Reporter's Notebook

Gluten-free diets might be hurting Italian chains

It's a tough time for any chain that sells a lot of noodles. And for some it's downright awful.

Macaroni Grill's same-store sales fell 8.5 percent in its most recent quarter. Bravo Cucina Italiana's sales fell 6.7 percent. Brio Tuscan Grille's comps declined 5.2 percent. Olive Garden is struggling. Noodles & Company's same-store sales rose 1.6 percent in its most recent quarter but it, too, has had issues of late. The only outlier we could find was the 200-unit private chain Fazoli's, which recently said that its franchisee same-store sales are up 5.6 percent on the year.

One theory as to why so many Italian chains are struggling right now? Gluten. Or, to be specific, gluten-free diets. Carl Howard, CEO of Fazoli's, pays close attention to the Italian sector and suggested that as a reason for the sales challenges. "That's the only thing that I can think of," he said.

There is no question the gluten-free trend has had an enormous impact on food and on the restaurant industry.  Last year, the NPD Group said that a third of consumers are trying to cut down on gluten. This year, NPD said that 11 percent of consumers follow a gluten-free diet. Only a quarter of those living in a gluten-free household, the survey said, do so because of celiac disease.

The total gluten-free food market is expected to reach $8.8 billion this year, up 63 percent from 2012, according to Mintel, which also said that 41 percent of adults believe gluten-free foods are beneficial for everyone. 

Gluten is a widely consumed combination of two proteins that is mostly found in wheat and is responsible for giving dough its elasticity. Health concerns, driven in part by the 2011 book "Wheat Belly" by cardiologist Dr. William Davis, has led a trend toward more gluten-free diets. Pasta typically has lots of gluten.

Thus, if consumers are eating more gluten-free foods, they're eating less gluten-rich foods. Of course, pizza chains are doing well, and the last time we checked most pizza crust is loaded with gluten. But they have different reasons for their success, like technology and value.

And, as the Fazoli's example shows, it's clearly not impossible for Italian chains to succeed despite concerns over gluten. But the trend does make it more difficult for any concept that specializes in noodle dishes.

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