Subway expands gluten-free test

Aug. 15, 2011 | by Alicia Kelso

Subway quietly began testing gluten-free rolls and brownies in the Dallas market in January. Those items have since made their way onto menus in a handful of Portland, Ore., outlets, with company plans to get the entire 500-plus-unit market in trial within the next month.

The possibility of Subway's gluten-free tests expanding even further is real, but the process will be slow and meticulous, according to Mark Christiano, the chain's Baking Specialist in the R&D Department.

"We will take our time with this and make sure we deliver these products to the consumer the right way. If it was easy to do, everyone would have gluten-free available. Obviously it's not," he said.

Adding gluten-free items to any restaurant operation is tricky, as cross-contamination can make those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance sick. Only by sticking to the strict diet can severe digestive problems be avoided when gluten protein is ingested.

Because of its signature offerings, Subway faces an especially tall hurdle. Gluten protein is found in wheat, barley, oats and rye.

'Getting emotional about a piece of bread'

Still, Subway has a huge opportunity as it continues to test gluten-free rolls. The National Restaurant Association listed gluten-free among the top 5 culinary themes for 2011.

With the expanding population of Americans affected by celiac disease and gluten sensitivity – an estimated 1 in 133 people have celiac disease and 1 in 56 have related issues – demand for gluten-free products and menus continues to climb. The market posted sales of $2.6 billion in 2010, according to Packaged Facts market research. A majority of that market growth will come from the U.S. foodservice industry, which is expected to grow by more than $500 million by 2014.

Although the market is on a rapid upswing, Kevin Kane, manager of public relations for Subway, said the company isn't adding gluten-free options to boost the bottom line.

"(Gluten intolerance) doesn't impact a large mass of people. We're not judging these tests on sales, but instead on what we're able to do for a handful of our customers and their feedback," Kane said. "It's not a money making thing; it's just the right thing to do."

So far, Subway has been "very pleased" with its tests and has gotten an "overwhelmingly positive" response from customers.

One of those customers is Elizabeth Smith who runs the blog "The Dallas Celiac," one of the first sites to break the news of gluten-free testing in Subway's Dallas outlets.

"Until recently, the option to get a decent lunch on the go for someone who has to eat gluten-free meant a protein bar. With Subway's gluten-free sandwich bread, suddenly someone like me can have an actual lunch on the go," she said.

The company has been inundated with requests for the gluten-free tests' expansion since January's initial roll out. Kane said a timeframe is hard to nail down, however, because of the variety of store set-ups in the Subway system. Some locations are smaller, for example, and might not be able to easily adapt its operations.

"If I could get this out to the entire country tomorrow, I would," Christiano said. "But this isn't a trend, it's a way of life and I now understand how someone can get emotional about a piece of bread. It's something the rest of us take for granted. We have to make sure we do this slow and steady, and we do it right."

The process of incorporating gluten-free

It was no quick task to incorporate gluten-free rolls and brownies onto the Subway menu in Dallas. Christiano said the company spent about three years in development, followed by extensive training to make sure everyone was on board.

The training done in Dallas, in Smith's opinion, seems to have paid off.

"When I initially heard about Subway offering gluten-free bread, my reaction was one of extreme caution because most restaurant employees do not know how to handle gluten-free items in such a way as to avoid cross-contamination," she said. "But I have been really impressed with the level of training Subway employees have on what to do to make a sandwich safe for me to eat."

Dallas was targeted for the initial test because operations in that market are headed by celiacs. There are also a handful of celiacs who work at the Subway headquarters in Connecticut, who were tasked with helping the R&D team find the right product.

"We eat lunch in the test kitchen every day and this guy always used to come in with the ugliest looking product you've seen. I tried it once and it tasted like it looked," Christiano said. "I had to help this guy out, he's my friend."

Christiano made some contacts and discovered that one of Subway's suppliers had recently purchased a certified gluten-free facility. Because Subway is still in the testing phase, that supplier has not been disclosed.

For years, the R&D department worked with the supplier to adapt recipes and perfect a final product.

"We knew we had what we wanted when we served a platter with the items at a board of directors meeting and they all ate it and said how good it was," Christiano said. "They didn't know it was different, or gluten-free. It tasted like something mainstream. That is exactly what we were striving for."

Operational challenges involved with gluten-free

Nailing down the final product took time, but the effort seems to pale in comparison to the in-store training required once the product is rolled out. This includes extensive instructions, presentations and demonstrations, as well as monthly meetings to reiterate the adapted operational process.

"Having these items on the menu changes the entire way of doing things. It needs to be taken very seriously. The methods of handling this food have to be followed to a T," Christiano said.

At Subway, once a gluten-free roll or brownie is ordered, the line staff is required to wipe down the entire counter and get rid of any crumbs in the vicinity. They're then to wash their hands and change their gloves. The gluten-free rolls and brownies are pre-packaged on fresh deli paper, and a single-use, pre-packaged knife is used for cutting.

The gluten-free sandwich is taken from order to point-of-sale by the same person, as opposed to being passed down the line in the traditional Subway format. Customers are able to watch the creation from start to finish.

"If they don't like what they see, they can start it over. It's important that our customers feel comfortable and safe," Christiano said. "Nobody is going to die from this, but people get very sick if it's not done right. We want to provide them with a place to eat where they don't have to worry about that."

For more information about food safety, click here.

Photo provided by Elizabeth Smith at The Dallas Celiac.

Topics: Customer Service / Experience , Food & Beverage , Food Safety , Health & Nutrition , Operations Management , Staffing & Training

Alicia Kelso / Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with, and has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, and Franchise Asia magazine.
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