Monday, September 26, 2005

Updating your decoder

If you want to understand that exotic being known as the present-day customer, add two new acronyms to your consumer-speak translation guide: GF, and No WBRO. Both deal with what some chains are calling the new challenge in meeting the dining public’s increasingly varied special needs: Menu items fit for celiac sprue sufferers.

If that’s Greek to you, don’t be embarrassed, but don’t tarry in learning what it means, either. Until recently it was regarded as a relatively rare ailment, afflicting just 2 million people in total throughout the U.S. That works out to about one sufferer in 133 people. But the recent surge in interest and concern suggests the condition may be under-diagnosed. Indeed, you may have already dealt with a customer who had it, but referred to it as a gluten allergy.

In truth, persons with celiac sprue can’t process gluten, a wheat flour. The almost universally used ingredient throws their digestive system out of whack, and they have trouble absorbing nutrients. When a person suffers from the ailment, his or her children have a dramatically stronger chance of also being afflicted. That may or may not be a factor in the pronounced activism of the group, which is using the internet to share information about what restaurants offer a gluten-free menu, or GF in the shorthand of that community. GF bills of fare are already being offered by a number of the national chains, including Outback and P.F. Chang’s, as well as progressive regional operations like Legal Sea Foods and Cameron Mitchell’s Fish Market restaurants.

At Nation’s Restaurant News’ Culinary R&D Conference last week in Orlando, during informal discussions of allergies’ impact on recipe development, several chain menu-makers cited gluten intolerance as something they’ll all have to address if they want to avert a different type of veto vote. As one put it, “If we don’t give them what they want, they’ll find someplace that will.”

Part of the challenge is the ready communication between sufferers. The web abounds in sites and organizations. The community even has its own Zagat guide of sorts, the Clan Thompson Celiac Pocket Guide to Food. One group, the Celiac Sprue Association—“Celiacs helping celiacs,” according to its website—is trying to burn a new buzz-phrase into the minds of its constituents and the institutions that serve them: No WBRO Is The Way To Go. That means no wheat, barley, rye or oats.

The translation: Unless you reformulate, they can't buy your bread, pizza dough, pasta, cereals, and breaded fried foods, to name just a few restaurant staples.

As far as we could determine, many of the sufferers’ groups have yet to identify likely replacements for the ingredients that trigger their illness.

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