Getting your restaurant in on gluten-free

By Emma Hyatt
October 16, 2013

Attracting the gluten-conscious restaurant consumer provides an edge in a flat market and can be done with products that still appeal to the larger customer base.

Menu items labelled gluten-free are popping up at several top chains, neighbourhood independents, and specialty health-food cafés. Restaurant operators and suppliers are left wondering if they too should jump on the band wagon, how much menu space to give the trend, and with what types of foods to feature.

Chances are your restaurant is already participating in the gluten-free trend. Menus are full of naturally gluten-free products. Potatoes, rice, vegetables, salads (although may contain gluten additives) are already available to customers who know what they’re looking for. These items are just the most popular of a group of naturally gluten-free sides that are ordered in 44 per cent of restaurant visits. The problem is, this group of foods is showing no growth, trending alongside overall flat traffic at restaurants.

Some naturally gluten-free items are able to drive growth in this soft market. Innovating with salads, rice, sushi, hash browns, yogurt, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, and beans may be all you need to cash in on the gluten-free trend. The benefit of these items is that they appeal to the every-day consumer, and tap into a wider variety of trend such as desire for variety, ethnic flavours, menu innovation, healthy options, and breakfast foods.

While still a niche customer base, one of the fastest sources of growth for restaurants stems from attracting customers specifically looking for items described as gluten-free or wheat-free. These gluten-conscious customers represent only 1.2 per cent of commercial restaurant traffic but have been driving double-digit growth for the past three years, and they spend an average of $2 more per visit. In a flat market, that small growing niche can be just the edge some operators need.

Top foods being ordered as gluten-free or wheat-free are split between naturally gluten-free foods and augmented wheat products. Salads, vegetables, rice, pizza, and Asian dishes are particularly popular, but there is an opportunity to make gluten-free sandwiches, burgers, and baked goods more accessible. These opportunities go hand in hand with developing gluten-free options at QSR, which is under developed compared to full-service restaurants and prepared food at grocery stores.

Consumer demand for gluten-free food is not just about removing the gluten from wheat products, but also expanding the variety of grain products available, and maintaining the nutrition of the whole grain. In fact, “whole grain” is four times as popular a menu descriptor as is gluten-free. Adding foods like quinoa, buckwheat, or wild rice will attract the attention of the gluten-conscious and will still have an appeal with a broader customer base looking for whole grains.

While demand for gluten-free is growing quickly at restaurants, the relatively small market of gluten-conscious customers may make restaurant operators shy to invest. Operators who don’t make gluten-free lifestyle a core element of their brand can focus on featuring already popular sides that are naturally gluten-free. Experiment with a variety of whole grains and drive traffic through menu innovation that will impress the everyday customer while making the gluten-conscious customer still feel welcome.

Customers ordering meals described as 'gluten free/wheat-free' - top menu items.

Online survey respondents are asked to choose among a list of phrases that may have been used to describe whole or part of their meal. These are items ordered by customers who stated their meal was described as “gluten-free/wheat-free”
Menu Importance (MI) = share of traffic that includes a serving
Index to Total Market MI = >115 implies the item is more popular
Source: The NPD Group, CREST® year ending May 2013

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About the author

Emma Hyatt is Account Specialist, Foodservice Canada for the NPD Group. The NPD Group has more than 25 years of experience providing reliable and comprehensive consumer-based market information to leaders in the foodservice industry. For more information, visit or contact Hyatt at

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