Red Robin is a popular burger restaurant chain that offers a variety of milkshakes on their menu. However, unlike many other restaurants, Red Robin does not offer gluten-free milkshake options. This causes frustration for customers who follow a gluten-free diet and wish to enjoy a milkshake with their meal. In this 5000 word article, we will explore the reasons why Red Robin milkshakes are not gluten-free and provide potential solutions for the restaurant chain to consider.
What is Gluten and Why is it Problematic?
Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye. For those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, consuming gluten triggers an autoimmune response that damages the small intestine. This can cause gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea, bloating, and abdominal pain. A strictly gluten-free diet is the only treatment for celiac disease. Even small amounts of cross-contamination can cause issues.
There are many potential sources of gluten in milkshakes. The vanilla ice cream may contain ingredients derived from wheat. The chocolate or strawberry syrups likely contain malt or barley extract. The malt powder often used to thicken milkshakes also contains gluten. Even getting gluten-free ingredients from suppliers does not guarantee safety, as cross-contamination can occur during transportation and storage. Restaurants need rigorous protocols to have truly gluten-free menu options.
The Importance of Gluten-Free Menu Options
Having gluten-free menu choices has become increasingly important for restaurants in recent years. An estimated 1 in 100 people worldwide has celiac disease. However, it is estimated that for every person diagnosed, 5-10 cases go undiagnosed. This means up to 6-12% of the population could potentially benefit from gluten-free menu options.
Additionally, an estimated 30% of adults in the U.S. are now actively trying to reduce gluten intake. This includes those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity and people without medical issues who simply feel better on a gluten-free diet. Providing gluten-free choices caters to this large and growing market segment. It demonstrates a restaurant is accommodating to diverse dietary needs.
Challenges for Restaurants in Providing Gluten-Free Items
There are several challenges restaurants face when deciding whether to offer gluten-free menu options:
Increased ingredient costs – Gluten-free specialty ingredients usually cost more than traditional wheat-based ingredients. This increases food costs for the restaurant.
Higher kitchen labor costs – Extra steps are required in the kitchen to prevent cross-contamination between gluten and gluten-free ingredients. This can slow down food preparation.
Added employee training requirements – Staff must be educated on how to safely handle gluten-free orders. This includes changing gloves, using separate utensils and cookware, and setting up specific preparation areas.
Risk of gluten exposure – Despite best efforts, there is always a risk of gluten exposure when a kitchen is not 100% gluten-free. This results in complaints and lost customer trust if a customer has a reaction.
Menu complexity – Adding more options makes the menu more complicated for customers and kitchen staff. There is debate whether offering gluten-free items attracts enough added business to be worthwhile.
How Red Robin Approaches Gluten-Free and Food Allergies
On their website, Red Robin states they take food allergies and dietary restrictions seriously. Their allergen information guide outlines how customers can work with staff to customize orders to accommodate needs. They train staff on sanitation procedures to reduce cross-contamination risk.
For food prep:
– Gluten-free buns are stored separately
– Clean utensils and sanitized surfaces are used
– Fryer oil is filtered regularly to minimize contamination
Despite these precautions, Red Robin explicitly states they are NOT a gluten-free restaurant. Their kitchens are not fully gluten-free environments. They make no guarantees dishes will be 100% free of exposure.
This general disclaimer extends to Red Robin’s milkshakes as well. Although staff will take reasonable customization requests, there are no officially gluten-free milkshake options. Their shakes have some inherent risk of gluten cross-contamination.
Potential Ways for Red Robin to Offer Gluten-Free Milkshakes
While the challenges are real, there are steps Red Robin could take to move towards offering safe gluten-free milkshakes:
Source special ingredients – Work with suppliers to obtain reliably gluten-free ice cream, chocolate, malt powder substitutes etc. Clearly mark these ingredients for gluten-free use only.
Set up dedicated prep space – Have a separate gluten-free station for assembly. Use color-coded tools and storage. Perform thorough cleaning before and after prep.
Employee certification program – Have certain staffers get certified on proper precautions for gluten-free orders. Only allow certified staff to handle these orders.
Test finished products – Send assembled milkshakes to a 3rd party lab periodically to test for gluten. Ensure protocols are working.
Menu markings – Clearly label gluten-free items on menus. List ingredients and potential allergen traces for transparency.
Isolate ingredients – Keep all ingredients for gluten-free milkshakes in sealed containers during transport and storage. Never open to general kitchen.
Dedicated blenders – Use blenders reserved only for gluten-free shakes. Store separately and clean thoroughly after each use.
Customer notifications – Inform customers that while precautions are taken, there is no guarantee of zero exposure. Allow them to assess their own risk.
The Financial Considerations in Providing Gluten-Free Shakes
To offer gluten-free milkshakes, Red Robin would need to make significant financial investments:
Ingredient costs – Buying special gluten-free ingredients would increase food costs by an estimated 15-20% per shake.
Training expenses – Certifying select staff and training all staff would require investment in labor hours. Ongoing training would be needed for new hires.
Prep space changes – Designating gluten-free prep areas could require remodeling some locations. Separate storage space would be needed.
Menu updates – Changing menus and kitchen protocols would necessitate updated training materials and notifications to staff.
Third-party testing – Paying an external lab to periodically test finished shakes for gluten would generate added costs.
Overall these expenses could add between $5,000 to $10,000 in upfront costs per restaurant location. There would also be increased labor hours needed per gluten-free order. Ongoing ingredient costs would eat into profit margins slightly.
How Much Additional Business is Needed to Justify the Investment?
The key question is whether offering gluten-free shakes would attract enough added patronage to justify the costs. Some estimates on the amount of extra business needed:
– If ingredient costs increase 20%, about 1 in every 5 shakes sold would need to be gluten-free to maintain the same ingredient profit margin.
– To recoup a $5,000 upfront investment in the first year, a restaurant would need to sell an extra 500 shakes, assuming a $10 menu price per shake and 20% food cost.
– To earn an extra $10,000 per year (enough to cover upfront and ongoing added costs), the restaurant would need to sell an additional 1000 gluten-free shakes annually.
The viability depends on the gluten-free market demand in each restaurant’s local area. Some additional ways to boost revenue from gluten-free offerings:
– Price gluten-free shakes $1-2 higher to account for higher ingredient costs
– Upsell customers to include gluten-free sides and entrees with the shake
– Offer gluten-free shakes exclusively to loyalty program members to increase participation
– Feature gluten-free shakes on third-party delivery app menus to attract new customers
The Customer Response if Red Robin Offered Gluten-Free Shakes
If Red Robin offered gluten-free shakes, it would elicit a very positive response from those in the gluten-free community:
- Customers with celiac disease would be thrilled to finally enjoy a Red Robin shake as a special treat with less fear of reaction.
- Those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity or preference would have one less dining limitation.
- Parents of kids with celiac could bring them along to enjoy the family experience.
- Awareness and trust in the brand would increase across the entire gluten-free consumer base.
- Customer satisfaction and loyalty would likely rise from feeling more included.
- Many positive social media posts, reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations would follow.
Of course, execution would have to be excellent. If gluten exposure incidents occurred, backlash would be swift. But overall the inclusion would be celebrated and embraced by the gluten-free community.
Offering gluten-free milkshakes would allow Red Robin to meet the needs of a large consumer group they currently ignore. It would demonstrate they take dietary accommodations seriously. While not without challenges, targeted steps could allow gluten-free shakes on the menu.
The ultimate decision comes down to a cost-benefit analysis. The required investment is not trivial. But the potential for revenue growth, positive PR and customer goodwill may make it a worthy consideration. Given societal trends, the case for adding gluten-free options will likely only grow over time. As a forward-looking brand, Red Robin could gain advantage by moving in this direction now.