The gluten-free market is currently estimated at $5 billion, and is projected to hit $6.2 billion by 2018. Celiac disease now affects 1 in 133 people in the U.S.
What does this mean for the food and beverage industry? It means that providing options for diners who want to avoid gluten is a good idea — plain and simple.
Over the past few years, we've seen grocery stores create special sections stocked only with gluten-free items. Major food manufacturers have grabbed a hold of the trend: Bisquick now offers a gluten-free pancake mix, and Kellogg's reworked the recipe for Rice Crispies to be able to label it as gluten-free.
The fast food industry has been slower to respond to the call for more gluten-free offerings. Wendy's has increased menu options that could be considered gluten-free, but most of these items were already considered gluten-free to begin with: salad, baked potato, Frosty, etc. Wendy's does offer a PDF on its website showing the gluten-free options at their restaurants, however, which is a step in the right direction.
Another contender in the gluten-free fast food market, Dunkin' Donuts will introduce gluten-free blueberry muffins and cinnamon-sugar donuts later this year. The move may make Dunkin' Donuts the first QSR chain to explicitly cater to gluten-free diners by expanding a menu item that is normally off-limits to customers who can't eat gluten.
In the fast casual realm, Chipotle Mexican Grill has emerged as a leader by appealing to health-conscious diners who want affordable gluten-free options.
"It's a no-brainer for me to eat at Chipotle," said Danielle Loumeau, who avoids gluten due to celiac disease. She eats at the Chipotle near her house once or twice a week. "It's fresh, healthy food that doesn't taste different because it's gluten-free. Plus, the staff members change their gloves before handling my food, and I feel like they really watch out for me."
And Chipotle is seeing steady growth, recently reporting a 3.4-percent increase in profits at locations that have been open for more than a year.
Panera Bread was one of the first fast casual chains to start offering gluten-free items, about five years ago. Its profits have increased as well: in 2008, the company earned $1.3 billion. In 2012, it was up to $2.13 billion.
Of course these increases in revenues can't be explicitly traced to offering gluten-free foods. But the upward trend of restaurants that offer (and continue to expand) their gluten-free options is definitely one to watch.
A lot of it comes down to an emotional connection as well — show your diners that you care about their health and safety, give them a wide variety of choices to fit any dietary restriction, and they'll keep coming back for more.
Betsy Craig brings 20 years of food service industry experience to MenuTrinfo, LLC a menu nutritional labeling Company. Her commitment to the betterment of the food industry and her desire to affect the dining public are the driving forces behind her new company Kitchens with Confidence, LLC.