Billy Manzo made sure to develop a delicious gluten-free pizza option for his customers at Federal Hill Pizza.

Federal Hill Pizza

Billy Manzo: How to Wow the Gluten-Free Crowd

Billy Manzo, who knows a thing or two about stomach issues, explains why gluten-free options are good for business.

  • Ask family and friends to try your gluten-free pizza recipes and invite customers with celiac in for taste tests. Once you’ve got a hit, run with it.
  • Since gluten-free customers can’t share family-size pizzas, offer a personal-size pie just for them.

Recipe: Gluten-Free Chicken and Caramelized Onions Pizza

By Billy Manzo Jr.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: My stomach is a wreck. I have to be very careful about what I eat. Not too heavy. Not too acidic. Not too who-knows-what, depending on the day.

People in my family have always had stomach issues. They call it spastic colon or irritable bowel syndrome. I call it the “Italian stomach.” And it’s a pain in the neck. Eating the wrong foods can cause me pain or blow me up like a balloon. It’s not cool, it’s not fun, and it really limits a lot of the phenomenal foods out there that I can eat. But the one good thing about having this condition is that it has made me sensitive to others who share my grief and have to be careful about the things they eat, particularly people who have difficulty with gluten, such as those with celiac disease. And, unfortunately, a lot of people have it.

Celiac disease is estimated to affect one in 100 people worldwide. So many people have it in Italy that diagnosed celiacs receive vouchers to buy specifically produced gluten-free foods, up to 140 euros per month. (The Italian Celiac Association and the Italian government, by the way, have done an excellent job of educating restaurants on how to deal with celiac disease. There are even gluten-free meal options in schools and hospitals.) Here in the U.S., it is believed that 2.5 million Americans are undiagnosed and are at risk for long-term health complications. That’s a lot of sensitive stomachs.

What exactly is celiac? According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, it’s an autoimmune disease where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine. When people with celiac disease eat gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley), their body mounts an immune response that attacks the small intestine. These attacks damage the villi, small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine and promote nutrient absorption. When the villi get damaged, nutrients cannot be absorbed properly into the body.

Related: 3 reasons to add gluten-area desserts to your pizzeria’s menu

When I founded Federal Hill Pizza, it was important to me that I create some form of gluten-free pizza so that those with celiac or gluten intolerance can go out and enjoy a good meal just like everyone else. With my background in science and with knowing what would get me sick, I was able to create a focaccia-style gluten-free (and also vegan) pizza that has been a strong seller for us over the past five years.

If you’re interested in getting into the gluten-free market (and you should be!), here are eight ways to get started:

  1. Research. If you don’t have a gluten-free recipe, surf the web and browse recipes that your consumer base might enjoy. I’ve seen crust recipes that use ingredients like chickpeas, butternut squash and quinoa. Remember, gluten-free customers don’t expect your gluten-free pizza to taste like your other pizza products, but it should have regional appeal. In other words, customers in California and customers in Florida, Chicago and New York are going to have completely different tastes for gluten-free food, so you have to come up with something that’s really cool for your client base. Go to your local wholesaler and see what they have. Consult with a nutritionist. . For example, I’m not a cauliflower pizza guy. Yes, it’s gluten-free. Yes, it’s trendy. But I’m not a fan. We don’t carry it at Federal Hill Pizza, because I feel it’s already out there, and I’m more interested in creating a recipe that can’t be duplicated. However, if you know that your customer base enjoys cauliflower crust, then find a recipe that works for you and sell the heck out of it.
  1. Keep it small. People who are gluten-free can’t really eat family-style. They can’t dig into a 14” or 16” pie with their friends. They want their own pie, and that’s why we make only 8” personal gluten-free pizzas—and they’re a home run. You can price them at a premium—as much as $15 per pie—because if you come up with a good recipe, people will pay for it.
  2. Keep it simple. You don’t need to go bananas with a lot of toppings. We only do a select number of gluten-free pizzas because 1) this makes the selection understandable to the customer, and 2) the customer may have other allergies besides gluten, so we want to be sensitive to that. At Federal Hill Pizza, we offer three gluten-free personal pizzas: cheese; cheese and pepperoni; and cheese with one vegetable.
  3. Keep it separate. While many people choose to go gluten-free even though they have no underlying medical conditions, you want to be sure you’re always protecting those specific customers who are not gluten-tolerant. Invest in a separate toaster oven to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. Just as with nut allergies, gluten allergies and intolerance need to be taken seriously. It’s also a good idea to put a disclaimer on your menu and website noting the potential risks to customers ordering gluten-free. Better safe than sickly.
  4. Order special-sized boxes. For our gluten-free personal pizzas, we order takeout boxes that are the size of the pizzas. They’re cute little things, and our customers love them because it’s like their own special gift in a box just for them.
  5. Make it personalized. We keep little sticky pads that say gluten-free near the pizza station. When my POS ticket comes out and notes the pizza is gluten-free and the name of the customer, we place a sticky note on the box with a personalized message:

Dear Mike,
Enjoy your gluten-free pizza.
Regards, Billy Manzo

Customers love that. They feel appreciated and understood.

  1. Spread the word. Gluten-free items have become common in the marketplace, so you don’t necessarily have to make them part of an overall advertising strategy. Still, it’s important to spread the word to those who are looking for it. Start by calling your local celiac association. These groups have large memberships who are looking to support like-minded businesses. They may post about your gluten-free products on their website, particularly if they have a marketplace or partner page, and on their social media. Hey, it’s free, targeted publicity. On your end, you can snap a photo of one of your gluten-free pizzas, post it on your own social media account, and tag the association.
  2. Create special events. You can take your networking a step further. Once a year, we do a Celiac Association Night. For every gluten-free pizza that’s sold, a percentage of the proceeds gets donated to the Rhode Island branch of the National Celiac Association. We normally sell about 200 gluten-free pizzas in that one night! And we sell only on preorder, which means we make only what we need to sell—no unnecessary extras hanging around.

Gluten-free has become a way of life for many, and offering gluten-free products gives you the opportunity to have something in your pizzeria for everyone. Plus, if I can save someone the agony of an Italian stomach, it’s the least I can do.

Billy Manzo is the owner of Federal Hill Pizza in Warren, Rhode Island, and a veteran pizzeria owner/operator.