#TBT: The Story of the Gluten-Free Pizza

Brands like to make jokes about being gluten-free all the time. From the car dealer advertising new “gluten-free” models to barbershops offering gluten-free haircuts and the sign in the window hawking gluten-free antiques, getting rid of gluten has been the latest buzzy marketing trend.

Here at Pizza Hut, going gluten-free was something we’d been taking seriously for more than two years, as gluten-free eating has been on the rise and pizza fans continue to seek out gluten-free menu items. It was clear that despite the seeming faddish-ness of many gluten-free products, demand for tasty treats without gluten is growing. So, the project came together last summer, and Hut Life sat down with Susan Riley, Associate Marketing Manager, to hear more about how Pizza Hut created a great gluten-free pizza option.

Susan said the process started with a steep learning curve. She and the team looked at consumer research to see that gluten-free pizza was becoming a staple item across the category. Sales of gluten-free food have skyrocketed, increasing by over 60% from 2012 – 2014, and 26% of consumers ages 18 – 49 claim to avoid or reduce their gluten intake. From this research, our team was convinced that Pizza Hut had to partner with the most popular gluten-free crust manufacturer: Udi’s®, the number one gluten-free brand in North America. Udi’s is very highly respected, with very loyal fans and customers. They were the perfect brand to serve as our touchstone and partner throughout the research and development process.

Luckily for us, Udi’s felt similarly. “Being able to enjoy pizza night is a simple pleasure everyone should be able to take part in.” said Denise Sirovatka, vice president of marketing for Udi’s.  “But for our gluten-free community this used to be out of reach, which is why we are so pleased to be able to partner with Pizza Hut.”

Things got more complicated as we realized that having gluten-free crust was one thing, creating an entirely gluten-free pizza was quite another. Udi’s was instrumental in connecting our team with the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America (GIG), a non-profit leader in the food industry who certifies the effectiveness of back-of-house cooking methods for gluten-free products to lower the risk of cross-contamination between gluten and non-gluten ingredients.  Their rigorous standards and deep knowledge on the processes of maintaining the purity of gluten-free foods were instrumental as we began to develop our first ever gluten-free pizza, starting exclusively with cheese and pepperoni toppings certified by GIG. Though customers would be invited to customize their toppings on an Udi’s gluten-free crust, GIG’s certified procedures initially are only applicable to cheese and pepperoni. It sounds complicated, and it is: luckily, the team developed a handy guide along the way to help answer consumer’s questions about our gluten-free options and process.

So, with our key partners in place, last July the team began tackling the parallel challenges of creating a tasty, gluten-free crust as well as determining the process in our kitchen that would minimize cross-contamination between gluten and non-gluten pizza ingredients. Susan and the team took the challenge very seriously, keeping the customer at the forefront when trying to create a gluten-free pizza—not just a gluten-free crust, but a holistic gluten-free pizza. It was a great opportunity for Pizza Hut to bring gluten-free pizza to a new market: customers that live in smaller, suburban towns—where many of our restaurants are located—rarely have as many gluten-free options available as do customers in big cities.

After weeks of experimentation and taste-testing, we were ready to introduce an initial product to the world. Udi’s has a network of gluten-free pioneers, and offered us the chance to test our recipe with some tough critics. With Udi’s and GIG, we invited the top leaders in the gluten-free community to visit the Pizza Hut test kitchen with our head Chef Wiley. We showed them the process we’d come up with to maintain the integrity of our gluten-free product, and they made their own gluten-free –using the GIG-certified process—cheese and pepperoni pizzas.

That evening, we hosted a Q&A on Twitter, led by Udi’s and GIG, to answer any questions customers might have about the new recipe. It helped Susan and her team answer any concerns to the gluten-free community two weeks before the launch. The response was very positive. As Susan explains, “A lot of people were skeptics—which was fair. We’re considered a fast casual restaurant competing in a new space. I think where we won people over was that we were very transparent about what we couldn’t do and couldn’t offer, but had also been very thoughtful as to things we did do to make sure it was a great pizza going to our customers.” Denise agreed: “With a commitment to gluten-free handling combined with delicious flavors, we think Pizza Hut made a gluten-free pizza everyone can really enjoy.”

The team decided initially to launch gluten-free cheese and pepperoni and create-your-own pizzas with Udi’s gluten-free crust in 2400 restaurants. We launched in 2400 restaurants in January, 2015, and Susan says the results have been outstanding—demand is so high, that her team is brought on another 312 more restaurants at the end of May. If you’re curious to learn more about our partnerships with GIG and Udi’s, you can visit our gluten-free site here, and get excited: another wave of restaurants will be offering gluten-free toward the end of the summer. The plan is to keep incrementally adding the gluten-free crust to restaurants throughout the fall until it becomes a brand staple!

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