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Gluten-free restaurant guide: How to best serve your customers

Gluten-free dining is on the rise — approximately 25% of Americans follow a gluten-free diet. Some do so out of necessity due to health conditions such as celiac disease or wheat allergies; others eliminate gluten voluntarily. As a restaurant or bakery owner, it’s important that you understand these conditions and how they impact your food prep and storage practices.

Not sure where to start serving people who don’t eat gluten? Our gluten-free restaurant guide can help you navigate the process.

What does it mean to eat gluten-free?

There are several levels of gluten-free eating. It all depends on the root cause — consumers go gluten-free for a variety of reasons.

  • Celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease. Customers with this condition can’t eat gluten at all; it can damage their intestines and prevent the body from absorbing nutrients. Even trace amounts of gluten can trigger serious symptoms, so people with this condition must go to great lengths to avoid any food that might be cross-contaminated.
  • Wheat allergy. When someone with a wheat allergy ingests wheat, the body overproduces antibodies. That can result in mild to life-threatening symptoms, including hives and anaphylaxis. People who suffer from this typically avoid foods that contain gluten from wheat; however, they may not need to avoid gluten from rye or barley. You may also see this condition called a gluten allergy.
  • Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). People with diagnosed NCGS test negative for celiac disease or wheat allergies, but they experience some of the same symptoms. Bloating and brain fog are two commonly cited effects. Researchers and doctors don’t fully understand the cause; they aren’t certain that gluten is the true cause. Regardless, many people still choose to avoid foods that contain gluten to feel better.
  • Voluntary gluten avoidance. Some people avoid some or all gluten for personal reasons — they might believe it’s unhealthy, for example. These customers can often eat gluten without negative health consequences.

You won’t always know if someone is avoiding gluten by choice or by necessity. To be safe, it may make sense to implement strict gluten protocols. That way, it’s easier to protect your most vulnerable customers and create a positive experience for people with dietary restrictions.

What foods contain gluten?

Gluten is a plant protein that’s found in three main grains: wheat, rye, and barley. It also shows up in less-common plants, including but not limited to:

  • Farro
  • Graham
  • Spelt
  • Semolina
  • Einkorn

Gluten is usually present in the whole and flour versions of these grains. You’ll find it in common dishes, including pizza, French toast, baked goods, sandwiches, fried chicken, pasta, and burger buns.

Some manufacturers also remove gluten from its natural form and use it in other food products. Seitan, a vegan protein, is high in gluten. Some types of vegan cheese are also made with gluten.

Other products that can contain gluten include:

  • Soy sauce
  • Beer
  • Malt beverages
  • Candy
  • Flavored sour cream
  • Salad dressing
  • Certain types of corn tortillas

Because gluten appears in so many unexpected places, it’s important to do your due diligence when you’re creating a bakery or restaurant menu. After all, true gluten-free options are much more comprehensive than simply avoiding a side of breadsticks. Make sure your restaurant staff understands potential gluten sources, and train the whole team in appropriate handling processes. When everyone is educated and prepared, it’s easier to serve gluten-free customers.

Tips for serving your gluten-free guests

Safe gluten-free food service requires a commitment to safety. As you revamp your operations, keep these tips in mind.

Mark gluten-free menu items clearly

Help your customers identify safe dishes by creating a separate gluten-free menu. This makes it easier to select a meal, and it communicates that you understand the importance of gluten-free ingredients and safe kitchen practices. You might also include a quick description of your food-handling procedures for extra positivity and peace of mind.

Alternatively, you can mark your existing menu items with a special mark. Put a key at the beginning of the dinner menu so customers can find it quickly.

Before you designate an item as gluten-free, make sure that’s accurate. Investigate each ingredient to check for hidden sources of gluten. Then, work with the kitchen staff to ensure the preparation workflow isn’t accidentally introducing gluten into the dish.

Create a separate gluten-free prep and cooking area

When a customer has celiac disease or a wheat allergy, tiny amounts of gluten can cause a health crisis. This can happen surprisingly easily in a restaurant kitchen. Imagine that a prep cook uses the same knife to cut regular bread and gluten-free bread. If the knife transfers crumbs that contain gluten to the gluten-free slices, that may harm the customer.

To reduce the risk of cross-contact, consider creating a dedicated gluten-free prep area and cooking station. If that’s not possible, take steps to prevent cross-contamination:

  • Wash hands thoroughly and put on clean gloves before preparing gluten-free food.
  • Avoid using porous wood surfaces and tools.
  • Use clean utensils, towels, dishes, and supplies for gluten-free food.
  • Use a separate toaster, fryer, and grill for gluten-free foods.
  • Package leftovers at the table rather than in the kitchen.

You should also separate gluten-free foods in storage and label each one clearly to prevent mix-ups. The same goes for utensils, dishes, and equipment; items used for gluten-free foods should be in a separate area.

This process can be complicated, especially if you run a bakery or make bread and pizza crust in-house. After all, gluten-free options often require different ingredient ratios and cooking procedures. To simplify the process, some restaurants opt to source these ingredients from a dedicated gluten-free bakery. That way, you can save time and rest assured that your pizza dough, pastries, and baked goods will be delicious.

Train your staff thoroughly

There’s a great deal of misinformation about gluten in the media and on social media platforms. Don’t assume your employees understand the real risks — provide comprehensive training to ensure they understand the severity of gluten-related conditions. A well-educated staff is better able to prepare and serve gluten-free foods safely.

Training also prepares your servers to answer customers’ questions. People with serious health conditions, such as celiac disease or a wheat allergy, often request detailed information about the food-prep, storage, and serving process to gauge their risk of cross-contamination. When your servers can provide respectful, informed answers, it validates customers’ concerns and enables them to order with confidence. It can also increase loyalty and make your business one of the best gluten-free restaurants in town.

Reach more customers with Grubhub

Your restaurant operation is just one aspect of safe gluten-free food service — especially if you offer food for delivery. To make sure food isn’t contaminated in transit, package gluten-free dishes separately in clearly labeled containers. These extra measures reassure customers that you take their health seriously and are doing everything possible to prevent cross-contamination.It’s also helpful to work with a reliable, professional delivery partner such as Grubhub. Grubhub for Restaurants uses best-in-class technology to help your business thrive and reach more customers. To get started, try Grubhub free for 30 days.

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