Starbucks, other chains cater to customers who avoid dairy, gluten

November 21, 2017

Zlati Meyer | USA TODAY

The milk in the Starbucks’ hot chocolate drink that it unveiled Tuesday comes from a nut and not from a cow — and that’s going to be good news for its customers trying to avoid dairy.

At California Pizza Kitchen, the latest pizza isn’t about the topping but rather the crust, which is made from cauliflower and not wheat flour.

Both are examples of how national restaurants are increasingly catering to customers with special diets.

Industry giants from Domino’s to Dunkin’ Donuts have begun backing away from their standardized approaches to reach out to customers who have embraced new eating restrictions while attracting new diners who want fast, cheap food that meets their unique needs. In a hyper-competitive restaurant environment, it’s a way to stay ahead.

At Starbucks, that’s its newest alternative-milk beverage, the Toffee Almondmilk Hot Chocolate, made with steamed almond milk, mocha sauce, toffee nut syrup, whipped cream and caramel brulée topping.

On Monday, California Pizza Kitchen introduced its gluten-free cauliflower crust for those who no longer eat wheat-flour products.

For the food and restaurant industries, the market for people with special diets has become too big to ignore.

A survey by the global market research firm Mintel found that lactose was the American consumers’ third-most avoided ingredient after high-fructose corn syrup and genetically-modified organisms. Gluten and wheat were No. 7.

“Because of customers’ interest in alternative milks, we have introduced…beverages that include coconut milk or almond milk as a standard milk in the recipe. We have found that these drinks appeal to both new and existing customers,” Starbucks said in a statement.

Before the Seattle-based coffee shop chain had non-dairy and non-soy drink options, adding that kind of non-traditional beverage was the second-most requested customer idea in Starbucks history. Though soy milk was an option starting in 1997, coconut milk joined the line-up in 2015 and almond milk in September 2016.

Dunkin Donuts and Panera began offering almond milk at their restaurants in 2016.

At the same time, gluten-free items on are showing up on menus in different forms. Papa John’s has its own gluten-free crusts. Subway and Shake Shack have gluten-free breads. Noodles & Co. has gluten-free pasta.

The gluten-free industry grew to $13.7 billion in 2016 and in restaurants, the number of gluten-free menu items jumped 18% between 2015 and 2017, according to Mintel. The booming interest stems from more diagnosis of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity and from perceived health benefits from abstaining from gluten, such as better digestion and more energy.

Even though the total revenue from gluten- or dairy-free diners may be relatively small, the impact is much larger because they’re usually the ones who influence the decision of a group of family or friends on where to go to eat.

“Without a gluten-free offering, even if there’s one or two family members who want gluten-free, sometimes you’re losing the whole family order,” said Burt Flickinger III, managing director of the Strategic Resource Group, a New York-based retail and consumer goods consulting firm. “By the end of decade, almost all national fast-food companies will have dairy- and gluten-free options.”

The growing number of options is sure to please those who avoid gluten.

Since she was diagnosed with celiac disease almost nine years, Erica Dermer, 34, of Phoenix, has been careful to avoid gluten — and the fast-food chains that serve it. Among the ones she frequents is Chick-fil-A, which serves a gluten-free bun.

“They’re making a commitment to us and therefore we’re opting to eat at their restaurants,” said Dermer. “If I only have one choice, you better believe they’re getting a bigger percentage of my pocketbook than other chains.”