The gluten-free opportunity: New rewards await

Jan. 9, 2017 | by S.A. Whitehead

If 2016 taught the restaurant industry anything, it's that diners not only want to know what's in their food, but also what's being kept out. Consumers are clearly sending the message that unhealthful items, such as artificial preservatives, colors and flavors, as well as a growing list of questionable additives and genetically modified foods are unwanted. And they're willing to pay for it.

The gluten-free demand, which started a few ago, shows no signs of abatement. Instead, the trend is giving indications that it's spreading to include all restaurant sectors, including those offering quick-service sandwiches and fast casual concoctions of all sorts. 

"For all the recent talk that gluten-free is a dying fad, the reality is that more and more people are reducing the amount of gluten that they consume. At the same time, consumers are demanding better ingredients, even in indulgent foods like pizza." 
— Charlie Pace, Smart Flour Foods President and CEO

 

Fortunately for brands seeking gluten-free buns and other bread products, the previous demand for such doughs from pizza restaurateurs has brought a lot of new products and players into food service. That's particularly timely since current data indicates the demand for gluten-free products of all ilk may well be poised to explode. 

The demand

Over the next three years, the restaurant business's demand for gluten-free food products will likely double.  Statista reported that in 2006, gluten-free and so-called "free-from" foods rang up about $0.9 billion in retail food sales. By 2020, Statista said its data indicated that sales of those same foods will total $23.9 billion in the U.S. 

Part of what is driving that more widespread embrace of gluten-free products — particularly in pizza dough — is the fact that the number and flavor of such doughs has evolved tremendously in recent years. What was once, back in the early 2000s, barely edible, now is an assortment of richly flavored and textured offerings from gluten-free sources using everything from rice to amaranth.   

Smart Flour Foods is one bread and pizza dough vendor that's making quite a business out of what are often "ancient" and heretofore geographically isolated grains, including teff and sorghum. 

"Our products are available at restaurants nationwide, including popular chains like Mellow Mushroom, Giordano’s, Pie Five, Blue Moon Pizza, The Original Pancake House and Lifetime Fitness," Smart Flour Foods President and CEO Charlie Pace, said in an interview with this website. "Chefs are starting to use our flatbreads as a base for creative appetizers, while our new hoagie rolls can be used for a wide variety of applications, from gourmet subs to grilled cheese. So, we're excited because we believe that even more consumers will gravitate towards whole grains, natural ingredients, a healthier lifestyle and gluten-free products as well, as a part of that. 

"The gluten-free food category grew 136 percent from 2013 to 2015, topping $11.6 billion, according to research from Mintel, an industry market intelligence agency." 
—  Cynthia Kupper, Gluten Intolerance Group CEO

 

"For all the recent talk that gluten-free is a dying fad, the reality is that more and more people are reducing the amount of gluten that they consume. At the same time, consumers are demanding better ingredients, even in indulgent foods like pizza. Our products meet right at the intersection of all of those needs, and we couldn't be more excited about the opportunity to reach an even larger customer group in 2017."

Similarly, a number of gluten-free advocacy groups are cropping up to help restaurateurs choose wisely when it comes to their gluten-free offerings. For example, the non-profit Gluten Intolerance Group is serving as an advocate for those whose medical histories or personal preferences lead them to seek truly gluten-free food when eating out. As part of that role, the Gluten Intolerance Group offers a restaurant certification program for brands seeking to initiate proven safe practices in their gluten-free operation for their patrons. 

"The market demand continues to grow in the US and globally," Gluten Intolerance Group CEO Cynthia Kupper, said in an interview with this site. "As more people are diagnosed and become aware of gluten-related disorders, the demand is increasing. The gluten-free food category grew 136 percent from 2013 to 2015, topping $11.6 billion, according to research from Mintel, an industry market intelligence agency."

Kupper, a registered dietician, said her organization's restaurant certification program is shaped to the type of restaurant participating to ensure best practices in gluten-free meal production. Through her work with a number of national food service brands, she said it appears that many restaurateurs are operating with "old information regarding what is and isn’t gluten-free."

"They also are not inclined to switch out an ingredient that contains gluten for one that doesn’t, such as using a gluten-free soy sauce. This may be because they do not know to do so, or it may be because of monetary reasons. Just switching to a gluten-free brand would open the door to so many more items being gluten-free, especially on Asian menus."

California Pizza Kitchen's gluten-free experience

"We take great care in producing the pizzas in a specified area within the restaurant, (which are) baked separately in tins, and delivered to the table by a manager. We also use color-coded utensils in preparing the pizzas and store gluten-free ingredients in separate, designated spaces."  
— Brian Sullivan, California Pizza Kitchen SVP of Culinary Innovation

 

One of the businesses that Gluten Intolerance Group has worked to certify is California Pizza Kitchen. The Kitchen's leadership team reports that their system-wide move away from gluten has been a simultaneous move into their customer's gluten-abhorring hearts

"We partnered with the Gluten Intolerance Group to offer four certified gluten-free pizzas on our menu, which we introduced in 2013," California Pizza Kitchen Senior Vice President of Culinary Innovation Brian Sullivan, said in an interview with this website. "These four certified gluten-free pizzas are prepared using strict procedures … (and) a certified gluten-free crust … made with rice flour and other ingredients verified by our suppliers as gluten-free.

"We take great care in producing the pizzas in a specified area within the restaurant, (which are) baked separately in tins, and delivered to the table by a manager. We also use color-coded utensils in preparing the pizzas and store gluten-free ingredients in separate, designated spaces."

Where there's a will, there's a way

California Pizza Kitchen's experience is one of many similar experiences at other brands that prove the American market's uncanny knack for finding creative entrepreneurs to meet every form of market demand. 

The demand for gluten-free products has spawned the growth of rice and potato flour producers, as well as some even more innovative answers to the challenge, including those now produced by Smart Flour Foods. The company delved into culinary history to find and produce food sources for gluten-free doughs that are actually some of the most ancient grains ever used by mankind, such as teff.

Pace said getting those grains back into broader use has actually been a kind of modern reincarnation across the food service spectrum. In fact, one of the brand's biggest success stories is not even a pizza producer, but the Lifetime Fitness brand, where chefs use Smart Flour doughs to create flatbread concoctions for guests. 

"Lifetime Fitness made a decision to serve their flatbreads on one uniform crust that would simultaneously address their requirements for quality, taste/texture, and food allergy sensitivity," Pace said. "So now anytime a customer orders a flatbread, it arrives on our product. The gluten-free aspect is only one of many important attributes such as whole grains, clean ingredients, and an elevated nutritional profile."

Still, it's important to keep in mind that for many diners, gluten-free products are not just chosen because of their flavor, but because they do not create possibly serious health effects.That's why organizations, including the Gluten Intolerance Group, stress that while they are all for restaurateurs who choose to take their businesses down this path, they want to also ensure those business leaders also know the risks that come with it. 

 

Photo: iStock


Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Food Allergies / Gluten-free, Food & Beverage, Food Safety



S.A. Whitehead
Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of Pizzamarketplace.com and QSRweb.com after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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