From fad to niche

Operators are adapting as gluten-free and vegan diets go mainstream.

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As the director of nutrition and wellness at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, N.C., Lisa Eberhart, R.D., has plenty of experience with young, trend-conscious customers.

“College students are experimenting and figuring out the lifestyle they want, and diet is part of that,” she says.

Right now, it seems like everyone wants to experiment with eating gluten-free or vegan.

In fact, the clean-eating wave has grown into a tsunami. “When gluten-free first came out, I noticed it was mostly women,” says Gregory Merkle, the food and nutrition manager at Newton Medical in Newton, N.J. “But I don’t see a typical gluten-free person anymore and everyone is talking about kale smoothies now.”

Here’s how three operators are adapting dietary fads to run a more effective operation.

Appeal to multiple constituencies

Developing crowd-pleasing menus is always an exercise in balance. Throw special dietary requests into the mix, and it becomes that much trickier.

“If it’s an all-you-care-to-eat operation, you need to hit all those tones,” says Bill Laychur, executive corporate chef at Pennsylvania State University in State College, Pa. Just keep in mind, “whether it’s vegan or gluten-free or comfort food, you can only put so many things on the menu,” Laychur says.

That’s why many operators say it’s important to make niche dishes look and taste delicious so they appeal to broader audiences. At NC State, that means serving black bean and guacamole stuffed sweet potatoes, and edamame corn succotash; dual-purpose dishes that satisfy vegans and gluten-free eaters. At Penn State, Laychur uses dishes such as a vegan farro pilaf and a gluten-free, sweet chili mango tilapia to entice his diners.

Guard against overuse

Customers can find items such as dairy-free alternatives and gluten-free cereal on display at NC State’s allergy-friendly “Worry-Free Stations.”

Also tucked away: gluten-free blueberry muffins that turned out to be so delicious, students without celiac disease started snapping them up too. “We were spending $3,000 a month just on the muffins,” Eberhart says. As a result, she’s switched to making the muffins a request-only item after breakfast.

She also brought in a research and development chef to help create more alternative offerings that can be made in-house.   

Here today or here to stay?

Despite their wild popularity, today’s hot diets aren’t necessarily proven to improve health or lead to weight loss. “Some trends can actually be less than healthy,” Eberhart says. “With gluten-free, for instance, you’ll get rid of a lot of grains, but it can be restrictive to eliminate some food choices.” This in part, is why some of these fads could end up going the way of the cabbage soup diet within a few years. “If you’re looking for a certain outcome, you’ll stop when you don’t get the results,” she says.

In the meantime, most operators will continue working to meet their customers’ demands. “We’re in the yes business,” Merkle says. “If you want something, we’re happy to make it for you.”

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