The Gluten Free Challenge for Foodservice Operations – Part One

Gluten Free Challenge

This series is a summary of the presentation given at the Arkansas Ben E. Keith Food Expo on May 14. We recommend the training opportunities from ServSafe Allergen and the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness as a next step. If you would be interested in more in-depth training and consulting for your operation, contact Christie here


The main phone line rings, and it’s a potential diner wishing to make a reservation.

“Before I do,” she asks, “I have one question. Do you have a gluten-free menu?”

While special dietary requests might currently cause sighs and eye-rolls from your staff (or maybe even you), it’s a growing market and a tremendous commercial opportunity. Restaurants offering gluten-free menus, when properly implemented and marketed, have seen noticeable upticks in their dining room traffic.

Do you have to serve anything gluten-free? No, of course not. But should you take part in a tremendous market opportunity? Absolutely. Here, I’ll outline some of the steps and responsibilities of offering gluten-free items at your operation.

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. It’s the “glue” that makes bread springy and holds pasta together. Oats do not naturally contain gluten, but they are typically grown on the same fields as gluten-containing grains and are often cross-contaminated. (Gluten-free oats are available, however, which are grown on separate fields.)

All natural meats, vegetables, fruits, rice and many other grains are gluten-free. (Be careful with sausages and other items with casings or fillers, however, as they often contain gluten.) For example, a Mexican-style meal with steak, peppers, onions, garlic and corn tortillas may be called gluten-free, given it is not exposed to other gluten-containing ingredients. The same meal with flour tortillas, however, is not gluten-free.

Gluten, in and of itself, isn’t bad or unhealthy. It’s a natural part of perfectly good grains. For a growing percentage of the world’s population, however, for various reasons, our bodies aren’t compatible with it.

There are three major types of problems that people have with gluten:

Celiac Disease. This is a genetic disorder that is very serious. When a person with celiac disease (also known as celiac sprue) ingests gluten, his or her immune system attacks the small intestine, causing severe digestive distress and various other symptoms. A person won’t die immediately from gluten exposure, but repeated damage will make the small intestine incapable of absorbing nutrients. Long-term exposure (common among those who haven’t received a correct diagnosis) can leave a person incapable of maintaining a normal lifestyle, often bedridden or otherwise very ill.

Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity. This blanket diagnosis includes people like myself who have mild to severe reactions to gluten, but do not have celiac disease or an allergy in the technical sense. In my case, when exposed to gluten, within minutes I appear very pregnant (I’m not!), my muscles become tender and sore, and I become crushingly fatigued. Symptoms vary but generally begin with the digestive system.

Allergy. A true allergy to gluten is rare, but can be very serious, and involves the immune system. Symptoms can vary from a tingling lip to a full anaphylactic reaction (breathing problems, shock). It can be immediately life-threatening and may require immediate medical attention.

So, I know what you’re about to say. I can hear you through the computer screen. “That’s well and good,” you say, “but these people come into my dining room asking for gluten-free, and I know they don’t really need it.”

My take on the matter: You can’t tell a trendy dieter/someone trying to be cute from the most severe case of celiac coming into your operation. Most of them are legitimate requests. And, honestly, from a marketing perspective, it really doesn’t matter. Treat every single gluten-free diner with care and respect, and they’ll keep coming back, probably with more customers. (Click to Tweet) My personal opinion is that you shouldn’t ask questions trying to find out the diner’s level of sensitivity, which can come across as incredulity. Just take equal precautions with everyone, unless they tell you differently.

So, why the major increase in gluten intolerance and such in the past few years? That’s a series unto itself. Current theories range from human genetics to GMOs, and the truth is probably found somewhere in between. All that matters is that a lot of people need gluten-free meals, and you can help.

Where Do I Start?

Start with what you already know. Take a look at your menu. What dishes are profitable? Easy to prepare? And most importantly, what is already naturally gluten-free, or could easily become that way with substitutions?

Many protein-centered dishes without breadings or flour-based sauces are easily served gluten-free. If you wish to go a step further, you can purchase gluten-free flour blends or mix your own to recreate standard dishes. (I personally prefer blogger Gluten Free on a Shoestring’s “Better than Cup for Cup” blend, which you can make yourself if you are careful about clean equipment. She even offers a spreadsheet to figure large quantities.)

For most operations, though, the easiest solution is to purchase third-party gluten-free items. In Arkansas, the only 100% gluten-free local resource that I know of is Dempsey Bakery, which provides buns, pizza crusts, bread and sweets to restaurants across the state. Through your wholesaler, however, you can purchase certified gluten-free items in foodservice quantities, including the following examples from Ben E. Keith:

  • Kikkoman Gluten-Free Soy Sauce or Teriyaki Sauce
  • General Mills Gluten-Free Bisquick, Gluten-Free Betty Crocker dessert mixes, Gluten-Free Chex cereals and more
  • Jones Dairy Farm Sausage, Bacon and Ham

At this point, you should start what I refer to as a mini-HACCP plan. This means tracing the entire process of making each dish, from ordering and receiving ingredients to delivering the finished dish to the table. List every single ingredient needed to make a dish. If you’re lucky, all your ingredients will be certified gluten-free, as those listed above are. If not, check the labels of each ingredient for the words wheat, barley, rye, gluten, flour or the like. Note: there are things like “rice flour” and “corn gluten” to make things more confusing (both are gluten-free). Your foodservice sales rep should be able to help you with this, but when in doubt, hire a nutritionist or other expert to help.

In the next installment, I’ll discuss cross-contamination and the front-of-house and back-of-house procedures you’ll need to set up to safely serve the gluten-free meals you’ve created.

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