A growing number of large restaurant chains — Domino's Pizza being one of the largest — are introducing and promoting gluten-free menus, citing increasing demand from consumers.
What the term “gluten free” reflects, however, can vary greatly from one restaurant to another, prompting those most at risk to call for a more standardized definition.
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 them, even gluten-free ingredients can become unsafe through cross contamination in restaurant kitchens.
A gluten-free food cannot be fried in the same oil as foods containing gluten, for example. Shared cutting boards or knives can also introduce trace amounts of gluten to an otherwise gluten-free dish.
About 1 in 133 Americans — or roughly 3 million people — are diagnosed with celiac disease, but another 18 million are estimated to have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. A growing number of consumers also say they avoid gluten for various other reasons — including those that feel a gluten-free diet is more healthful.
Take a look at five restaurant chains offering or testing gluten-free menus, in addition to their traditional offerings, and how they do it.
Chevys Fresh Mex
Introduced in May at about 42 corporate locations, Chevys’ new gluten-free menu includes a variety of dishes, from fajitas with garlic shrimp and enchiladas, to guacamole served with soft corn tortillas.
The 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. Because restaurants do not have a dedicated fryer for gluten-free items, for example, nothing on the gluten-free menu is fried.
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.
Domino’s in May became the nation’s largest pizza chain to offer a gluten-free crust option. However, the chain also makes it clear that cross contamination is a risk, and the pizza may not be an option for those with celiac disease.
The crust is made from rice flour, rice starch and potato starch. Domino’s worked with the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, which offers training on catering to gluten-free consumers.
J. Patrick Doyle, Domino’s president and chief executive, said the chain wanted to meet the needs of customers asking for gluten-free options who may have mild gluten sensitivity.
“The prevalence of gluten sensitivity has become a real issue with significant impact on consumer choice, and we want to be a part of that solution,” he said.
Hear more about Domino’s gluten-free pizza crust
Chuck E. Cheese’s
In May, Chuck E. Cheese’s began testing gluten-free products, including a chocolate cupcake and pizza, in six Minnesota locations.
The test products are made with rice flour. To avoid cross contamination, the pizza is manufactured in a gluten-free facility and sent to its restaurants frozen, in pre-sealed packaging.
The pizza is designed to be baked in the bag and opened only at the table by the adult in charge.
This pizza chain, with six units in southern California, launched a gluten-free menu not long after its first location opened in 2008. Adam Goldberg, founder and chief executive, said he wanted to provide a product for people who couldn’t eat pizza, which can be central to community and family events.
Fresh Brothers also sent employees to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness training. To avoid cross contamination in restaurants, where flour can be airborne, the chain has established a protocol for separate preparation of gluten-free items.
The pizza dough, for example, comes from a certified gluten-free facility in a sealed box that is stored in a cooler free from airborne flour. Gluten-free pizzas are also prepared in the cooler. All tools, pans and knives used in preparation are marked for gluten-free item use only.
Gluten-free pizzas are baked in the shared oven, but Goldberg said they are never allowed to touch anything that might contain gluten. Tests have indicated the risk of cross contamination is low.
To cut pizzas, employees place them on a specially sanitized surface covered with two layers of cardboard. The pizza then goes into a designated gluten-free box for delivery or pick up, and is sealed — even for dine-in customers.
Goldberg said his restaurants sell at least 1,000 gluten-free pizzas each week, despite the slightly higher price because of the more expensive ingredients and increased labor. On weekend evenings, Fresh Brothers’ gluten-free pizzas are in such demand that restaurants have a dedicated staff member making gluten-free crust pizzas only.
“Gluten free is not a fad and it’s not a trend,” said Goldberg. “It’s here to stay.”
P.F. Chang’s China Bistro
A gluten-free menu has been available for several years at P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, featuring a variety of dishes, from stir-fried Singapore Street Noodles, to Norwegian salmon steamed with ginger.
On its menu, P.F. Chang’s specifies that its sauces contain gluten-free versions of certain ingredients, likebroth and oyster sauce. A wheat-free version of soy sauce — which can contain gluten — is available by request, though the menu notes that the soy sauce on tables may contain gluten.
Restaurants prepare gluten-free dishes in dedicated woks with utensils marked for use only with gluten-free ingredients. And the meals are served on plates with a specific logo so servers can bring the gluten-free dish to the right person.
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.