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National Restaurant Association - Gluten-free dining: Back-of-the-house protocols

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Gluten-free dining: Back-of-the-house protocols

Gluten can hide nearly anywhere in a restaurant kitchen — a bit of airborne flour, breading remnants in a fryer, a trace of wheat-based soy sauce on the grill. One of the biggest challenges in serving gluten-free meals is preventing cross-contact in a busy kitchen. Start by identifying points of potential cross-contact and developing protocols to reduce these risks.

  • Consider minimizing airborne flour. By outsourcing its flour tortilla production, TaMolly’s Mexican Kitchen dramatically reduces cross-contact concerns at its 11 locations throughout Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. “We chose not to make the tortillas in-house 20 years ago, because we didn’t want the flour dust in the air for cleanliness reasons,” says Chief Operating Officer Bob Strate. “It really came to our advantage when we introduced our gluten-free menu four years ago.”

    The Melting Pot, a fondue restaurant with 135 units throughout North America, eliminated flour from its kitchens by tweaking its cheese fondue recipes to use cornstarch rather than wheat flour as a thickener. Other restaurants reduce airborne wheat flour by using rice flour, or other gluten-free alternatives for tossing pizza dough.
  • Store gluten-free ingredients away from gluten sources. Even a salad can be contaminated with gluten if you’re not careful, notes Debbie Goldberg, co-owner of Fresh Brothers, a 12-unit fast-casual chain throughout Southern California, specializing in pizza, salads and wings. With items like croutons and fried onions in the salad prep area, Fresh Brothers team members know to take gluten-free salad items from sealed bins.
  • Dedicate space for gluten-free preparation. Some restaurants have a dedicated spot, like Fresh Brothers, which has a separate prep line in its cooler for gluten-free pizzas. Other operators create a space as needed by covering a surface, perhaps using a clean disposable aluminum pan in a shielded area.
  • Establish gluten-free hygiene procedures. Gluten-free protocols might include washing hands, wearing fresh gloves and putting on a clean apron.
  • Avoid cross-contact through fryers, toasters and other kitchen equipment. Remember, normal cooking conditions will not destroy gluten molecules. O’Toole’s Restaurant Pub in Queensbury, N.Y. has a dedicated fryer for gluten-free items and a special toaster for warming gluten-free buns and breads. When it comes to grilling, consider heating items in a sauté pan on top of the grill rather than directly on a surface used for gluten products, says Betsy Craig, CEO of MenuTrinfo, a Colorado-based consultancy that provides gluten-free training and gluten-free certification to restaurants.
  • Use separate utensils, pots, pans and more. Tongs, colanders, bowls, cutting boards, etc., can be sources of cross-contact. Consider color-coding items to help distinguish them.
  • Consider factory-sealed products. If you want gluten-free options without all the work, try “bake-in-the-bag” products, Craig recommends. Products such as gluten-free pizzas cooked and served in a bag eliminate cross-contact concerns.
  • If in doubt, throw it out. If your team makes a mistake—say, putting croutons on a salad that should be gluten-free—start over with fresh ingredients. A few remnant crouton crumbs could be dangerous to someone with celiac disease. 
  • Be consistent. While some people suffer from severe reactions to gluten, others choose a gluten-free diet for lifestyle reasons. You need to take the same precautions no matter what. “When someone places an order for a gluten-free pizza, we don’t know if it’s a food preference or if they have celiac disease,” says Adam Goldberg, Fresh Brothers co-owner. “All gluten-free pizzas are made to the same standard.”
  • Identify the finished item as gluten-free. “It gives the guest a level of comfort knowing we took special care of their plate,” says Gregory Kahn, managing partner of Gregorio’s Trattoria in Potomac, Md., and Reston, Va. Gregorio’s inserts a wooden “gluten-free” flag; Burtons Grill, an Andover, Mass.-based chain, uses square dishes instead of their regular round ones; and Fresh Brothers packages and seals items with a special sticker.

Check out related front-of-the-house protocols.

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