We’re not just talking about gluten-free food, that’s so 2016 (although some pubs are offering fantastic options).
Free-from food is any dish designed to exclude ingredients that some people have an allergy to or something that someone chooses not to eat.
Let’s talk money. Mintel says the UK free-from market is valued at £365m and is forecast to grow 50 per cent by 2019. Coeliac UK estimates the catering industry is missing out on £100m a year from people with the disease who cannot eat gluten.
So a jacket potato and salad should cover all bases, right? Wrong, that’s not going to cut it if you want to nail this.
It’s not just about ticking a box, it’s about fulfilling a lifestyle for those who need it and those who want it.
Mintel has found health aspirations are motivating customers to look for fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains and botanicals in their diets. There’s a growing interest in vegetarian and vegan products, even for the most carnivorous people.
Hampshire-based pub company Ideal Collection has hired a nutritionist to help it create an entirely new menu based on healthy eating and catering for allergies.
Marketing manager Dan Turner explains: “We look at current trends but we also encourage customer feedback and our customers want more healthy, free-from dishes.
“We know it’s important to do food well, and that’s why we’ve enlisted help from professionals, so we can offer quality dishes which are accessible to anyone.
“We will also be stocking non-alcoholic spirits, teas and soft drinks to offer an entire experience, not just a menu. The next step is educating the chefs about what is required so we can deliver.”
Great food for all
Also taking free-from food seriously is Salisbury Pubs, which runs two serial award-winning venues in the Home Counties.
The company has just scooped a double gold at the FreeFrom awards for its allergy-friendly menus. “We’ve encouraged our chefs to explore options which actually improve the quality of our food, while making it suitable for certain diets,” explains director Becky Salisbury. “For example, gluten-free flour makes a much better apple crumble.”
“We won the awards because anyone with any allergy can come in, and we’ll quietly sort a dinner to suit them which tastes great, and they feel normal.”
How can you offer free-from food without the hassle?
The pubs also run separate menus offering gluten-free and dairy-free dishes. It clearly takes some extra effort and thought — is it worth the hassle?
“People with allergies tend to be vocal about their experience, but not necessarily to your face. So you’ve got to get it right,” Becky says.
In these times when social media provides a ready mouthpiece for any disgruntled customers, it’s easy to see how a thoughtful approach to allergies could help protect your business’s reputation. So where do you start?
“It’s not easy but it’s not difficult. It just takes strict measuring and training, but as we already have systems to prevent cross-contaminations, it’s been fine,” says Becky.
“Start slowly and engage your staff — if they’re not engaged it’s very difficult.”
Kathryn Miller, head of food policy at charity Coeliac UK, says it’s good to start with what you’ve got. “Lots of pubs cook traditional food, some of which could be free-from with just a few alterations.”
But it’s about what works for your team. “Sometimes places find it easier to have separate space in the kitchen and a separate menu. It depends on the pub,” she explains.
Is it here to stay?
So is free-from just the latest food fad, here today and gone tomorrow?
Not according to some experts, who see the current interest as part of a generational shift in dining habits.
Barbara Cox is a nutritionist and entrepreneur and thinks the rise of smartphones means people are savvier about their diet. “People measure food intake on fitness apps, and those who regularly eat out are usually savvy about fitness. They will be looking for nutritional value,” she says.
“Gone are the days where people go out for a lot of rich meals, that’s for special occasions. If you want to entice them on a regular basis, you need a menu which reflects their everyday lifestyle.”