It's been a formative few years for the gluten-free movement, with once barren and tasteless menu options growing into a market that's now brimming with palate-friendly products.
But while gluten-free menu items can be found across most restaurant segments, few of those segments have matched the forward momentum of the pizza space. From national chains to local and regional franchises, pizza restaurants have sought to make safe the typically forbidden food for sufferers of celiac disease or gluten sensitivities.
And with the NPD Group reporting that 30 percent of Americans are choosing to eliminate gluten from their diets, there's no shortage of diners looking to be served and satisfied.
"I was diagnosed [with celiac disease] 22 years ago, and back then I ordered my food from Canada," said Alice Bast, founder of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. "I remember that I didn't eat pizza or carbs. But over the last year the taste profile has come a long way."
Bast said that for people with celiac or gluten sensitivity, pizza is important — it's a comfort food; it's fast, easy and tasty, "so there has been a high interest in gluten-free in the pizza segment."
Now that gluten-free has matured, and pizza providers have had the time to perfect their products and service processes, competition is flourishing.
"It's really become a challenge of who can make the best gluten-free pizza," Bast said," and there's nothing like a little competition to make a better product."
For pizza operators who have not yet embraced gluten-free menu offerings, the market now offers a chance to examine the impact that a gluten-free option has on the bottom line.
So how are pizza operators faring with the frenzy surrounding the diet? With the stringent safety standards and guidelines set forth by the Food and Drug Administration and advocacy groups like the NFCA, have restaurants had a chance to realize a return on their gluten-free investment?
According to Bast, the answer is yes.
"The gluten-free community is hugely active," she said. "We've seen that so far every major establishment that offers gluten-free food has seen a significant ROI."
Looking across several key players however, the actual significance of the return changes on a case-by-case basis. Uncle Maddio's Pizza Joint, which operates 18 restaurants in six states, announced recently that its gluten-free menu accounts for 5 to 7 percent of pizza sales, per location.
For the much larger Domino's Pizza, which launched gluten-free pizza a year and a half ago, the product (recommended for those with sensitivities, not celiac) has not been a significant sales driver — but according to Chris Brandon, head of Domino's public relations, it was never intended to be.
"Our gluten-free product is doing exactly what we hoped it would do, if not maybe better, and a lot of that has to do with customers understanding who the product is meant for and who it's not," Brandon said. "I'm not sure about how the rest of the industry looks at this, but for us it wasn't about competing with our traditional sales items, it was about making sure a segment of customers now had the opportunity to try our pizza."
Since launching gluten-free options in all of its stores last year, Chuck E. Cheese's has seen steady sales of its pizza and cupcake products, but the brand didn't introduce gluten-free options to be a sales-driver, either, according to the brand's Director of Corporate Communications Michelle Chism.
Chism said that instead, the locations benefit by increased foot traffic of gluten-free diners who were previously excluded by the menu.
"Feedback from guests indicated that many of them were missing out on a classic experience with their friends due to gluten restrictions," she said. "Now we hear from parents wanting us to know about the inclusive experience their child had because of our gluten-free offerings."
For restaurants that offer certified gluten-free food items, the designation doesn't come without strict adherence to food handling measures designed to lower the risks of cross contamination — something that pizza is particularly vulnerable to because of airborne flour.
"When you are talking about pizza and a facility making pizza from scratch, that airborne flour is a concern," Bast said. "But there are ways to work around that, like more vendors turning to packaged solutions."
Chuck E. Cheese's has minimized its contamination risk, and therefore decreased the need for major changes to food handling or staff training, by using packaged products. Chism said the brand's gluten-free pizza arrives at Chuck E. Cheese's locations from Conte's Pasta's certified gluten-free facilities in frozen, pre-sealed packaging. The bake-in-bag pizza remains sealed while cooked and delivered, and until opened.
"Because of this, very little has changed within operations," she said.
Uncle Maddio's takes the fresh dough route, and the company said employees use caution to prevent cross-contamination. Pizza makers put on new gloves, use separate pans and utensils, and pull toppings from fresh bins when preparing a gluten-free item. The transparent food prep process allows customers with food allergies to be assured their order is accurate and safe, the company said.
According to Bast, there were more than 200 million gluten-free menu requests last year, but the option still hasn't reached critical mass.
"Unless a restaurant has the system and the space, gluten-free can't be in every establishment," she said. "They have to be able to safely serve gluten-free, and availability will largely be determined by demand."
Chism also believes safety being key to the standard adoption of gluten-free menu options.
"Gluten-free options are popping up on menus everywhere, but the challenge restaurants face lies in providing safe, gluten-free options that aren't at risk for cross contamination," she said. "That being said, gluten-free menu items will be standardized as our society becomes more aware of the numbers of consumers that battle gluten sensitivities."
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