From its Neopolitan origins, pizza has become a true slice of Americana, offering friends and family a chance to share savory pies topped with sauce, cheese and a head-spinning array of toppings. While traditional pies feature unleavened wheat, more pizzerias are offering gluten-free pizza options to meet growing demand. According to one estimate, approximately 3.1 million Americans have cut gluten from their diet out of medical necessity or as part of a healthy lifestyle.
However, ensuring that pizzas are gluten-free is easier said than done. During a recent undercover investigation, Good Morning America sent pizzas from 15 New York restaurants to a lab for analysis. The findings were eye-opening. Of the 15 pies submitted, two tested positive for gluten over the 20 parts per million threshold established by the FDA and four tested positive for gluten at 5 parts per million.
When informed of the results, the restaurants that failed the test thanked the show’s producers and vowed to revamp their food handling processes and staff training programs. Like most restaurants that go to the trouble of offering gluten-free menus, these businesses weren’t trying to skirt standards for safe food preparation. They just lacked the knowledge and quality assurance procedures to ensure that their pizzas were truly gluten-free.
Lack of up-to-date, accurate information can derail even the most well-intentioned efforts to serve gluten-free dishes. For example, many restaurants leave bleu cheese off their gluten-free menus based on internet searches containing outdated information. In other cases, staff are simply unaware of best practices for preparing gluten-free dishes. When a customer with celiac disease sends a salad with croutons back to the kitchen, a server may assume that simply removing the croutons will fix the issue, not realizing that the entire salad needs to be remade to avoid cross-contamination.
For the 6% to 7% of Americans with gluten-sensitivity, this lack of knowledge can cause a host of painful symptoms, not to mention a possible trip to the emergency room. Even a single incident of gluten contamination can have a ripple effect on a restaurant’s business. Most people eat out in groups, especially at pizzerias where communal dining is the order of the day. When one member of the party gets sick from gluten contamination, their fellow diners may rethink their willingness to frequent that restaurant.
In some cases, just hearing about somebody’s bad experience can convince diners to take their business elsewhere. Reputation is one of the most powerful tools in a restaurant’s marketing toolkit, with half of all Americans relying on word of mouth when selecting a place to eat out.
The good news is that providing training on safe food handling can go a long way in preventing gluten contamination as well as providing front-of-house staff with the knowledge they need to answer questions about gluten-free dishes accurately and thoroughly. Having an effective training program is particularly important in today’s competitive job market. With the average hourly employee turnover rate in food services hitting 155%, it’s crucial that even new staff members hit the ground running when it comes to preparing and serving gluten-free dishes.
Having written procedures is also vital to preventing cross-contamination. Gluten-free pizza starts with using a gluten-free pizza crust, but it doesn’t end there. Restaurants must follow proper policies and procedures—like storing pots and pans used to create gluten-free dishes on the top shelf—to make sure that the crust does not get contaminated with gluten through the storage and preparation processes.
All too often, busy restaurants rely on procedures created on the fly and stored in the chef’s head. This can lead to problems when the resident expert in gluten-free food preparation is unavailable or too busy to explain things to a new hire. Having written procedures ensures that all staff can access best practices for preparing gluten-free dishes no matter how hectic things get.
Written procedures don’t have be complicated, multi-step explanations written on restaurant letterhead. In most cases, simpler is better. Having staff shadow an experienced chef and jot things down on lined notepaper is a great way to get procedures in writing with a minimal investment of resources. Staff can then place their notes in binders for future reference.
For restaurants seeking guidance on implementing a gluten-free menu, third-party certification can be an invaluable resource. In addition, third-party certification gives staff a chance to test their knowledge and practice implementing food-handling procedures. It also assures diners that you are committed to meeting their dietary needs and have the knowledge to safely prepare gluten-free dishes.
In most cases, certification requires a minimal investment and can be completed in as little as six weeks. When looking for a certification, you want to make sure it is offered by a qualified third-party and includes periodic site audits that assure compliance with established policies and procedures
As more diners adopt a gluten-free diet, restaurants that offer gluten-free pizza will provide a communal dining experience that is truly inclusive. The key to success is documenting best practices in writing and investing in an effective training program. Taking these simple steps will build a loyal base of gluten-free diners that will make your business the go-to pizzeria for years to come.
Lindsey Yeakle, Gluten-Free Food Service (GFFS) Program and Quality Control Manager, Food Safety, for the nonprofit Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG), has a culinary history working at 4-star and 4-diamond rated restaurants, and she founded Alligator Pear Personal Chef Service. A celiac disease diagnosis encouraged Yeakle to attend culinary school at Indiana University of Pennsylvania Academy of Culinary Arts to learn how to design dishes that delight diners who have all types of dietary needs and restrictions. In June 2016, Yeakle decided to use her background and education to help the gluten-free community by working with GIG. For more information, visit www.gffoodservice.org.