The gluten-free game

When most people think of pizza, “gluten-free” is notthe first word that comes to mind.

After all, pizzaembodies what the gluten inflourcanaccomplish—combined with water, it turns into a stretchy, pliable dough thatcan be tossed and twirled in the air and still hold together.But formany potential customers, gluten has its downside.An estimated one in 133 people suffer from celiac disease, anintestinal disorder that preventsthe nutrients in food from beingabsorbed by the digestive system. The body of a celiac patientattacks itself when gluten (a sticky proteinmolecule foundin wheat, barley and rye) is consumed. Furthermore, currentmarket research shows that 15% of the population in the UnitedStates adheres to a gluten-free diet. And the person with themost restrictive diet in the family or group usually determineswhere that family or group eats when dining out—for example,few parents will take their children to a restaurant where theycan’t eat!

Of course, flour is usually prevalentin pizzerias, and gluten,a very sticky molecule that likes to hold on for dear life, can befound on the counters, pans, peels and ovens. Hence,offeringgluten-free pizza alongside regular pizza in an establishment canseem quite daunting.

When my husband (who is not gluten-intolerant)and I go outto eat, we always go to an establishment where I know I cansafely order something delicious but gluten-free to eat (and notjust salad). One evening I was performing an Internet searchwith the words “gluten-free” when onto my computer screenpopped the name of a restaurant—one that I’d never heard of—that sold gluten-free pizza. The place was located about fivemiles from us, and, within 20 minutes, we stopped whatwewere doing, jumped into the car and hightailed it over there. Ithad been about 15 years since my husband and I had been ableto enjoy apizza together. Not only had that restaurant earnedtwo new customers on the spot, I also texted my son, who isgluten-intolerant, within seconds ofbiting into my delicious,hot, gluten-free pizza and told him about the place. The text hesent in response read, “Woo hoo!” This tiny pizza placeinstantlyexpanded its customer base to include my husband and me, myson, his wife and their friends.

Making an Impact

Those numbers may not be impressive enough to persuade youto offer gluten-free pizza options, but there’s more to consider.Kinnikinnick, amanufacturer of gluten-free food products,helped Boston Pizza (bostonpizza.com), a Canadian restaurantchain with 325 locations, implementgluten-free options for itsclientele. Initially, Boston Pizza execs hoped to sell one glutenfreepizza per week per location. To their surprise,they actuallysold four to five gluten-free pizzas per week at each location—acompany-wide total of between 1,300 and 1,760 gluten-free pizzasper week.

But the story doesn’t stop there. People rarely order just a pizza;they usually order a beverage to go along with it, making theaverage ticket per person around $15. Even better, most peopledon’t eat out alone. And remember what I said about groupsof diners selecting an establishment where the person with themost restrictive diet can dine safely? The bottom line is that theBoston Pizza chain logged $30,000,000 inincremental sales in2011 by adding gluten-free pizza options to its menu. Those aresome impressive numbers!

Keeping It Clean

Cross-contamination is always an issue with restaurants thatserve both gluten-free and non-gluten-free food. Gluten is easilytransferred from onesurface to another, which explains whysome establishments are reluctant to include gluten-free offerings.Of course, the safety of diners shouldbe of utmost importanceto any restaurateur. An establishment that serves foodwith gluten always poses a risk to patrons with celiac diseaseor gluten intolerance, but offering gluten-free menu items is allabout risk management.

One of the wise decisions that Boston Pizza made: buypremadepizza crusts. The dough is produced in a dedicated glutenfreefacility, and the crust is square. By using premade pizzacrust, the chainlimits the risk when preparing the dough, whichhas the highest chance of cross-contamination. And the fact thatthe gluten-free pizza crust issquare while the non-gluten-freecrust is round makes the gluten-free type obvious to both thestaff and customer. Even during a dinner rush, thestaff knowsexactly which crust is gluten-free, and the customer knows thathis pizza should be square.

Some may argue that freshly made pizzacrust will taste betterthan premade, but offering a pizza crust that has been madein a dedicated gluten-free facility dramatically reduces the riskof cross-contamination. And as long as the pizza crust has adelicious flavor, it won’t matter to the consumer that the establishmentdidn’t make itin-house. It certainly behooves thepizzeria owner to purchase high-quality, great-tasting glutenfreeproducts with the proper texture—customerswho follow agluten-free diet are accustomed to paying a little more for theirfood in restaurants.

Admittedly, preventing cross-contamination involves morethan just buying or making gluten-free pizza crust. Extra careand precautions should be taken when preparing a glutenfreepizza. Preparers’ gloves must be changed, the toppings must bekept separate, and dedicated pans should be used when bakingthe pizza.And, of course, the pizza cannot be prepared on a surfaceon which ingredients containing gluten have recently beenplaced. Some operatorssolve this problem by using parchmentpaper. Personally, it gives me a great deal of satisfaction to knowthat extra care and attention goesinto making my food whenI dine out. Businesses that keep these rules in mind will findthey’ll satisfy their gluten-freeaudience.

Additionally,naturally gluten-free sorghum can be substitutedfor wheat flour in dough recipes. Sorghum has a neutral flavorprofile that won’t add an unfamiliar or distinctive taste to pizzacrusts, according to agricultural processor Archer Daniels MidlandCompany. Competitively pricedand more economical thanspecialty starches, sorghum flour is also available with wholegrain for added nutritional benefits.

Repeat Customers

Research has shown that gluten-free consumers are very loyalconsumers—they tend to buy the same brands over and over,and they tend to frequentfamiliar restaurants where they cansafely enjoy their food. After all, if they eat gluten, they get sick.I know this is true for myself—when I findsomething I like thatdoesn’t make me ill, I stick with it for life! There is no cure forceliac disease or gluten intolerance; the only solution is to avoidgluten, so not only are the gluten-intolerant a loyal bunch of consumers,they will be loyal for a very long time.

Fortunately for pizzeria operators, the gluten-free communitytends to be a chatty group of people when it comes to food. Afterall, our physical well-being depends largely on what we eatand don’t eat. When I fi nd a restaurant that serves safe, deliciousfood, I tell others. I have found the same to be true with everygluten-intolerant person I have come in contact with, and I havebeen in contact with a lot of them.

As a group, those of us with celiac disease are conscientiousabout what we eat and where we dine. Thanks to celiac supportgroups around the world, websites, blogs and associationsdedicated to raising awareness of gluten intolerance and celiacdisease, information about safe products and dining facilitiesis broadly disseminated.When traveling, many celiac patientsseek out restaurants with gluten-free menus, creating greatervisibility for a pizzeria.

Is gluten-free pizza viable for pizzerias? Since offering glutenfreepizza will likely bring in new—and very loyal—customerswho have never frequented your business before, and since theperson with the most restrictive diet typically determines a groupor family’s dining location, creating a gluten-free menu can definitely boost incremental sales. And who would refuse that?

Carol Kicinski is a professional recipe developer, TV chef,founder of SimplyGluten-Free.com and author of Simply…Gluten-Free Desserts.