2012 December: Gluten-Free: The Front of the House is Key

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As someone with celiac disease, I have certain red flags that I always look for when I dine out. And it all begins with the front of the house.

Restaurants across the U.S. are introducing gluten-free options at a rapid pace. This new menu trend is especially strong among pizza parlors, which are ordering gluten-free crusts or developing their own dough to accommodate gluten-free requests. Managers are putting time, money and effort into building dedicated gluten-free areas, verifying gluten-free ingredients and establishing gluten-free protocols for the chef and kitchen staff. But that’s all for nothing if the hostess and server aren’t properly prepped.

Your front-of-house staff is the first source of contact with customers, and therefore, the first impression of your establishment. Your kitchen staff could be well versed in gluten-free safety, but if a server responds to a question about gluten with a quizzical look or a heavy sigh, chances are that gluten-sensitive customer will lose faith—and may even opt to dine elsewhere.

Consider this: Last summer, the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, for which I am the director of gluten-free industry initiatives, asked those who choose this option to share their concerns about dining out. Among the top four themes we identified in the responses was this: Many gluten-free diners base their comfort (or lack of comfort) on the attitude and knowledge of the front-of-house staff.

Celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity are serious health conditions that can cause debilitating symptoms when gluten is ingested. It is estimated that 1 percent of our population—that’s more than 3 million in the U.S.—exhibit gluten intolerance. A tiny amount is enough to trigger a reaction, so gluten-free meals must be prepared with extreme vigilance for members of this group.

Confusing the issue is the rising popularity of the gluten-free diet. A recent report by Packaged Facts estimates that 18 percent of the population has adopted a gluten-free diet. (That’s up from 15 percent in 2010.) More consumers are making this a lifestyle even though it is not a medical necessity—and there’s a big difference between dietary requests they might make and the requirement of zero gluten among those with health conditions.

The trend can affect a pizzeria this way: A diner who requests a gluten-free meal because it’s a choice rather than a necessity may steal a bite of pasta from a friend’s plate or decide to order a gluten-containing dessert. Your staff sees that and may not realize that another diner, one with a gluten-related disorder, is unable move back and forth like this. For hosts and servers, repeated exposure to these crossover gluten-free diners can cause confusion about the seriousness of special dietary requests, which puts true gluten-sensitive diners at risk and builds an air of distrust between customers and servers.

In the celiac and gluten-sensitive community, we are advised to call ahead before dining out so we can alert the staff to our gluten-free needs or pick another restaurant if gluten-free options are unavailable. We request a gluten-free menu when we are seated. We ask a variety of questions to ensure that the food we order will be prepared safely. It’s essential for front-of-house staff to be prepared to meet these requests and answer each question with confidence. The last thing a gluten-sensitive diner wants to hear is, “Um, yeah, I think that’s gluten-free.”

For some industry perspective, I asked Adam Goldberg, CEO and co-founder of Fresh Brothers (Pizza Today’s Independent Pizzeria of the Year for 2012), for his thoughts on front-of-house training. Fresh Brothers was one of the early adopters of GREAT Kitchens, an NFCA training program, and his locations now serve more than 1,000 gluten-free pizzas per week.

“Our gluten-free customers ask a lot of questions, as they should. It’s vital that our cashiers can answer those questions,” he said. “Even more important for our cashiers is knowing when they should bring a manager into the loop. If our cashier can’t answer a question with authority, then we ask that they bring the manager into the discussion to make sure the customer feels comfortable about our procedures.”

This may sound like more effort than it’s worth. I assure you, the rewards far outweigh the investment.

Gluten-free diners are known for their loyalty. Restaurants that offer a safe gluten-free meal and provide a superior dining experience are few and far between; they quickly become hot spots for the gluten-free community. What’s more, special dietary needs often dictate where an entire group may dine, so one customer with celiac disease could be responsible for bringing in a troop of 10 or 15, none of whom have gluten-related disorders but all of whom support their friend who does. Finally, gluten-free diners are active word-of-mouth marketers. They post restaurant reviews on forums, listservs and social media; they talk about where they ate at support-group meetings; and they take feedback from one another seriously.

Fresh Brothers has become one of those go-to spots for celiac and gluten-sensitive diners. Goldberg attributes the chain’s success to his staff’s “ability to feed the entire family.” That claim isn’t just a reflection of the kitchen; it’s a sign of a cohesive staff. And it’s a sign of a well-run and profitable business.

Beckee Moreland is director of gluten-free industry initiatives at the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. She will be leading a discussion on gluten-free pizzas during two sessions at Pizza Expo in March. Beckee will be joined by Adam Goldberg of Fresh Brothers, Willy Olund of Willy O’s Pizza & Grille and Michael Rutledge of Farrelli’s Wood Fire Pizza—all of whom are now serving gluten-free pizza.

For more details on International Pizza Expo 2013, visit www.pizzaexpo.com.