,” says Stephanie Swickard, training manager for Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill. “It’s very early in the testing process, but based on what we’re seeing now with purchases, it’s something that we will probably roll out to all of our locations.”

The Mediterranean diet naturally fits into that realm of gluten free, Swickard says, with 90 percent of Garbanzo’s menu boasting gluten-free ingredients, including legumes and vegetables. Swickard says the brand’s entire salad station, pickled eggplant, hummus, sauces, and falafels are also all gluten free.

“Many falafels have flour in them that help bind them together, but ours doesn’t,” she says.

Garbanzo is not the only company bulking up its supply of gluten-free options. Last year, Pie Five Pizza added a gluten-free crust to its menu, allowing those on a gluten-free diet to enjoy pizza on a regular basis.

“We finally found one that fits specifically with our brand,” says Pie Five chef Andy Whitman. “Most customers wouldn’t realize it was gluten free. It has a great flavor to it.”

Restaurants have long dealt with the challenge of making a product that is truly gluten free in the same area where employees handle other non-gluten foods. For consumers with celiac disease, even a trace amount of gluten can result in a reaction.

“Everybody is coming out with a gluten-free menu, and that’s pretty dangerous for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity,” Antico says. “It used to be that if you had a [gluten-free] menu, you probably understood celiac disease, but now everyone is coming out with a gluten-free menu, and we don’t know who is actually doing the training and understands cross contamination.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced last year new regulations defining what restaurants can dub “gluten-free.” The regulations go into effect August 5, 2014, and stipulate that to bear a gluten-free label, an item must have less than 20 parts per million of gluten.

Antico says that to maintain the integrity of gluten-free offerings, employee education and protection against cros contamination is essential.

“Having a policy that works and training employees to understand the importance of following the policy is key,” Antico says. “If the chain is committed to that policy, then the employees will follow it.”

Swickard says Garbanzo’s gluten-free pita is not a raw product and comes packaged and already baked. When a pita is ordered, the employee handling the pita sanitizes the area, washes his hands, and puts on gloves. The pita is wrapped individually in foil and heated on a press, then served to the guest in the foil it was wrapped in.

“This gives the customer the opportunity to open it up so that we’re not touching it with gloves or hands that have touched flour,” she says.

At Pie Five Pizza, Whitman says, the gluten-free crust is isolated when it comes in, and the company trains employees on how to handle it. Everything that touches the crust, such as cutting boards and the utensils used by the staff, is color coded for easy identification. The crust is then transferred to specific cooking trays, which are only used for gluten-free products.

“Instead of putting it on a regular tray, the pizza is put in a box because the box has never been used so it has zero contamination and it has a lid on it to reduce the chances of something getting on top of it,” Whitman says.

Both Garbanzo and Pie Five offer gluten-free options, with low cross-contamination risk, in the customizable model that’s becoming ubiquitous within the fast-casual space. Antico says that model is good business for the future. He anticipates the number of people willing to order straight from a menu is declining, and customers will either want or need food customized, even if the gluten-free trend declines.

“Over time, the long-term trend is leaning more toward ‘have it your way,’ and the restaurants who are willing to accommodate and cater to specific needs are going to get a lot of business,” he says. “And the ones that order everything premade and aren’t willing to compromise are going to lose a lot of market share.”