Nancy Jordahl, culinary research and development director for Iowa-based Pizza Ranch, is used to switching up the chain's menu often to fit seasonal trends and customer demands.
The company has a commitment, she said, to introduce new products to the menu on a regular basis, as well as a series of limited-time offers each year.
But Pizza Ranch's recently added line of gluten-free offerings isn't like other rollouts. Cross-contamination or improper preparation can make celiacs or gluten-intolerant customers sick. Jordahl spoke to PizzaMarketplace.com about the challenges involved in introducing such a sensitive item and how it's been good for business.
PizzaMarketplace: When and how did the idea come up to add gluten-free items to the menu?
Nancy Jordahl: About two and a half years ago. We had gotten a few requests here and there from customers either calling or writing it on comment cards. Our first reaction was 'Well, we know this will complicate operations and we know this will be expensive, but let's see what we can do."
PizzaMarketplace: How did the company proceed from there?
Jordahl: We asked owners and managers in our system what they were hearing from their guests. At that time it was still really rare, which really shows how dramatically it's grown in just two years. Anyway, we kept the idea in mind – put it on the table – but it wasn't a so-called 'A list' item for us.
Then the owners of three restaurants in Minnesota told us they were starting to get a lot more gluten-free requests and asked if we could get them a product. We didn't know how to justify all the time and effort for three units, so we put more time into trying to figure it out. We decided to find a crust for those stores and then test it for the rest of the system.
PizzaMarketplace: Was there any reluctance because of cost or effort?
Jordahl: We knew going into it that it was going to be more expensive. When we looked at other restaurants offering this, they were charging more just to cover the costs, food and labor. So we knew we would charge more, but the people in our focus groups said they were accustomed to that, so it made us a bit more comfortable.
We did have some reluctance from some managers who didn't think they had enough requests or didn't understand why it moved up to an 'A List' project.
PizzaMarketplace: Can you describe the testing process?
Jordahl: At first, we told customers they could bring in their own gluten-free crusts and we'll top it for them and accommodate them that way. Then we realized there was enough energy moving in this direction that we created a focus group and tested two products for our system. The entire process took two years.
I worked with people in the celiac community during the R&D phase. We taste-tested in house and with guests. We also had (celiac) support group members talk to restaurant managers and provide a picture of why there may be a need, and why it's important to do this safely.
PizzaMarketplace: Why did it take two years to pick the right crust?
Jordahl: We needed as much feedback as possible. We needed to understand a lot about how many people were out there, and how it would impact our restaurant and our operations and how we could keep it safe. When you get requests for this, you have to interrupt the entire kitchen procedure, the flow. We wanted to make sure that we could do it while making sure our customer understands we're not a gluten-free restaurant. We have flour dust in the air and we have to warn people about that. That's an issue especially for pizzerias and someone who is severely celiac might be affected by that.
PizzaMarketplace: How did the restaurants' operations change once you added this to your menu?
Jordahl: When the order comes in, it's highlighted in red so the crew is alerted that there is a food allergy. The crew member assigned to that specific pizza then re-washes their hands, sanitizes the work area, cleans the utensils and gets the area ready before they start making the pizza. One reason we picked the crust we did (Pizza Ranch has not released the name of its gluten-free supplier) was because it comes in its own foil pan. It never leaves that pan throughout our cooking process.
There is also training for staff. Every pizza maker completes computer-based training before they can make a gluten-free pizza, and the entire staff has directions and information.
PizzaMarketplace: Is the product availability an opt-in for your franchisees?
Jordahl: We did launch this as a voluntary program. We want restaurants to determine whether or not their community needed it. Initially, when it launched (March 1, 2011), we had it available in about 60 percent of our units. (By June) We were up to 85 percent.
PizzaMarketplace: Do you consider this a passing trend or is gluten-free here to stay?
Jordahl: It's clear this is no passing trend. This reminds me of trans fats; we started hearing about it in the distance and didn't really understand it at first. But once it became clear how it really affected people, things changed and now it's everywhere. It'll be that way with gluten-free eventually and we anticipate the costs going down because of that.
PizzaMarketplace: Overall, why was this menu addition good for business?
Jordahl: You have to think about everything from a guest perspective. Once we started testing it and looking at a bigger picture, we realized this could generate enough sales to execute. And we aren't talking just about celiacs or those with gluten-free diets, but also their families and friends who they dine with. At the end of the day, we're here to please our guests – all of them.
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Photo provided by Whatsername.