While it makes sense for pubs to tailor their offer to the majority, it's worth remembering that customers with a particular requirement often make the decision about the venue for the whole group.
So the cask ale drinker will walk past several pubs to find one that keeps its beer well, and bring his lager-drinking mates with him, while the vegetarian in a group will lobby their friends to eat where the menu features an interesting range of meat-free options.
Analyst Horizons' regular Menurama survey shows that 50 per cent of eating-out brands now have gluten-free options, up from 30 per cent just a year ago. The number of gluten-free dishes has also increased by more than 135 per cent year on year, and is up six-fold since summer 2011.
Brands communicate this in a variety of ways. For example, Whitbread's Beefeater menu online includes an information icon which gives details of allergens in dishes in a pop-up box, while customers at Greene King's Hungry Horse chain can download a PDF with a dish-by-dish breakdown of
allergens including gluten.
Proving that independent pubs can take their share of this growing trade, The Ship in Downham Market, Norfolk, has been shortlisted for two years running in the Free From Eating Out Awards, earning a Highly Commended in 2015.
Co-owner Keith Thomas is himself a coeliac, and almost all dishes on the pub's menu are gluten-free. "I didn't want to be one of these places that just provide a steak and a baked potato as an easy gluten-free option," he says.
"We offer the same range of dishes as any pub menu. We're very well known for our fish & chips and battered onion rings because we use gluten-free flour in the batter. Everybody has the same and everybody loves it."
The Ship promotes its menu through the local branch of Coeliac UK and uses the award logo in its marketing, with Keith estimating that 60 per cent of bookings include "at least one customer with a gluten-free requirement, and of course they all bring friends with them."
Can't taste the difference
Keith adds that customers who aren't concerned about gluten really don't notice the difference, thanks to the availability of good quality gluten-free products. This is a good reason for going the whole way, menu-wise, he suggests.
"I'd say it's more difficult to do half and half; it's easier to entirely go gluten-free.The biggest problem is cross-contamination. You can't make a sandwich with ordinary bread on the same board as a gluten-free sandwich, and batter and flour can easily contaminate other things."
Stephanie Hickford, customer marketing controller at Bidvest Foodservice, makes the point that "the vast majority of gluten-free market growth is down to self-diagnosis". She suggests "ancient grains as an alternative to gluten, such as buckwheat, amaranth, millet, sorghum, teff and fashionable quinoa, are a great way for pub chefs to get on board with the trend."
Lee Curtis, licensee at The Bowler in Clerkenwell, London, says: "We've noticed that demand, not just from diagnosed
coeliacs, but from people going gluten-free for lifestyle and fitness reasons, has increased dramatically."
In response, the pub uses Kafoodle kitchen menu-management software, which helps to keep track of recipe ingredients, including allergens. Kafoodle is supported by a consumer restaurant-finding app, "so diners with allergies know they can come and eat at the pub safely."
Although unprocessed potatoes are gluten-free, supplier Aviko points out that not all frozen chips can make the same claim. Aviko's most popular products, including its Premium Fries range, are produced in a dedicated gluten-free factory.
From Nestlé Professional, new Maggi Gluten Free Vegetarian Gravy scores highly in consumer taste tests, helping chefs cater to diners with special dietary needs, and can be ready in just two minutes.
Gluten-free Alabama Fudge Cake from Funnybones Foodservice is pre-portioned at 14 slices per pie, and can be served as a dessert with cream or ice-cream, as well as with tea and coffee at any time of day.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Coeliac disease is caused by a reaction of the immune system to gluten, and can manifest in a range of symptoms from mild to severe. Naturally gluten-free foods include potatoes, rice and lentils, and specially made gluten-free foods such as pasta and pizza bases, as well as gluten-free beers.
Source: Coeliac UK, www.coeliac.org.uk