A behind-the-scenes look at Pizza Ranch's gluten-free adoption

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.

Read more about health and nutrition.

Photo provided by Whatsername.

Related Content

User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Steve Pollard
    76155442
    This is Steve from Guidos. I have just opened the first fully dedicated gluten free deli in the U.S. The name of the deli will be W.O.W (with out wheat). We will also cater to people with food allergies. No nuts shell fish soy ECT. We are located in Okemos. I'm the only certified GF cook in MI. through the NFCA. We will have a full line of deli meats with no nitrates msg food coloring or added hormones. We will have pies cup cakes bagels and yes we still have the best pizza in the U.S. all made on site some of them will also be dairy and egg free. All food will be competitively priced. Just because food is labeled gluten free or allergen free shouldn't mean that you have to pay a lot. My employees are either celiac or have food allergies. This will insure that there is no way that we can cross contaminate your food. Any questions feel free to call 517-347-3030. In three years I have made almost 10.000 gf pizzas in a dual kitchen and 0 complaints about being sick. I can now make everything in a dedicated GF kitchen but cross contamination still exists with dairy,soy,egg,ect.I find myself still needing dedicated cooking equipment to avoid cross contamination. This is a lot of fun for me I like the challenge of preparing food for everyone no matter what your dietary needs are. I’m currently rated #1 in the U.S. according to customer feedback at the gluten free registry.com out of 20.000 restaurants that offer gluten free.
Products & Services

Javarama coffee

http://global.networldalliance.com/new/images/products/6961.png

6961/Javarama-coffee

Enterprise Solutions

http://global.networldalliance.com/new/images/products/4124.png

4124/Enterprise-Solutions

FireFly Point-of-Sale

http://global.networldalliance.com/new/images/products/4282.png

4282/FireFly-Point-of-Sale

Mobile Ordering

http://global.networldalliance.com/new/images/products/5933.png

5933/Mobile-Ordering

Nationwide Criminal Records

http://global.networldalliance.com/new/images/products/Criminal_Search_iix.gif

1427/Nationwide-Criminal-Records

Facebook Ordering

http://global.networldalliance.com/new/images/products/5935.png

5935/Facebook-Ordering

Online Ordering

http://global.networldalliance.com/new/images/products/4285.png

4285/Online-Ordering

Remote Service | Content Management Service

http://global.networldalliance.com/new/images/products/6685.png

6685/Remote-Service-Content-Management-Service

Business Performance Management

http://global.networldalliance.com/new/images/products/6413.png

6413/Business-Performance-Management

Dual Core Menu Board Media Player - $99

http://global.networldalliance.com/new/images/products/6677.png

6677/Dual-Core-Menu-Board-Media-Player-99

Request Information From Suppliers
Save time looking for suppliers. Complete this form to submit a Request for Information to our entire network of partners.