Going Gluten Free — Logistics of tapping the wheat-free market

Going Gluten Free -- Logistics of tapping the wheat-free market
Photo by Josh Keown

Expanding with gluten-free offerings was an obvious choice for Southeast-based Brixx Wood Fired Pizza. The 21-store chain sold nearly 60,000 gluten-free pizzas in 2012 alone, doubling the previous year’s sales. “At the very beginning, we realized that offering gluten-free dough was going to open up new business,” says Executive Chef Richard Shinault. “It’s absolutely driven sales across the board.”

Still, even a partial move to gluten-free will require a full commitment from you and your staff. Renee Kreager of Renee’s Organic Oven in Tucson, Arizona, notes that “although it’s marketable, I think people should take it very, very seriously; people are trusting you.” The slightest contamination can put Celiac patients out of work for weeks, and even mildly intolerant diners will feel uncomfortable effects from wheat-based dough. If you’re going to expand into the gluten-free arena, your setup, procedures and even marketing will need to be just right.

Your doughs — both wheat-free and traditional — should be your first considerations. Venice Bakery, a private label manufacturer that’s been making gluten-free products for more than nine years, has set up a dedicated plant to keep up with rising demands. For smaller manufacturers and restaurateurs, Venice president Jimmy DeSisto recommends a staggered production schedule: gluten-free doughs at the beginning of the week, traditional doughs later on. You can prevent a great deal of cross-contamination by making your gluten-free doughs right after your weekend deep-cleaning.

Even so, it’s far more feasible for independent operators to order pre-made gluten-free crusts — especially when fresh traditional dough is a selling point. Kreager, for instance, makes her organic wheat dough daily at a time when nothing else is in production. Her staff then bleaches the prep tables and makes the sauce and toppings for both regular and gluten-free pizzas. This schedule doesn’t leave time to handle a different type of dough, but it does make for an allergen-free kitchen. “Not everyone has to take things to this degree,” she notes, “but it’s almost a waste of time if we don’t.” Typically health-conscious diners may not notice a few gluten particles in their crusts, but Celiac patients certainly will.

Whether your gluten-free crusts are ordered out or made in-house, you’ll also need separate prep areas during service. “Logistically, it can be more difficult,” says Chuck Barbato, director of operations for Salvatore’s Restaurants. Salvatore’s offers gluten-free variations on more than 70 percent of its menu items, including pizzas, pastas, sandwiches and salads. The specialty pizzas are built in the walk-ins with separate ingredients and tools, and line cooks move to the prep kitchens to make other gluten-free dishes.

Oven separations are just as essential. At Salvatore’s, cooks dedicate one of their wood-fired ovens to gluten-free items during slow periods, and they switch specialty orders to a sanitized convection oven during rushes. Multiple ovens aren’t essential, though; Kreager simply uses a separate stone for all of her allergen-friendly pizzas.

No matter what prep procedures you choose, extensive staff training is a must. “It’s almost like biohazard training,” says Kreager, who trains her cooks to treat gluten with as much caution as raw meat, eggs and cleaning chemicals. Servers need just as much instruction, since they have to relay meticulously accurate information to diners with dietary restrictions. Ingredients that work for some gluten-free customers may not fly with others, and people with severe intolerances want to know how everything is handled.

Of course, all of these accommodations are going to raise costs. Gluten-free doughs and crusts will be your main expenses, since the starches they contain are far more expensive than wheat. You’ll also need to pay for additional training, slower working conditions and possibly even extra staff positions.

Fortunately, most gluten-free customers won’t balk at the high prices necessary to absorb those costs. They’re used to shopping for obscure and expensive ingredients, and they understand the extra work that goes into their food. “When they see a two-dollar up-charge, they know we’re offering them a service,” says Shinault.

In addition to modified kitchen setups and workflows, gluten-free options require some special customer knowledge. Do you have a large Celiac population in your area, or are you catering to health-conscious diners who just avoid wheat when possible? The answer could affect your marketing efforts, the products you source and the rigor of your cross-contamination procedures. Shinault and Barbato have both seen increased sales through gluten-free associations, doctors and nutritionists — a perk that less rigorous, less communicative establishments rarely enjoy.

You may also get a boost in business by accommodating a broader set of dietary restrictions. Kreager uses a crust made of potato, rice, and tapioca flours that’s also free of egg, soy and dairy. With special sauce and topping selections, she can offer pizzas to the choosiest customers — and they’re happy to pay higher prices. Given the careful procedures involved in handling gluten-free products, catering to other allergies is only a small step up.

Even if you do take every possible precaution when prepping your gluten-free pies, you’ll need a disclaimer on your menu. The FDA hasn’t established standards for gluten-free handling, and even the cleanest kitchens will contain airborne glutens. It’s up to you to let your customers know the risks.

David LaMartina is a Kansas City-based freelance writer specializing in food, health and fitness.

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