Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Gluten-Free Menu Items

While trends such as “all-natural,” “sliders,” and “value items” have dominated recent headlines, there is another foodservice movement that is growing quietly, but aggressively – backed by less publicity, yet expanding just as rapidly.

Gluten-free foods are offered as a solution to the estimated 2.5 million Americans afflicted with Celiac disease, which prohibits the consumption of foods that contain gluten, a protein found in such grains as wheat, barley and rye. In a recent Datassential survey amongst 350 independent foodservice operators, 46% indicated that they had experienced an increased growth of customer demand for gluten-free menu items over the past year.

Today, over 40% of operators currently offer gluten-free choices on their menu. More notable, however, are the additional 20% that plan to add them in the coming periods – making gluten-free the largest category of projected growth among food allergens.

The casual dining segment is on the forefront of the gluten-free cause. Recently, Uno Chicago Grill honored Celiac Disease Awareness Month by unveiling a new addition to its gluten-free line of pizzas. The Gluten Free Veggie Flatbread joined gluten-free pepperoni and cheese & tomato varieties that were first added to the Uno’s menu in January. The chain also boasts a full gluten-free menu of appetizers, entrees and desserts that dates back to 2006.

Red Robin and Outback Steakhouse have also been leaders in the movement, with each launching full celiac-friendly menus in 2007. However, it’s important to note that, as demonstrated by these two chains, a gluten-free menu does not necessarily have to consist of an entirely new menu of wheat-free concoctions. Instead, it can merely provide customers with a guide as to what menu staples are safe or how to order a variation of the dish that will make it that way. For example, Outback’s gluten-free menu makes suggestions on the sauce and side for a gluten-free meal:

New Zealand Rack of Lamb GF
A rack of tasty New Zealand lamb (cooked to order) with a rich Cabernet wine sauce. Served with garlic mashed potatoes and fresh seasonal veggies. Avoid the Cabernet sauce. Order veggies without seasonings or substitute baked potato.

Other major casual dining chains catering to celiacs and prominently featuring gluten-free menus on their website include PF Chang’s, Cheeseburger in Paradise, Bonefish Grill, and Biaggi’s. Offering solutions to customers with special allergy needs is not just important from a service stand-point, it’s also good business – attracting not only those patrons with celiac disease, but also everyone else in their dining party.

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