Pizza chains stretch profits with gluten-free dough

Pizza chains stretch profits with gluten-free dough

When the R&D team at 48-unit Garlic Jim’s Famous Gourmet Pizza rolls out a new product, chief executive Dwayne Northrop immediately wants to know if it’ll make money. But that general rule was bent a bit last year when the Everett, Wash.-based chain began working on a gluten-free pie. Gluten is essential to pizza dough because it provides cell structure. But it delivers intestinal misery to those who are allergic to it—a condition called celiac disease.

Northrop learned that one in every 133 people suffers from celiac disease, and for some time the customer feedback page on Garlic Jim’s website had received messages asking for a gluten-free pizza. Clearly the need was there, but was there a fiscal reason for it?

“My 14-year-old boy is a pizza junkie, and when I started to think, ‘There are kids who have never eaten pizza,’ not to get mushy, but I started feeling bad about that,” Northrop says. “But when we decided to get to work on it, it had to taste great—so good you might not know it wasn’t our regular crust.”

Since going chainwide July 31, sales of the gluten-free pizza are stronger than Northrop expected. Even better, a customer message sent to Garlic Jim’s website raved about the new option: “I just want to let you know that ever since we found out that Garlic Jim’s now has gluten-free pizza, we have ordered a large pizza every week, and no one in our family has gotten sick.… Our 14-year-old son Ted loves it…and there are never any leftovers. Bless you for helping our son to feel more like a “real boy”—he is 5 feet, 7 inches and weighs 100 pounds.”

“That makes us feel pretty good about doing it, as you could imagine,” Northrop says.

Pizza Pizza, a Toronto-based chain with more than 600 Canadian locations, conducted a 380-store rollout of its gluten-free pizza earlier this year and also reports good results.

“Between that and our whole-wheat pizza, it accounts for about 12 percent of our sales,” says Pat Finelli, chief marketing officer at Pizza Pizza. “During our first test in about 50 stores in Toronto, we were like, ‘We can’t believe how big this is.’ We didn’t understand the real demand until we put it out there.”

That two sizeable pizza companies have made such strides is great news to Bob Levy, co-owner of Bob & Ruth’s Gluten-free Dining & Travel Club, an organization combining gluten-free dining and international travel. He believes many restaurateurs are fearful of serving gluten-free foods.

“People think, ‘Do I have to have an ambulance outside the door if I try this?’” Levy says.

Though typically not fatal, intestinal backlash suffered by “celiacs,” as they call themselves, can be harsh enough to scare restaurateurs away from venturing into the new food. Levy believes, however, that if they could see the potential benefits, more owners would try it.

“If I could show them that it pays to have unique gluten-free foods, they’d start paying attention,” he says. “Let’s face it, money talks, and this is a sizable population we’re talking about.”

Many challenges to gluten-free dough

That such a pizza dough has to be free of wheat flour poses a formidable challenge to making good gluten-free pizza. Without the very ingredient that gives pizza crust that wonderful balance of crisp and elastic textures, other starches have to be modified and blended with relaxing agents.

Garlic Jim’s sought outside help to develop its formula, as well as a large-scale baker to produce the parbaked crust. Finding the right one was difficult.

“Some had never shipped in mass quantities before, and others couldn’t flash-freeze,” Northrop says. “Where we thought we had something great six months into the process, as soon as we changed the scale to make thousands, it changed the formula.”

Those problems don’t surprise Jeff Zeak, pilot plant manager at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kan. His work with gluten-free pizza dough has produced modest results compared to the real thing.

“In no way shape or form will it be the same,” Zeak says, “because you’re not using the same ingredients. It can be good, but it’s not going to be the same as a wheat dough. Even though we call it dough, it’s more like a batter when you mix it up.”

Zeak says he’s produced some acceptable gluten-free thin-crust pizzas, but he hasn’t hit on the formula for the bready texture sought for deep dish.

“We’ve used egg whites to get some sort of gas retention and get a puffiness into the product, but it’s still not there,” he says.

Tony Gemignani, co-owner of Pyzano’s Pizzeria [3] in Castro Valley, Calif., has won multiple pizza-making and dough-tossing acrobatic world championships, but he met his match when he entered the gluten-free category at the World Pizza Championship last spring in Salsomaggiore, Italy. Ironically, in the birthplace of pizza, gluten-free dough is a serious matter.

“That part of the competition had its own closed room where you brought in your ingredients and made your dough in front of the judges,” Gemignani says, adding that many of the judges were celiacs.

His blend included coconut flour and hazelnut flour, the latter of which the judges hadn’t seen. When one started shouting in Italian, Gemignani sensed trouble.

“They thought I’d contaminated the room,” he says. “They’re so strict.”

Gemignani says the best efforts of his team, the World Pizza Champions, couldn’t touch Italian competitors’ pizzas made from ingredients he’s not seen stateside.

“In the U.S, ours come out very sticky or very dry, but the guys in Italy were making perfect dough,” he says. “We were really pushing our dough to make 11- or 12-inch pies, but they were stretching out these really nice 18-inch pizzas.… I think what it comes down to is the way they mill their blend. For now, theirs are much more advanced than ours are.”

Both Finelli and Northrop say their gluten-free pies are baked like their regular pies and taste a lot like them, though color and texture differences are evident. Both companies also charge between $2 and $3 more per gluten-free pie because of ingredient costs.

Store crews for both chains received training on safe handling of gluten-free crusts, such as using clearly marked, unique peels and cutters. Since wheat flour is easily made airborne, Garlic Jim’s replaced the pizza flour used to stretch its regular dough with a blend of rice flour and cornmeal.

Finelli and Northrop wouldn’t share their companies’ gluten-free development costs, though Northrop stresses that “it wasn’t cheap.”

“It cost more than a quarterly LTO launch,” he says.

Zeak hasn’t had either company’s product, but he remains wary of advising operators to go gluten-free for now.

“I’d have to ask if it’s worth the potential risk,” he says. “A lot of things have to happen to make sure it’s safe. I suppose you have to sit down and soul-search to decide whether you want to really do it. It’s a big undertaking.”