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Gluten-free gaining ground

Perhaps the single biggest challenge is preventing cross-contamination in a restaurant


August 31, 2011
By Julie Fitz-Gerald

Topics

Gluten-free pizza is going gangbusters on menu boards across the country.

Gluten-free pizza is going gangbusters on menu boards across the country. For years, celiac diners have been scared and restricted, diligently questioning wait staff on food ingredients for fear of accidentally ingesting gluten – an act that could lay them up in bed for days or even weeks, organ damage in the long run. Their pizza options have steadily been increasing as pizza places big and small introduce this modified dough to their kitchens.

Pizza Nova, an Ontario chain with more than 120 locations, introduced a gluten-free pizza crust two and a half years ago after recognizing a gap in the industry. “We felt that there was a void in the market for it and we decided to develop a product that is not just a gluten-free dough, but that is also multigrain, so it’s a little bit different than what’s out there in the marketplace today,” says Domenic Primucci, president of Pizza Nova.

Since rolling out its gluten-free multigrain pizza crust, Pizza Nova has had positive customer feedback, particularly from celiac sufferers overjoyed at finally being able to take part in family pizza night and school pizza lunches. The chain is also seeing demand for their gluten-free pizza take off. “It’s definitely increasing every day. It’s a matter of people getting to know that you do have this product on your menu, so it increases every year. Since we started, we’ve doubled our sales with it,” Primucci says.

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If you’re curious as to the demand for gluten-free goods, one need look no further than to the success of gluten-free Frankie’s Ristorante and sister operation Baked at Frankie’s in Uxbridge, Ont. Baked at Frankie’s is well loved in the community and is making waves after having just received the inaugural Innovator of the Year award from Bakers Journal, which is garnering widespread recognition for the bakery.

The restaurant and bakery both opened in 2008 and have since proven that gluten-free establishments can succeed, even in rural Ontario. “We have customers come to us from everywhere. Our regulars come from Ottawa, Oshawa, Ajax, Pickering, Markham, Stratford and Alliston. There’s even a woman who comes regularly from London, England. The need for this kind of bakery is growing and growing,” says Donna van Veghel-Wood, co-owner the restaurant and bakery.
At the beginning the growth in the gluten-free market, it would be fairly reliable to take the current statistics for celiac disease cases in Canada, apply them to the population in your catch zone, and crunch the numbers to see how many potential gluten-free customers are in your territory. But now, gluten-free has become a diet choice too, with people opting for “G-free” diets in hopes of losing weight or in attempt to deal with fussy digestive systems. The addition of these segments means you can count on even more orders.  

Van Veghel-Wood is well positioned to discuss the challenges of serving and developing gluten-free products. Perhaps the single biggest challenge, she says, is preventing cross-contamination in a restaurant that also serves wheat-based items. The consequences for celiacs who eat contaminated foods are serious. It’s imperative that restaurant owners and staff are well aware of the risks and trained to prevent any kind of cross-contamination.

Pizza Nova has faced this challenge head on. The chain has implemented measures to prevent any mixing of its traditional wheat-based crust with its gluten-free crust. In addition to lab testing that ensures the gluten-free crust is in fact what it claims to be, franchise owners are provided with kits that are used solely for gluten-free orders.

“When franchisees and staff at each location get an order for a gluten-free pizza, they pull out this kit and it has its own separate screens, trays, pizza paddle, pizza cutter and so on. The pizza is then put into a different oven than all the other pizzas may be in at the time, so we try to keep everything separate as much as possible. There’s no other wheat in the oven when the gluten-free pizza is being baked,” says Primucci.

Although Pizza Nova does not have a designated oven for its gluten-free pizzas, Primucci notes that they the chain has been successful in preventing cross-contamination in its stores.

Van Veghel-Wood takes this idea a step further, saying there should also be a designated oven for gluten-free products. “They can say they have a gluten-free crust, but if they’re sticking it in the same oven with a wheat pizza, you’ve just defeated it. Cutting it with the same pizza wheel, putting it on the same surface, it all causes cross-contamination. People need educating, and I’m not saying that meanly, I’m saying look into what you should look into before you go ahead.”

Other challenges with gluten-free products include higher price points dictated by supply and demand and a higher cost for non-wheat flours. Corn, rice and chickpea flours are commonly used in gluten-free baking. Developing products that mimic the taste and texture of their wheat-based counterparts is also a challenge. Gluten helps breads and baked goods bind together; gluten-free products, including pizzas, are dense and can be crumbly in comparison.

Xanthan gum is commonly used as a binding agent. For a gluten-free pizza crust, there isn’t the same stretch or rise to the dough. Once baked, it can lack the airy bubbles that ripple through a traditional crust and can be much harder than its wheat-based counterpart. It is, truthfully, difficult to do well. It takes time and the process is riddled with trial and error.

“It took us several months to come out with our gluten-free crust because we wanted to ensure that it was a better tasting product than is currently accessible to people, so we did wait a little longer to ensure that we had a better tasting product,” says Primucci.

Gluten-free product developers are always tweaking and adjusting recipes, continually striving for an end product that is as close as possible in taste and texture to its wheat-based partner. The extra effort is not in vain. In fact, it’s a long time coming, according to van Veghel-Wood, who speaks from the experience of having raised two sons with celiac disease. “Celiacs deserve to eat as well as we do. They really do. Celiac disease has been around a long time and no one’s ever addressed it and I think it’s about time that it’s addressed.”

If restaurant owners are willing to put in the time and effort that it takes to develop a tasty gluten-free product, there certainly appears to be a consumer base waiting to snap it up.


Julie Fitz-Gerald is a freelance writer based in Uxbridge, Ont., and a frequent contributor to Canadian Pizza magazine and Bakers Journal.