Foodservice operators may remain divided on whether gluten free is a passing trend, but those that have committed to serving the gluten-sensitive customer have found a new, loyal base of dining guests. Jason’s Deli, the Texas-based fast casual, is one of those brands, and it’s gluten-free chicken nuggets have helped capture an even bigger portion of this market.
“We asked, ‘What more could we do for kids? What more could we do for families?’” says Jamie Cohen, chief branding officer. “Everybody loves chicken nuggets, but no one was doing a gluten-free and antibiotic-free version.”
Cohen says Jason’s Deli began ramping up its gluten-free offerings in 2010 through a partnership with Udi’s, a national provider of gluten-free bread. And in 2011, the brand created a menu specifically for the gluten-sensitive consumer.
“We just started getting anecdotal questions from customers,” Cohen says. “It was unbelievable the emotional response we got from customers who could now bring their child out to a regular restaurant to eat a regular meal. Parents were crying when they were talking to us.”
To keep the momentum building for the gluten-free menu, the team at Jason’s Deli turned to their provider Purdue to create and test gluten-free, antibiotic-free nuggets that still delivered on flavor. The item tested well, Cohen says, and was rolled out to all restaurant locations in April. Since then, roughly 15 percent of all chicken nuggets sold have been of the gluten-free variety, Cohen adds.
“We’ve sold, to date, over 150,000 items system-wide that have been tagged with gluten-free markers,” he says. “There’s probably just as many customers who may not be Celiacs, but they do avoid gluten.”
While those numbers are strong, they don’t include the customer who eschews gluten for reasons other than Celiac disease, Cohen adds. The brand’s salad bar offers a customizable platform that these types of guests would be drawn to, but “we just have no way of knowing how many of them come to us for that,” he says.
By Tamara Omazic