Show Me the Gluten-Free Money

Anyone on the gluten-free diet has a sense that it only makes sense for restaurants to make gluten- and allergen-free choices available. Not because they are just trying to be nice (although that’s a good reason, too!) but because they can make money. No business that does not make money can last very long.

Now, Paul Antico, a former stock fund manager at Fidelity Investments, has the numbers to back up the theory. His analysis shows that a casual dining chain like Chili’s could increase its sales by 9 percent, or $270,000, resulting in a $50,000 annual increase in profit.

“From a purely business perspective, it’s in restaurants’ best interests to accommodate the food allergy population, as it can lead to significantly higher profits,” Antico said.

He calculates 9 million restaurant customers concerned about gluten and allergens could be won over by restaurants willing to take the steps to truly meet their needs. (It would be nice if the meals they serve are also tasty, varied, healthy and reasonably priced!)

Antico based his figures on the fact that about 5 percent of the population has allergies, celiac disease or gluten intolerance. That translates into millions of Americans, he said.

In addition, these restaurant customers usually play a key role in deciding where an entire group of friends or family will go when they eat out. If there is little or nothing gluten-free to eat, the restaurant loses not one, but several diners.

“Savvy restaurateurs understand the financial benefits of providing an allergy-friendly environment,” Antico said. “Many restaurant owners are wisely taking extra precautions to accommodate food allergic and intolerant guests, having their employees trained in allergy safety, creating gluten-free menu options, providing ingredient lists, and seeking industry certifications.”

Through his website, AllergyEats, Antico is trying to spread the word about restaurants that are allergen- and gluten-free friendly. The site provides free consumer feedback on how well specific restaurants accommodate those with special dietary needs. He created the site after dining out with his two food-allergic children and becoming frustrated by the inconsistencies in restaurants—some were willing and able to accommodate food-allergic diners and some were not.

Dining out on the gluten-free diet has certainly gotten easier as awareness of celiac disease has grown. The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness fills a whole convention hall once a year with Philadelphia area restaurants that provide great gluten-free options. And the group offers training programs to teach restaurants the ins and outs of gluten free dining.

The Gluten Intolerance Group has worked for years to help restaurants come up with gluten-free menus. But it’s still common to run into problems with cross contamination, uninformed and uninterested wait staff, and bland gluten-free menus.

Like Antico, I think that could change really fast if the gluten-free community applies a simple principle made famous in a Tom Cruise movie.

“Show me the money.”

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