Chevys Fresh Mex this week became the latest restaurant chain to launch a gluten-free menu in its company-owned locations.
Chevys’ launch follows the debut earlier this month of Domino’s Pizza’s new gluten-free crust and Chuck E. Cheese’s test of new gluten-free products, including a pizza and a cupcake.
The new menus, which cater to those with gluten-related disorders, have also raised controversy over whether restaurants can accurately label a menu item “gluten free” if there is a risk of cross contamination.
Wheat, rye and barley are the three sources of gluten protein that can cause health problems for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. For guests with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that can damage the small intestine, even minute amounts of gluten can cause serious harm.
At the heart of the controversy is the lack of any legal definition of what it means to be “gluten free,” though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proposed rules that have yet to be finalized.
Gluten-free dining — whether by choice or necessity — is becoming increasingly popular, and restaurants are eager to tap into the trend. A report by market research firm Technomic Inc. in December found that references to gluten on restaurant menus jumped 61 percent from 2010 to 2011.
At Chevys, the gluten-free menu was designed with guidance from nutrition consulting group Healthy Dining. Chevys also developed a company-wide training program to teach staffers proper food handling for gluten-free guests.
The risks of cross-contamination are emphasized, said Mollie Hartman, Chevys manager of training and development.
“The team learns how to follow specific instructions that Chevys enacts to reduce the risk of cross-contamination, including cleaning of prep and cooking surfaces,” she said.
“Chevys also excluded all fried items from its gluten-free menus to further safeguard against cross-contamination,” she added. To offer truly gluten-free fried foods, a restaurant must have a separate fryer designated for non-gluten items only.
On the menu, Chevys also warns that items cooked on the mesquite grill or comal may not be gluten-free.
Chevys also developed a “GF” prefix code for its point-of-sale system for gluten-free items, and staff members are trained to follow specific plating instructions and recipes when a GF item rings up, Hartman said.
The menu, however, also includes a disclaimer, saying, “Chevys and Healthy Dining assume no responsibility for its use and any resulting liability or consequential damages are denied. Our management and service team members are not trained on the intricacies of celiac disease or gluten intolerance and cannot be expected to provide recommendations or other advice on this issue.”
Chevys gluten-free selections include a shrimp fajita salad with apple-chipotle vinaigrette; fajitas with garlic shrimp or seasonal veggies; enchiladas with the chain’s signature Original Salsaor picadillo beef; lunch bowls with mesquite-grilled veggies, shrimp or salmon; and sides such as guacamole, rice and beans. Tortillas on the menu are made from corn and softened on a cleaned flat grill with no oil.
The menu will be available at Chevys' 42 corporate locations and some of the chain’s 18 franchise units, the company said.
Chevys president Brian Wright said the new offering is part of a menu overhaul to refocus on fresh, from-scratch cooking.
“We’ve been revitalizing our cuisine offerings and approach to customer service, based on guest feedback, and we saw the importance of not only providing a variety of gluten-free dishes, but making the ordering process easier for our guests,” said Wright, in a statement. “We are committed to creating an enjoyable experience for all guests, including those with dietary restrictions.”
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed the training program to Healthy Dining. Healthy Dining worked with Chevys on developing the gluten-free menu, but did not design the training program to prevent cross contamination.