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Mayo Clinic guarantees gluten-free options

A new kitchen provides more choices for patients and guests.
Photograph courtesy of Mayo Clinic

The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., has opened a dedicated gluten-free kitchen.

The kitchen provided its first retail items in mid-July and began preparing patient meals this week.

“The vision for this came from our leadership,” says System Director Tim Cockram. “The Mayo Clinic has a world class celiac and allergen program. How could we help these people live with their restrictions?”

The kitchen was designed specifically for this purpose, though it needed no unusual equipment. The dishes it’s preparing for retail include a strawberry chia parfait, a roast beef-arugula sandwich and a toasted Tuscan chicken sandwich. On the patient side are dishes like lemon-herb chicken with steamed brown rice and green beans, and penne with tomato, basil and summer squash. All retail items are offered cold, while patient food is served both hot and cold.

Gluten-free food is designated with a logo and placed in a gluten-free zone in retail locations. The zone signage and the packaging are purple. In fact, the kitchen is a sea of purple, Executive Chef Jon Klinger says, since every utensil and piece of packaging is designated with the color to prevent cross-contamination. Gluten-free utensils and kitchen employees are dedicated to this space.

For patients, there are typically two gluten-free choices at each meal. The foodservice team requests that these are ordered a day in advance.

“The Mayo Clinic has a world class celiac and allergen program. How could we help these people live with their restrictions?” -Tim Cockram

Klinger spent a lot of time testing recipes, which came from Compass Group’s database. “When I saw this opportunity, I realized I would have to step up my game, so I spent a lot of time studying, picking the brains of other chefs,” he says. “Being a large company, we have some great resources.”

It’s not the first time he’s worked with gluten-free food, “but this brought it to a whole other level,” he says, since the kitchen gives a guarantee of 100% gluten-free. (As soon as any packages are opened, however, the food changes from gluten-free to gluten-avoidant, Klinger says.)

The biggest challenge was ensuring every single ingredient in food delivered from vendors was gluten-free, Cockram says, while figuring out the process and training staff were other obstacles.

The foodservice team had to create its own quality assurance group to understand the process of items arriving on trucks from their vendors to limit exposure to gluten proteins that could be on the trucks. It’s created an unpacking area to make sure cardboard doesn’t have any gluten proteins and has a method for sanitizing certain products in the gluten-free area to ensure they’re free of allergens.

And when the kitchen is cooking, “we have to maintain temperatures, package and seal in that enclosed environment, and send things to the various sites across Rochester’s campus,” Cockram says. And all employees have to be well trained since “they’re the last line of defense to make sure there’s no cross-contamination.”

“We see the need, and we need to support doctors and be a resource and allow the food to be the medicine.” -Tim Cockram

If the program is as popular as expected, the foodservice department will look at expanding it to Mayo Clinics around the region. “We see the need, and we need to support doctors and be a resource and allow the food to be the medicine,” Cockram says.

Gluten-free requests have grown significantly over the past 11 years. Compass Group’s market research group, E15, shows that in 2009, 2.4% of the Mayo Clinic’s restaurants offered at least one gluten-free (not certified) menu item. The clinic predicts that by 2023, 42% will offer at least one gluten-free option.

The new items have had a soft launch that includes signage in the retail facilities. “We’re working on some additional campaigns that will take us to the next level to help people identify the gluten-free kitchen,” Cockram says.

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