California Pizza Kitchen has rolled out a new line of gluten-free pizzas that it claims can be safely eaten by people with celiac disease.

Brian Sullivan, senior vice president for culinary innovation at the Los Angeles-based chain, said the move is an effort to meet the growing demand for a gluten-free product that even those most sensitive to wheat can enjoy.

On the menu are four gluten-free options: original barbecue chicken; pepperoni; mushroom, pepperoni and sausage; and margherita. Guests can also request a plain cheese gluten-free pizza.

It has long been a challenge for pizza restaurants to make a product that is truly gluten free in the same open kitchens where chefs are hand-tossing dough made with wheat flour. But Sullivan said CPK has developed a procedure designed to ensure there is no cross-contamination.

The first step was removing all wheat flour from the pizza prep station, where chefs prepare and hand-toss the dough and build the pizzas. “We’ve converted that to rice flour, so we no longer have any wheat flour in the station or in the air,” he said.

All gluten-free topping ingredients are kept in a designated area in blue containers with black lids — a different color than items that may contain gluten.

Everything that touches the gluten-free pizza, such as cutting boards, the cutting wheel and the gloves used by the chef, are all blue. The pizzas are baked in an aluminum pan with a rim that protects the pizza from bumping up against a wheat-flour version in the oven.

When a gluten-free pizza is ordered, the ticket comes up with a note to call a manager, said Sullivan. That manager will have received training to observe the process: The cook washes his or her hands, puts on blue gloves and pulls out the gluten-free dough, which is an outsourced product made primarily with rice flour, a little potato flour, tapioca, salt, extra virgin olive oil and cane sugar. “It’s dairy free,” notes Sullivan.

After baking, the pizza slides onto a designated cutting board. It is cut with the designated wheel and marked with a bamboo pick to make sure the server knows which pizza to serve to the customer who requested it.

This isn’t the first time CPK has attempted gluten-free pizza. A few years ago the chain rolled out pizza with a gluten-free crust, but celiac sufferers complained at the time that the label was misleading because toppings were not gluten-free. The pizza was later pulled from the menu.

“It wasn’t designed for those with celiac disease, but for those who just wanted wheat out of their diet,” said Sullivan. “But we weren’t happy with that crust at the time, and we thought we could do better.”

CPK is planning to publicize the new gluten-free pizzas next week, but they were available in restaurants the week of Oct. 7. Already, the response has been very positive, said Sullivan.

“We’re probably seeing about 10 [gluten-free] pizzas sold per day on average right now, and it’s only the first week,” said Sullivan. “The gluten-free community has a strong grapevine.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced earlier this year new regulations defining what restaurants can call gluten-free. The regulations go into effect Aug. 5, 2014.

Demand for gluten-free menu options has only grown, said Sullivan. “We hear it every day in our restaurants. Gluten-free is not going away. We think this is only the entry point.”

Contact Lisa Jennings at lisa.jennings@penton.com.
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