Celiac.com 09/08/2011 - What started in January as a quiet and limited campaign by Subway to test gluten-free rolls and brownies in the Dallas market, then spread to a few Portland outlets, has rapidly grown into a plan to include more than 500 stores.
Customers have deluged Subway with requests for a wider roll out, but the company remains committed to getting the process right from R&D to supply to in-store training, all with an eye toward customer satisfaction, says Mark Christiano, Subway's Baking Specialist in the R&D Department.
To Subway's credit, they are eager to meet their customers' demands, but cautious to get the entire process right. From product quality to preparation and customer satisfaction, Subway seems committed to getting it right.
Subway does plan to expand both the gluten-free tests, and, eventually, incorporate gluten-free options into their menus, but the process will be slow and meticulous, according to Christiano.
"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.
Still, rolling out gluten-free bread represents a huge opportunity for Subway. The National Restaurant Association listed gluten-free among the top five culinary themes for 2011. A majority of that market growth will come from the U.S. food service industry, which is expected to grow by more than $500 million by 2014.
Even though customers may clamor for more gluten-free offerings, it is important that companies not just chase a dollar, but that they deliver quality gluten-free service that matches their gluten-free product.
For their part, Subway is to be commended for putting such a serious amount of R&D into their gluten-free offerings. Their effort to provide both a quality product and to deliver that product consistently and with an eye toward customer satisfaction sets the bar for how to go about it.
"(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," Kevin Kane, manager of public relations for Subway said. "It's not a money making thing; it's just the right thing to do."
As Subway's efforts begin to pan out, look for more gluten-free offerings at your local outlet.
Just the small trial of gluten-free rolls and brownies in Dallas offered logistical challenges. Christiano said the company spent about three years in development, followed by extensive training to make sure everyone was on board. The company went as far as working with an undisclosed supplier using a recently purchased gluten-free facility.
Beyond the R&D and supply chain efforts to deliver quality raw materials, Subway has taken a great deal of time to design and implement a comprehensive in-store training program that will help them deliver a consistently high-quality and truly gluten-free
"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. This includes extensive instructions, presentations and demonstrations, as well as monthly meetings to reinforce the process.
Under Subway's new guidelines, whenever a customer orders a gluten-free roll or brownie, the line staff will wipe down the entire counter of any crumbs. They will then wash their hands and change their gloves. The gluten-free rolls and brownies are pre-packaged on fresh deli paper, and the staff use a single-use, pre-packaged knife for cutting.
Each gluten-free sandwich will be made and delivered from order to point-of-sale by the same person, as opposed to being passed down the line in the traditional Subway format. Customers can watch the process from beginning to end.
Most importantly, "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."
Rather than just jumping on the gluten-free band-wagon, it sounds like Subway has committed to delivering a quality gluten-free experience from start to finish. Stay tuned to learn about their ongoing gluten-free product trials and their efforts to expand those offerings throughout their chain.