It's one thing to offer special diet options but without proper training and follow-through it might be a futile effort. 

Gluten-free, allergen-free, vegan, vegetarian. More diners than seemingly ever before continue to request special diet-related foods and meals. Gluten-free eating, in particular, has grown over the past couple years as diagnoses of sensitivities and strict intolerances to wheat-based protein have become more prominent.

As a result, operators now realize they need to either set up their kitchens differently or make room for the flexibility necessary to accommodate these special needs requests. For a while, being able to accommodate special dietary needs was a nice way to differentiate an operation from the competition. However, that is slowly starting to change and it won't be long before being able to handle special dietary needs will become the expectation for most operators.

Naturally, adapting to meet these expectations will mean operational changes. So how do designers and consultants help operators prepare to meet this challenge?

Sandra MacInnis, senior consultant, operations for Designed Food Systems, Inc. in Ottawa, Canada, realizes the growing need to accommodate gluten-free and other special diets, including vegan and vegetarian eating, into the way she designs foodservice operations. MacInnis often collaborates with Kathy Smart, a nutritionist, holistic chef and specialty diet food consultant. Together, they have a few ideas about how to approach this design and operational task.

Design for Flexibility and Cross-Contamination Prevention

"Certainly gluten-free and other special diets are no longer trends; they are a fact of the industry," MacInnis says. That said, it is important to plan for the long term by building in flexibility now.

"One aspect of how we design is that it has to be more forward-thinking; most people design to standards that are now 5 to 10 years old," MacInnis says. "We look at what will come into play in the future, and that includes specialty menus." When designing, everything starts with the menu, MacInnis says. Then it is important to look at the processes associated with executing the menu and the flow of the kitchen. Armed with an understanding of those aspects, the designers can figure out where it is possible to allow for flexibility. "It's more of a challenge if gluten-free is an after-thought."

Given the severity of some food-based allergic reactions, though, it is becoming increasingly risky to treat special needs diets as an afterthought. "Peanut allergies we know can be life-threatening, and sensitivity can be just to the smell itself," MacInnis says.

The same principals of preventing cross-contamination for food safety come into play when designing a kitchen to handle gluten- and allergen-free menu items. While many people have discovered they have mild sensitivities to gluten and simply avoid foods with the ingredient, those with celiac disease have more extreme intolerances to gluten. The same applies to allergens such as peanuts. That's why in the case of food allergens it is important to realize that if the ingredient makes even the slightest contact with food prep utensil or even a pan can trigger a severe reaction.

Some operators avoid the use of peanuts completely, but that means they still have to ensure food-safe procedures begin at the loading dock. "You want to ensure that a product inadvertently delivered on a truck won't be taken into the building."

While this seems like an extreme case, for healthcare and foodservice operations feeding at-risk customers like children and the elderly, this can be second nature. The same thing goes with gluten-free menus — if an operation takes the step to have those items available, the foodservice staff must follow-through with the design of the space and kitchen management to prepare those foods properly and safely.

"Just like with food safety, how much risk are you willing to incur?" MacInnis says. Taking measures to prevent cross-contamination of gluten and allergens with the rest of the menu items is not as much about the operation as it is about making the customer happy and willing to come back.

But even if the foodservice operation lacks the space or resources for a completely separate kitchen or workspace for gluten-free items only, it's possible to create separation with time periods, MacInnis says. Prepare some gluten-free items early in the day, for example, and use blast chillers and other HAACP-controlled, cook and hold equipment to store the food safely for later use. Then, be sure to store gluten-free products properly. Yeast particles in the air from traditional baked goods can make their way into gluten-free products if not stored or prepared with enough separation either in time or space.

"Continue that separation if you can, even when storing food," MacInnis says. "If there's a room next to the bakery, that's the last place you want to store gluten-free products."

Cross contamination even applies to vegan and vegetarianism, among the strictest of customers. For example, Smart points out, soup kettles used to cook meat-based soups or chili shouldn't be used to prepare a vegan or vegetarian product without a wash in-between use. Or, if the operation uses multiple kettles, simply designate one for vegetarian cooking. "People who avoid meat will pay a premium for it, so it's worth those extra steps" adds MacInnis.

Pay Attention to Ingredients

Gluten is commonly found in wheat-based products such as breads, pastas, cereals and other baked goods. But it's also a hidden ingredient in many bottled products like soy sauce, salad dressings, even miso paste, certain spice blends and vanilla, according to Smart.

"One thing people forget about gluten are the hidden sources," Smart says. "A lot of times people don't realize it's more than just flour and bread." Even regular oatmeal won't be considered gluten-free if it was made on the same equipment used for wheat products.

"It's important to read your ingredient labels very carefully when choosing products," Smart says. "If you're not sure if a product contains gluten or not, ask the company and if they don't know the answer, don't use it."

Paying attention to ingredients also applies to vegan foods. Casein is a protein found in dairy that's often added to various foods because of its binding properties. A soy cheese may seem like it would be vegan, but if casein has been added, this is not the case. And many lactose-intolerant people also have sensitivities to casein.

"The definition for vegetarian is very loosely defined," Smart says. "Typically vegetarian means there aren't any meat products in a dish, but it doesn't necessarily mean you can't use chicken broth. Some vegetarians might say that's not true vegetarian, though." It's as extreme as you want to make, Smart says, but if an operator makes a decision to serve vegan or vegetarian or gluten-free foods, it's important to then follow through.

"You don't hear people going into anaphylactic shock after eating bread so people feel there isn't that big of a risk," Smart says. "Even though you may not kill someone with gluten, you're certainly going to kill the night for them or their dining experience." In other words, don't underestimate the importance of doing gluten-free or vegetarian or vegan the right way if it means pleasing or losing a repeat customer.

Train Staff to Realize the Importance

Customers place total trust in an operation's hands when they dine out, so the communication between the client and the establishment has to be good. "You have to have a good understanding of your customer's needs and train your staff to work with those," MacInnis says. "There is nothing more frustrating for people to have to work hard to find food they can eat if they have allergies, sensitivities or other issues. How confident are you going to be about an establishment if you have a peanut allergic child and you ask your server if there are peanuts in a dish and the server says, 'oh I am not sure?'"

Of course, the server in that case could always ask the kitchen staff or manager, but planning one step ahead by ensuring both the cooking and serving staff know all the ingredients in all the menu items and how they're prepared will help build that trust with the customer even more, MacInnis says.

Even when it comes to gluten-free prep, "this is not a situation where you can assume that since the chef understands it everyone else does. There is a risk operationally when you have a less-skilled worker who grabs a cloth and wipes down a gluten-free prep table with the same cloth used to wipe down the regular prep table. Toasters are also an easy place where gluten-free items can get tossed in with the regular items that have left crumbs behind.

Make it easy on staff with color-coded chopping boards, cloths and equipment for gluten- and allergen-free items just like for raw meats, Smart says. Embed gluten-free preparation techniques into food safety and cross-contamination prevention training. If you're going gluten-free, it has to become part of the operational guidelines, process and procedures.

Smart points out an example of a catering company that takes this training to the next level — online. "On their website they clearly outline their whole procedure to handle cross-contamination with gluten-free items," she says. "That's a huge confidence builder."

Even someone answering the phone should know about the menu's gluten-free, vegan or vegetarian items. "Instead of saying, 'oh I'm not sure,' if the person says, 'yes, we're definitely gluten-free and this is what we do that makes the caller 100 percent more confident in the restaurant."

The decision to include gluten-free and vegan items on a menu shouldn't be taken lightly. If that's the route that's taken, it's important to design the kitchen, operations and training program to fit that bill, and build confidence in a customer base.