The word gluten-free is increasingly making its way into the mainstream. You can’t walk into a supermarket without being faced with the new 'free-from' section offering a range of gluten-free products from flour to bread.
Kantar World Panel predicts the gluten-free market will be worth £519m by 2016 and charity Coeliac UK estimates that businesses are missing out on £100m income from coeliacs and their friends eating out because they don't offer enough choice to them.
But is the hospitality industry doing enough to tap into this market?
In November 2014 a report from Swedish bakery Almondy revealed that pubs, hotels, cafes and restaurants were 'falling short' as the majority of consumers (77 per cent) believe food service outlets are not doing enough.
What can restaurant, pub and hotel operators do to ensure they cater for the increasing gluten-free trend and is there a strong business case for offering gluten-free dishes on their menus?
What is gluten-free?
Gluten-free is becoming a more recognised term in foodservice but what is it? A gluten-free diet is a treatment for the 1 per cent of the population that suffer from Coeliac disease. Gluten is a protein found in cereals wheat, rye and barley which means items such as bread and pasta can cause serious symptoms for suffers from bloating, diarrhoea, nausea, tiredness and headaches.
Coeliac UK – Practicalities and the business case
According to the Coeliac UK food policy lead Kathryn Miller the market is growing for restaurants, pubs and bars to offer these options on their menus.
“Only 1 per cent of people in the UK suffer from Coeliac disease but the latest Mintel Report showed that 15 per cent of households avoid gluten or wheat,” Miller says. “So there is potentially more people eating out with someone who requires gluten-free options and that requirement will drive the decision on where to go.”
Leon Mills, Knorr marketing manager at Unilever Food Solutions, agrees and says there is a strong business case for including gluten-free dishes on the menu.
“Often the choice of where to eat is made by the person with coeliac disease,” he says. “To put this into perspective, if they lunch with three people and spend an average of £7 per cover, that’s £28 an operator is missing out on every time they neglect to serve gluten-free items at lunch.”
Coeliac UK, launched its own accreditation scheme in 2012, which has standards for restaurants to provide a safe environment to prepare and serve gluten-free dishes. It covers the supply chain including ingredients, labelling, supplier information, all stages of preparation, serving, training and it conducts independent unannounced audits on their kitchens.
The response among Coeliac UK members was almost unanimous as 84 per cent said they believed the accreditation would give them peace of mind using that restaurant or pub.
Miller says: “What we found with the accreditation was the companies that were interested early in the process included pizza operators that actually would never serve gluten-free normally. That highlights the business case as providing that option is a whole new market for these operators.”
However, Miller also claims that while increasing numbers of operators are offering gluten-free dishes it is consumers who have been driving the development, as their expectations are growing.
“Ten years ago a consumer who needed a gluten-free meal would have been happy to have one option available such as a jacket potato. But they expect to be able to eat out like everyone else and that demand is growing,” she says.
La Tasca – Early adopters
Spanish restaurant chain La Tasca, was an early adopter in offering gluten-free on its tapas menus. By 2012 it had already won the Healthy Food Guide award for best gluten-free choice.
The chain of 41 restaurants has just received accreditation from Coeliac UK for the second year running and is continuing to innovate its product offering.
Antony Bennett, head of food at La Tasca Restaurants, says: “When we stepped back and looked at our menu we realised the way we prepared food such as paella was already gluten-free. This was already a USP for us.”
The group already had a growing 'fan base' of people because of the gluten-free offer and feedback was proving very positive.
“A lot of guests were talking about it and a lot of mystery diners were saying it was good. We did some guest research and they said they liked the fact we catered for Coeliacs even if they did not suffer from the disease,” he adds.
While La Tasca had been offering gluten-free for sometime it decided to go for the accreditation with Coeliac UK.
However, he admits it was a challenge as it involved being very strict in the operation from the supply chain to the storing of gluten-free products and non-gluten-free ingredients separate in the kitchen.
“You can’t just say a meal doesn’t have gluten in it you have to look at issues such cross-contamination and the way you operate. We had to make sure that all our chefs were geared up to understanding what Coeliac is and we put in place a training scheme.”
He also believes that there is challenge with certain products especially gluten-free bread, which he argues has come on in 'leaps and bounds' in recent years. La Tasca has worked with a Spanish bakery to produce its own gluten-free baguette.
“We have guests all the time asking us if they can buy it. There is definitely innovation out there but you have to work with the right suppliers”.
In an 'ideal world' he says all La Tasca kitchens would be gluten-free but they are a few years away from that commitment. But that does not mean that gluten-free is not a priority as Bennett looks at every new dish with a view to making it gluten-free and argues there is a strong business case for this approach.
"If there is table of 10 potentially one of those people is Coeliac. Everyone else is not Coeliac but they will go somewhere where they cater for them.”
Chairman of 45-strong Italian restaurant chain Carluccio’s Simon Kossoff agrees. He is convinced that offering gluten-free options on the menu is beneficial. The Italian restaurant chain has been offering gluten-free since 2008 which was driven by consumer demand.
“Enough guests asked enough times and we went from just having the information available to having separate menu,” he reveals.
“I think of it in the same way as vegetarians. If I don’t have a robust vegetarian offer then that group of four people where one is vegetarian, will go somewhere else. I lose four customers and not one”.
The consumer response has been consistently positive and it one of issues that they receive the most letters about.
And the quality of gluten-free products are definitely improving, although Kossoff admits that gluten-free pasta used to be like 'eating cardboard’. But with product innovation it is proving to be a good alternative to the imported Italian pastas, he says.
And innovation is continuing with supplier products improving so much that a bread option now available.
Carluccio’s achieved Coeliac accreditation this year for the first time. Kossoff admits the commitment was hard on the kitchens but essential to ensure that Coeliacs have confidence in the gluten-free dishes being served to consumers.
“We were a bit nervous that we could live up to the standard required,” he says. “The reality is that we operate relatively small kitchens making bread and pastas so there is lots of wheat around.”
But in the tough market place operators have no choice but to offer guests what they want.
“The number of people who have specific dietary requirements such as being vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free or anything else is significant and you can’t ignore it,” Kossoff warns.
“There are people who have made a decision not to eat gluten who are not actually diagnosed Coeliac and that means the universe of people interested in this is much bigger than you think it is”.
Not just restaurants
Both La Tasca and Carluccio’s have joined a range of other operators that have been accredited by Coeliac UK including Pizza Hut, Prezzo, Ed’s Easy Diner, Frankie & Benny’s and Ask Italian. But it is not just casual dining chain restaurants that have targeted this market and small venues have been doing a good job serving that clientele.
Timothy Taylor managed house The Woolley Sheep Inn in Skipton has been offering gluten-free items on its food menu for a year now.
“We flag up food on our menu that is gluten-free. It’s not just that more people are suffering gluten intolerance it has also become fashionable,” says general manager Andrew Goodall.
“We offer gluten-free options on the menu and also have a note on the A-board to say if you want something ask.”
The pub gets a good trade in the locality as it is well known for catering for the gluten-free customers. He also believes variety is important just as it is for any customer and always offers a gluten-free special on the board.
What to do?
So if you're thinking of gluten-free what can you and your chef do?
Unilever Food Solutions has been working with top chef Phil Vickery to create a gluten-free guide and masterclass series for operators to show that introducing gluten-free can be easier than they think.
“Gluten-free doesn’t have to be complicated, as long as you follow a few basic rules and have a basic understanding of what you’re trying to achieve.
“This can actually be easier than a lot of chefs think,” Vickery says.
Knorr’s own research shows that 91 per cent of chefs know how to prepare a gluten-free dish, but this isn’t reflected in the numbers that have gluten-free dishes on their menus.
A survey of over 1,200 chefs found that 84 per cent of contract caterers already offer gluten-free items on their menu, but 47 per cent felt they needed more recipe inspiration.
“Our research showed that chefs in business and industry are starting to realise the value of offering gluten-free dishes, but are lacking sources of inspiration,” says Mills.
See our GALLERY featuring a range of restaurants' gluten-free dishes here