In the not so distant past, many restaurant operators saw gluten-free diners as having a special allergy request—and as a real annoyance that could compromise the culinary experience. But as more people seek to eliminate gluten from their diets for a range of medical and personal reasons, chefs are taking the request more seriously and finding inspiration in a health trend that appears to have staying power.

Shauna Ahern, a blogger and James Beard award-winning author known as the Gluten-Free Girl, said the very best chefs regard gluten-free diners as a challenge.

As a sufferer of celiac disease, she has spent many years as a nervous diner, explaining her wheat intolerance to waiters and seeking out from-scratch restaurants led by chefs she could trust. Cooking at home was oftentimes the best option for eliminating risk.

Then, about five years ago, things changed for the gluten-free diner, she said. “It’s completely different now,” she said of the rise in offerings at restaurants catering to gluten-avoiding customers, especially those with mild allergy and health concerns—an estimated 30 percent of American adults. “For those folks,” she said, “life is infinitely better.”

Though a huge selection of quality gluten-free products are available at retail, until recently foodservice was seen as the next frontier for adopters of the gluten-free diet, including the 6 percent of diners who are truly gluten intolerant and less than 1 percent who have celiac disease. Mintel estimates that sales of gluten-free labeled foods will reach $15.6 billion by 2016.

Today’s restaurant operators now recognize it’s a segment they can’t afford to ignore.

From Manhattan to Napa Valley, top chefs are setting standards high for a seamless and delicious dining experience, taking advantage of perceived healthfulness and naturalness of gluten-free, and the industry is evolving at both ends of the foodservice channel, from commercial chains to from-scratch independents. According to Technomic’s MenuMonitor data, gluten-free foods have spiked considerably on menus, with a 61 percent increase in menu mentions over the past two years, and a whopping 2,419 percent increase over the past five years.

Gluten-free pasta is now available upon request at all Mario Batali restaurants around the country, including Del Posto in New York City, where gluten-free diners flock for a taste of chef/partner Mark Ladner’s wheat-free noodles. Michelin-rated superchef Thomas Keller launched a line of gluten-free flours, Cup for Cup, crafted for chefs by chefs, available for both foodservice and retail. Leading bakers and pastry chefs, like Chad Roberts of Tartine in San Francisco, are taking to experimenting with alternative grains. Most recently, Chef Tom Colicchio’s ‘wichcraft sandwich shop debuted three new gluten-free items, including a roasted turkey salad made with mixed gluten-free grains.

From Hesitation to Innovation

“The restaurant industry in general has become much more sensitive and better trained to adapt to all food allergies, and kitchens everywhere are really taking it seriously, working hard to make sure guests can dine out without fear of getting sick,” said Annica Kreider, vice president of brand development for Atlanta-based Mellow Mushroom Pizza Bakers, a chain of pizzerias with over 150 locations throughout the U.S.

The restaurant launched a small, on-demand program in 2010 in response to gluten-free customers who asked them to carry a product that was safe for them to eat. Due to increased demand, the company reformulated the product last year with Austin-based Smart Flour Food to produce a custom crust at a certified facility and put operational considerations into place, such as separate cooking utensils and screened pans to ensure the gluten-free crust doesn’t touch the pizza stone used for regular dough.

Kreider said the commitment to offering a gluten-free menu is paying off with same store sales increase of 33 percent on gluten-free products and phenomenal customer feedback. “For many, it really is life changing,” she said. “We have literally seen guests cry because they can once again enjoy one of life’s great pleasures: a hot pizza and a [gluten-free] cold beer, just like all their friends.”

Leigh Buckley, marketing manager for Udi’s Gluten Free, a company of Boulder Brands, Boulder, Colo., said smart operators like these are listening to the feedback and providing more, and better, dining options. “It’s a market that continues to grow and demands attention that has been largely ignored in foodservice,” she said.

While Boulder Brands has a large portion of the business based in retail, Buckley said foodservice has continued to grow triple to double digits every year. From 2011 to 2014 the business has increased nearly 25-fold with continued success, due in part to its wide range of offerings, from breads, tortillas and pizza crusts, to pretzels, cookies and custom products for clients like Pizza Hut and Schlotzsky’s.

Room to Grow

Ahern said that this attitude shift in foodservice has not entirely improved the dining outlook for those that suffer from celiacs. “I have to be even more of an advocate than I was five years ago,” she said. For example, French fries may be cooked in oil that’s been used for breaded onion rings. Gluten, found in wheat, rye, and barley products, is also found in other foods such as modifiers, stabilizers, flavorings, and alcohols, so dining out can still be dangerous territory for someone with a severe wheat allergy.

Chefs like Timothy Cottini of Fork restaurant in Chicago understand that gluten allergies can be serious and he’s embraced the need for a completely gluten-free experience as a tool for bringing guests in. The gastropub and winebar provides a designated gluten-free menu, which he said is just as much for the customers as it is for the waitstaff and line cooks, who need to be equipped to respond with professionalism.  

“Allergies are of the utmost importance,” he said. “On a busy night, a cook is rushing and can easily cross-contaminate the food.” This is why Fork offers bunless burgers and sandwiches even though many high-quality alternative products are on the market. The risk of cross-contamination is simply too high for celiac customers, explains Cottini.

He prides himself on the fact that the widening spectrum of gluten-free diners, from trend-followers to celiac sufferers, can feel at home at his restaurant. “It allows them a comfort level in knowing that they will be taken care of just like any other guest,” he said.