Gluten-free Q&A with Betsy Craig, MenuTrinfo founder

Restaurant operators from a single full-service to large QSR chains are living in a different world when it comes to developing and serving meals to guests. Five years ago they had to focus on great tasting food that attracted and retained customers. Today, with the FDA’s menu labeling laws looming, food allergies on the rise and recent FDA requirements about labeling of gluten-free products, the environment has changed. The environment requires a careful menu analysis, including reverse ingredient look up, with an eye toward top allergens. Recipe changes must be identified to allow more gluten-free or allergen-free options. Training, too, has changed and must include knowledgeable servers carefully trained in food handling procedures to ensure safe delivery of meals to diners with food allergies, intolerances, or sensitivities.

Betsy Craig, founder of MenuTrinfo, knows these added requirements can cause restaurants heartache, if not full-blown fear. But her offerings, menu analysis, allergy training and gluten-free certification help operators flip the fear. A few questions for Betsy.

Is gluten-free eating just a fad?

We’ve seen a 50 percent increase in the number of restaurants using MenuTrinfo for gluten-free certification. And it’s not just a fad. In late 2012, the Mayo Clinic released a study indicating that celiac disease is four times more common now than 60 years ago, and affects about one in 100 people. For large chains, that’s a potentially staggering number of customers — to either turn away if you’re not gluten free, or to attract if you offer a gluten-free certified environment.

What does gluten-free certification entail?

The process takes about two-four weeks from start to finish.

First, we analyze your menu to see which items would most likely qualify as being gluten-free, either as is or with slight menu modifications.

We then source all ingredients and speak with manufacturers about possible cross-contamination concerns. For example, is the product made in a factory with gluten? What is the process for controlling cross-contamination?

Our company has a very rich database of common products used in restaurants by major distributors, to make this process easier and more efficient.

We then go to the sub-particle level to ensure that there are no hidden sources of gluten, including searching all aliases. Aliases, or the alternate names for gluten, are many and plentiful for gluten. Chefs can tackle this job, but they need to become an expert in gluten and all of its names. We already are experts, so we take the work and fear away.

A good example is an independent restaurateur we recently assisted. A small Mexican eatery, they had a gluten-free menu that included rice. Rice is gluten free, but they were soaking it in a broth that contained barley, which contains gluten. It’s these types of issues that illustrate the necessity of a thorough process.

We then develop a Certified Gluten-Free Menu with MenuTrinfo’s seal of confidence. Operators that use our services can proudly post our Gluten-Free Certification seal of approval in their restaurants or on their gluten-free menus.

We also train the staff thoroughly so they understand the procedures to avoid cross contamination and the risks involved in cutting corners.

What are the benefits of gluten-free certification to operators?

The Mayo Clinic says it best. One in 100 people are celiac, which is the most serious of gluten intolerances. The NPD Group, in April, added to this number when it found that one in three adults want to avoid or cut down on gluten in their diets, a number that’s been on the rise since NPD started asking the question in 2009. Moreover, NPD found that 200 million restaurant visits in the past year included a gluten-free order.

Operators are realizing that giving these people a safe eating environment with a wide range of choices is a smart business decision. On the flip side — if you were alienating one in every three of your potential customers with a product or marketing campaign, I bet leadership would be scrambling to fix the problem. Gluten-free certified menus are an easy fix.

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