Each fall, the start of school transforms sleepy college towns into swirling meccas of activity as returning students and incoming freshmen converge on campuses and surrounding neighborhoods. For the quick-service restaurants that cater to these students, this annual rite of passage is a welcome end to the slow offseason and an opportunity to win new business. As college freshmen begin to identify places to grab a bite between classes or meet up with friends, they are also forming lifelong eating habits that include loyal relationships with their favorite restaurants. To gain this loyalty, quick service restaurants must offer food that is tasty and convenient while accommodating the needs of a diverse group of students.

Offering gluten-free dining options is one way quick-service restaurants can distinguish themselves in a competitive market. The number of college students adopting a gluten-free diet is growing as celiac disease and other forms of gluten sensitivity are diagnosed with greater frequency. Currently, about one in every 100 people has been diagnosed with celiac disease and up to 6 percent have been diagnosed with non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Anecdotal evidence from medical professionals suggests the numbers may be much higher. Some dieticians report seeing 1–3 new cases every day while large hospitals may diagnose between 10–15 new cases per week.

For teens with gluten sensitivity, finding restaurants that provide gluten-free options is a top priority. At a recent Generation GF Teen Summit, hosted by the nonprofit Gluten Intolerance Group in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, high school students and their parents identified the availability of gluten-free dining as a top consideration in their selection of colleges. In addition to requesting gluten-free lunches during campus tours, participants looked for local restaurants that offered gluten-free menus. Given the choice, these students gravitated toward colleges where there are plenty of gluten-free options.

The growing demand for gluten-free dining hasn’t gone unnoticed in the food industry. A recent report by Research and Markets predicts that the global gluten-free (GF) food market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 11.62 percent through 2021. However, while many restaurants are embracing gluten-free menus, they may not understand everything that goes into safely preparing gluten-free dishes. For example, restaurants may offer gluten-free options but use the same utensils to prepare general menu and gluten-free dishes. Even restaurants that use separate equipment to prepare food may not realize that additional precautions are needed during clean up to prevent cross-contamination.

For a student with gluten sensitivity, this lack of awareness can cause major health problems. Even a single crumb of gluten can put someone with celiac disease in the ER, so understanding the proper procedures for safely preparing gluten-free dishes is essential for restaurants that serve this population. Adapting your kitchen to prepare gluten-free dishes doesn’t have to cost much either. In most cases, restaurants already invest in the supplies needed to safely prepare gluten-free options. They need training on proper procedures for preparing food and sanitizing their kitchens.

Pursuing certification in gluten-free food services can go a long way in reassuring college students that their dietary needs will be met. Certification is also a great resource for quick service restaurants looking to implement a gluten-free program. During the certification process, restaurants receive guidance from experts on best practices for gluten-free food preparation. Certification teams help restaurants develop safe food handling and sanitization procedures and provide effective training for kitchen staff. During site visits, certification teams validate that procedures are being implemented correctly and offer suggestions for addressing any gaps in the restaurant’s gluten-free program. Following certification, these organizations provide additional support when questions or special circumstances arise.

Quick-service restaurants in college towns can earn top honors by offering dining options that are convenient and delicious. However, to capitalize on a growing market, it’s critical that quick service restaurants understand the potential pitfalls of preparing gluten-free dishes. By getting the training they need to safely implement a gluten-free program, quick service restaurants will ace the challenge of gluten-free food preparation and inspire the enthusiastic loyalty of students, during the college years and beyond.

Lindsey Yeakle, Gluten-Free Food Service (GFFS) Quality Control Manager for the nonprofit Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG), has a culinary history working at 4-star and 4-diamond rated restaurants, and she founded Alligator Pear Personal Chef Service. A celiac disease diagnosis encouraged Yeakle to attend culinary school at Indiana University of Pennsylvania Academy of Culinary Arts to learn how to design dishes that delight diners who have all types of dietary needs and restrictions. In June 2016, Yeakle decided to use her background and education to help the gluten-free community by working with GIG. For more information, visit www.gffoodservice.org.
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