Getting rid of gluten

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The gluten free market is dominating the free from category so is it an opportunity you should be tapping into? 

According to data analysts Nielsen, the gluten free market grew by 12.7% in 2020 to be worth over £3bn and is leading the free from market. 

While only 1% of the UK population is diagnosed with coeliac disease – caused by a reaction of the immune system to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye – the market is being fulled by those choosing a low gluten diet on health grounds. 

With fish and chips one of the most frequently cited foods that coeliacs say they miss the most, on the face of it it sounds like a market worth targeting. Especially when 80% of Coeliac UK members say that when they eat out with other people, their need for safe gluten free options determines where they eat.

Important questions

But before you jump on the internet and start ordering gluten free batter, sausages and scampi, you have to ask yourself two important questions. Firstly, can you offer gluten free food safely? This means having the room to store and prepare gluten free food away from any contamination. And it’s not enough to simply use gluten free products, food must be cooked in separate oil to traditional products and handled using separate utensils, which means a significant investment in equipment, not to mention staff training. It’s a big brief to fulfil and shouldn’t be taken lightly. 

Secondly, ask yourself is there a demand? And, more importantly, is that demand sufficient to make it worthwhile having a dedicated gluten free offering? Having a pan sitting there burning oil is futile if only a handful of customers take it up. And with gluten free products costing at least 25% more than your regular items, you’ve got to be certain it adds up financially and you’re not doing it purely because you want to.  

The next step is to decide how you are going to offer gluten free. Can you hit the price point necessary to go gluten free across the entire shop and can you source all the items you require? If not, maybe one day a week, a fortnight or a month would be more practical. Even then you will have to decide, whether to go exclusively gluten free or if you have confidence in your practices and your staff’s ability to do the two side-by-side.

Dedicated gluten free

In 2018, Sarah Lock opened a dedicated gluten free takeaway two doors down from her existing fish and chip shop, Harbourside in Plymouth, after getting more requests from customers. Since she’s owned Harbourside Gluten Free, trade has grown by 20% with the fully dedicated gluten free kitchen serving not just fish and chips but sausages, halloumi, chicken bites, fishcakes and pineapple fritters. 

“We have a really good following and we have people that drive 25-30 minutes to us,” says Sarah, who has had the business accredited by the charity Coeliac UK. “Customers can go to nearer places that offer gluten free but they don’t always know what they are going to get. Here, customers know we have no gluten-containing products on the premises and, because we are Coeliac Accredited, they know we are educated rather than just saying it.”

While Sarah has removed any concerns about cross-contamination and the need for separate equipment by going completely gluten free, she has had to address the issue of cost, with gluten free products adding an additional 25% to her food bill. Here she absorbs that cost and offsets it against her other business. “I know I should charge more but I don’t see why Coeliacs should be penalised if they can’t have certain ingredients, so I take the rough with the smooth,” she says. “If I didn’t have the other shop though I would have to charge more.”

Over at Millers Fish & Chips in Haxby, York, while its frying range pumps out traditional fish and chips in beef dripping, every Thursday night a separate stand-alone fryer is brought in to cook gluten free food, along with a dedicated member of staff to run the section.

Up until Covid hit, Millers offered gluten free every day alongside its regular fish and chips but when operating hours were reduced and teams scaled back, it was dropped to make life easier. Since being brought back, it’s just offered to customers once a week, a move that co-owner Nick Miller says works much better for the business. 

“Now we’ve got gluten free on one day a week it’s more beneficial for us because we’re busier that day so it becomes more profitable and more sustainable for us to do. And we find while one or two orders might be exclusively gluten free, it’s more often than not that orders will include one or two gluten free and the others are regular fish and chips. It makes us wonder how many times in the past we’ve missed out on an order because a family hasn’t been able to eat together.”

Like Harbourside, Millers doesn’t charge a premium for its gluten free options and is also Coeliac Accredited. And with the standalone frier loaded with rapeseed oil, Millers’ gluten free fish and chips also double up as being Halal. 

Dedicated day

Also offering a gluten free day once a week is Finn’s Fish & Chips in Reading, Berkshire, but rather than share the day, Tuesdays are dedicated to gluten free fish and chips. Owner Jeff Cansdale introduced the idea when he first opened the shop six years ago and it’s now the second busiest day of the week after Fridays. 

Jeff comments: “The reason we’re so busy is consistency, people know every single Tuesday at Finn’s it is gluten free day, we’ve been doing the same come rain, snow or sun. We have a big base of Tuesday customers that come in every single week.” 

The benefit of a dedicated day is that staff do not  need to concern themselves with cross-contamination or using separate frying equipment. However, they do have to carry out a thorough clean down of the range to ensure no traces of gluten remain before filling up the pans with fresh oil. 

“For the staff, it’s a lot easier to prevent cross-contamination and it means we start the week on fresh oil. We still have separate tools – tongs and fish skimmers – that only get used on a Tuesday.”

If you decide gluten free fish and chips is an avenue you want to explore, research it thoroughly and only offer it if you can guarantee it can be done safely. Speak to Coeliac UK and contact groups in your area for advice too – social media is full of local groups you can call upon.  

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