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Behind the Line: Challenge: Celiac disease

Restaurants dedicated to diners’ safety consider gluten-free menu options

Restaurants that have gluten-free menus often have loyal followings. - Photo courtesy of Legal Sea Foods
By Lauren Kramer
June 01, 2013

Beckee Moreland’s one wish is that more restaurateurs understood the seriousness of celiac disease. 

“A lot of people think it’s a trendy diet for weight loss,” says the director of Gluten Free Industry Initiatives at the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA). “They don’t understand it’s an autoimmune disease wherein gluten causes damage to the small intestine and interferes with the absorption of nutrients. Ordering gluten-free food is not a choice for people with celiac,” she continues. “A gluten-free diet is the only treatment.” 

Approximately 1 percent of Americans has celiac disease and up to 8 percent of the population is gluten sensitive. “Gluten sensitivity has recently been labeled a medical condition,” says Karen Broussard, founder of the Gluten Free Travel Site, a website featuring public reviews of restaurants with gluten-free dining options. “That means you have at least 25 million people in the U.S. alone who require a gluten-free diet for medical reasons. It doesn’t even include the growing part of the population that has chosen to follow a gluten-free diet.”

Gluten-free food has been one of the top trends in the restaurant industry over the past few years. While only a handful of restaurants offered gluten-free options five years ago, today it’s become much easier to find restaurants with such options. The problem is, not all restaurateurs know how to safely create a gluten-free menu. 

“They need to know about the three C’s: content, contact and contamination,” says Shelly Asplin, director of nutrition programs for the Celiac Sprue Association in Omaha, Neb. Content refers to the gluten hidden in gravies, marinades, sauces, soups and salad dressings, while contact refers to a failure to wash hands, for example, before handling a gluten-free dish. “Just a crumb containing gluten can make someone with celiac disease very ill,” Asplin says. Cross contamination occurs when a gluten-free meal is contaminated by particles of gluten hidden in a dish used to prepare food containing gluten. 

Some restaurants such as California Pizza Kitchen (CPK) have learned the hard way. “When [CPK] launched a gluten-free menu a couple of years ago, they weren’t properly trained and didn’t realize they needed a separate area to prepare gluten-free dishes,” she says. “There were no precautions taken and they had some serious cross-contamination issues, as a result of which they discontinued their gluten-free menu very abruptly.”

Training is essential before a restaurant can successfully and safely launch a gluten-free menu, Moreland says. As director of the NFCA Kitchens Training Program she helped design an online course for restaurant managers and staff that consists of an interactive, web-based video. “It discusses the needs of the gluten-free guest, includes an ingredient module about what gluten means and talks about front-of-the-house communication, back-of-the-house safety measures and implementation of the program,” she says.

The course costs $200 for restaurant managers and $25 each for additional staff. It helps resolve some of the confusion people experience in understanding celiac disease and gluten. “Some people think if you take the wheat out of the ingredient it will be gluten-free. Others think gluten is glucose. So there’s a lot of misinformation out there,” she says. 

The Celiac Sprue Association also has webinars and material to support restaurant staff, but Asplin recommends restaurants hire a gluten consultant for additional training. “It can be confusing for restaurants, because one diner will come in saying a little gluten is not a big deal, but for someone with celiac disease, a little gluten is a big deal,” she says.

Restaurant operators should try to be as knowledgeable as they can about gluten-free diets, but also have a clause in their menu, she suggests. “The clause would say they will do the best of their ability to ensure the product is gluten-free, but that they cannot guarantee it,” she suggests.

Purely from a business perspective, having gluten-free options on your menu is a smart move, Broussard says. “The gluten-free community is a very, very loyal market,” she insists. “If you’re able to accommodate gluten-free diners, word of mouth will travel fast because gluten-free diners will choose those restaurants that accommodate them with a safe, wide variety of gluten-free choices.” Those diners are also influential when it comes to selecting a restaurant venue, she adds. “Often when a group is eating out together, it’s the individual with gluten restrictions who makes the decision about which restaurant they should patronize.” 

A variety of websites and mobile apps are guiding consumers to restaurants with gluten-free menus. The NFCA directs inquiries to the smartphone app FindMeGlutenFree, and Broussard’s glutenfreetravelsite.com allows people to search by zip code for reviews on local restaurants with gluten-free options.  Broussard has received positive feedback about PF Chang’s, one of the first restaurant chains to introduce gluten-free cuisine. 

“They even serve gluten-free dishes on different shaped plates, so they can distinguish them in the kitchen,” she says. “When they expanded their gluten-free menu a few years ago they saw a major uptick in business, and today that menu is almost as extensive as their regular menu.” 

Legal Sea Foods is another restaurant chain that has garnered appreciation from gluten-free diners, she says. “They go the extra step and provide gluten-free bread in most of their locations. They also use corn flour to bread their fish and shellfish, so gluten-free diners can get that authentic breaded seafood experience and feel included.” 

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in Richmond, British Columbia 

Find other SeaFood Business articles featuring celiac disease here.

June 2013 - SeaFood Business    

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