Get the Gluten Out! Secrets to Running a Successful Gluten-Free Restaurant

Heather Zook, owner of Sinfully Gluten-Free, talks about meeting the needs and high expectations of gluten-intolerant and gluten-sensitive customers.

In most pizzeria kitchens, gluten flies free, and few give it any thought. However, if you pay a visit to Sinfully Gluten-Free in Dayton, Ohio, owner Heather Zook will make sure there is not a single gluten molecule to be found. No, she’s not a superhero with microscopic laser vision. She’s just serious about gluten-free. We asked Zook, who is also a member of the U.S. Pizza Team, to give us all the secrets to running a successful gluten-free (not just gluten-friendly) operation.

Brian Hernandez: First off, how did you personally decide to become solely gluten-free?

Heather Zook: Sixteen years ago, my husband was diagnosed with a wheat allergy. Around the same time my aunt was diagnosed with celiac disease, and I myself am gluten-intolerant. At that time, there wasn’t much available [in terms of gluten-free food], and what was available did not taste good. So my mother and I started playing around in the kitchen and realized, “We need to sell this.”

Hernandez: Why is offering gluten-free important?

Zook: It’s not a trend. Celiac disease is here to stay. Usually, when a group of people go out to eat, the restaurant is decided by the one gluten-free diner in the group. And it’s better if people know you’re a gluten-free operation versus them having to guess and hope you have something gluten-free on the menu.

Zook, pictured above with 2nd-place winner Michael Amheiser (left) and 3rd-place winner Jason Samosky (right), took first prize at the 2013 American Pizza Championship with her 3 Meat Pizza featuring pepperoni, sausage and bacon with a provolone/mozzarella blend.
Zook, pictured above with 2nd-place winner Michael Amheiser (left) and 3rd-place winner Jason Samosky (right), took first prize at the 2013 American Pizza Championship with her 3 Meat Pizza featuring pepperoni, sausage and bacon with a provolone/mozzarella blend.

Hernandez: What advice do you give restaurants that are not completely gluten-free like yours? They don’t have a hermetically sealed room to prep and cook in.

Zook: Cleanliness of the area counts. Make sure you have all of your separate tools where they will not gather the excess flour in the air. Provide documentation on your menu. Let them know that you offer a “gluten-friendly” environment. Basically, you’re telling them, “We will do our best, but we do handle wheat products in this facility.”

Hernandez: Sinfully Gluten-Free has been in business for more than 10 years now. From your perspective, what are the secrets to making a really good gluten-free crust?

Zook: Gluten-free is its own animal—not like working with anything regular in the pizza business. I usually tell everyone to throw everything you know or are doing out the window and start from scratch. Practice is the only thing I can recommend to get the best product. There is no “one way” to make gluten-free. There are numerous people out there innovating now. Find them on social media and pick their brains. Definitely do research on several options and find what works best for you. Maybe combine some options and then, again, practice, practice, practice. Also, ask your customers what they would want in a gluten-free crust.

“New innovations in gluten-free pizza flours make it easier for pizzerias to make safe, great tasting gluten-free pizzas–the dough is easier to mix, more elastic and stronger than ever before.”
—Aaron Rice, Authentic Foods

Hernandez: Speaking of that, as far as their highest expectations of gluten-free pizza, what do you think diners are hoping to get? 

Zook: Ultimately, they would like to get a crust that is just like what everyone else is enjoying—same taste, same structure. Most places fall short of that. They end up with a very flat crust that can tend to get soggy. You have to work on building that crumb structure and getting air inside that crust. 

Hernandez: What are some of the common mistakes pizzerias make in trying to create gluten-free pizzas?

Zook: I think it’s a matter of knowledge and training. Customers get more turned off by pizzerias not having the knowledge they need about gluten-free. Take the courses, learn the facts, and then train your staff. If you walk into a place and the servers do not know how to answer your questions, or a manager or owner says, “Yeah, we got something back there,” people don’t feel comfortable. Also, if they know why they have to have gluten-free, that’s a major step, too. Most people think, “Oh, a little bit of gluten is not going to hurt anybody.” In fact, that can be dangerous to people’s health. It does hurt people physically sometimes. 

Zook’s Sinfully Gluten Free Chicken Alfredo pie, featuring red peppers and spinach, wowed judges at the 2014 World PIzza Championship in Parma, Italy.
Zook’s Sinfully Gluten Free Chicken Alfredo pie, featuring red peppers and spinach, wowed judges at the 2014 World PIzza Championship in Parma, Italy.

Hernandez: How do you go about making sure your gluten-free customers know they are safe in your restaurant?

Zook: A major part is talking to them, letting them see that you know your product. I do extensive research on all of my products and learn about their production, from beginning to arriving at my shop. If you have that knowledge and the customer sees it, they will relax and feel at ease. Will they understand everything you are talking about? Probably not. But they will be more comfortable because they know you do.

I also don’t allow outside food in the restaurant, including from my employees. This is, of course, because we are absolutely gluten-free. If they eat lunch here, they eat gluten-free. The need for that practice is more drastic for us than for most other places, but it is a good rule, especially in the designated production area. Do not bend those rules. Even if you just have a small area in the corner for gluten-free food, make sure your employees understand the need to keep it contaminant-free as best they can. Again, it comes back to training them on the “why” of gluten-free. A good rule of thumb is when your staff understands why gluten will make someone sick, it is no longer a burden to them—they are happy to do it. 

Hernandez: What does the future of gluten-free pizza look like? Is there still room for growth?

Zook: I see it getting very big. It is one of the fastest growing divisions in the food industry right now. There is no pill or shot that anyone can take to cure celiac disease. It is about diet only. And you cannot cheat. You have to be regimented and faithful to the rules of that diet, or you will suffer symptoms. So more options and better quality are paramount to the growth of this segment. Again, never stand still on recipe development. Innovation and creativity will keep people walking into your restaurant and keep their bellies happy as well.

Hernandez: Gluten-free shops are currently a niche market. Most places are just “gluten-friendly.” What does it take to get noticed as a quality gluten-free establishment in your area?

Zook: Word-of-mouth is the best advertising we have ever had. Make sure you have the product to get people talking. There is an app called Find Me Gluten-Free. I would suggest signing up there. We all use apps to find specific items, and gluten-free is no exception. Customers will go to the app to find all of the gluten-free places in their area. That could get some people walking through your doors for the first time.  

Brian Hernandez is PMQ’s test chef and coordinator of the U.S. Pizza Team.