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.