Even though the percentage of people who have an intolerance to gluten — about one in 20 — is not high, businesses should still go the extra mile in accommodating people who follow gluten-free diets , said panelists at the Fancy Food Show in Washington, D.C., this week. Customers who follow gluten-free diets “tend to be a passionate group,” said Cynthia Kupper, the executive director of Gluten Intolerance Group of North America. Just as they will offer their praises and cash to businesses that accommodate their dietary needs, they will stir up trouble for businesses that put their health at risk with incorrect labels or sloppy food preparation. “We have actually seen groups [of gluten-free eaters] take companies out,” said Kupper, referring to the efforts of gluten-free advocacy groups.
Hilton Hotels executive chef Aaron Flores offered a more incentive-based view for why businesses should target gluten-free eaters. One gluten-free eater will typically bring along several diners who do not require gluten-free foods, thus increasing business. As evidence, Flores described a gluten-free happy hour that Hilton Hotels has started offering. “About 60% of people that come to the happy hour don’t actually need to eat gluten-free,” said Flores.
The panel, which included Whole Foods Gluten-Free Bake House founder Lee Tobin, as well as Flores and Kupper, offered several tips for how to begin attracting gluten-free eaters.
Create standards and procedures. The first step toward making your business more attractive to gluten-free eaters is to have a set system for guaranteeing gluten safety. This system should outline how food is prepared and served; how kitchen stations are cleaned to avoid cross-contamination; and how employees are trained so that they will know how to accommodate a customer who follows a gluten-free diet. An added benefit of implementing gluten-free standards is that these standards may also improve the overall efficacy of your kitchen operations.
Use contact barriers. Your kitchen should have designated areas where gluten-free foods are prepared. Flores recommends using allergen-free cooking boards and cordoning off an area of your grill for gluten-free foods.
Be patient with uninformed customers. Many people who require gluten-free foods are new to the diet. They may have recently been told by their doctors that they can’t have gluten and are coming to your store or restaurant with a lack of knowledge. “We see people walk up and down the gluten-free aisle for about an hour and still have only about six items in their shopping baskets. These are the customers that need the most help,” Tobin said.
Stock a variety of gluten-free products. A single menu offering or small gluten-free section is not likely to enamor any gluten-free eaters. The idea is to make your gluten-free offerings as diverse and appetizing as your non-gluten-free ones.
Does your restaurant offer gluten-free items? Tell us more in the comments.