By Jennifer Iscol

UPDATE: See our September 2014 article “Cheesecake Factory Expands its Gluten-Free Effort”

August 23, 2013– Launching an extensive and celiac-safe gluten-free menu in a gluten-filled environment is a tall order, and the Cheesecake Factory is approaching the endeavor with appropriate caution. The national chain has 165 restaurants and is piloting the gluten-free menu only in select locations this month.

The company is taking some extra time to evaluate the impact that the recent FDA gluten-free labeling rule may have on its efforts. So it may be weeks or a month before the gluten-free menu fully launches at all Cheesecake Factory restaurants, according to a company spokesperson.

A Promising Reception
I stopped by the Cheesecake Factory in Corte Madera, CA, one of the pilot locations. The staff at the reception desk was friendly and enthusiastic about the new menu and seemed fully conversant on how the restaurant prevents cross contact with gluten. A staff member mentioned extensive training and a “gluten-free” button in their computerized ordering system that alerts the kitchen.

The Menu
I asked for a take-out version of the gluten-free menu and they gave me the new, colorful, spiral-bound and plastic-coated gluten-free menu and politely insisted I keep it. It is eight pages long, in the chain’s signature eclectic style, and has sections for Small Plates & Snacks, Appetizers, Appetizer Salads, Lunch Specials, Glamburgers®, Pasta, Salads, Specialties, Steaks & Chops, Side Dishes, Eggs & Omelettes, Desserts, Kids’ Menu, and two pages of separate SkinnyLicious® gluten-free offerings. The gluten-free menu is not yet posted on the company’s website.

Godiva® Chocolate Cheesecake
Not willing to test the kitchen’s brand new celiac IQ on my teenage son, I only ordered the Godiva Chocolate Cheesecake for him. Even though the Godiva website contains this forbidding statement on their FAQs page, “Any person with a gluten allergy should NOT consume ANY of our products,” a staff member at the Cheesecake Factory said Godiva makes special gluten-free chocolate just for their cheesecake.

Early Slip-Up
The Godiva Chocolate Cheesecake, the only gluten-free cheesecake, was on the top shelf of the display case (a good sign), but not separated from the other cheesecakes (not a good sign). I was startled to see the server behind the display case was about to use a utensil that was clearly being used on all the other cheesecakes. They keep them in a little bucket with water running through it, which is insufficient to prevent cross contact with sticky cheesecake crumbs. I asked that he wash the utensil off before using it. He did so, but seemed slightly puzzled by the request.

Details to Watch
As the Cheesecake Factory fine-tunes its gluten-free offering prior to a full launch, I will be keeping an eye out for some important make-or-break details:

–       Will all restaurant locations have a dedicated gluten-free fryer for the French fries and sweet potato fries, as the one in Corte Madera says it now does?

–       How will they prevent cross contact on the grill?

–       Is the blue cheese on the gluten-free menu a gluten-free brand?

–       Will they use separate pasta water and equipment for the gluten-free pasta?

–       Will they store and serve the Godiva Chocolate Cheesecake safely?

How the FDA Rule Will Impact Restaurants
According to an emailed statement from the American Celiac Disease Alliance (ACDA), it is still unclear how the FDA’s new regulation will affect restaurants that make gluten-free claims on their menus. In the rule summary, the FDA “suggests that any use of an FDA-defined food labeling claim (such as “fat free” or “low cholesterol”) on restaurant menus should be consistent with the respective regulatory definitions.” The ACDA has asked the FDA for clarification on this point and plans to publish any news on its website.

The National Restaurant Association posted a statement on its website advising restaurants to comply with the new FDA gluten-free labeling rule. Without details and guidelines, however, the statement leaves a good deal open to interpretation.

Although it may be some time before the FDA and the restaurant industry work together to clarify exactly how the gluten-free labeling rule will impact restaurant menus, it seems to already be having a significant influence. At the very least, if the rule makes a restaurant like the Cheesecake Factory stop and think about what it is doing with respect to gluten-free claims and cross contact, that is very good news for the gluten-free community. We are looking forward to the Cheesecake Factory’s companywide launch of its gluten-free menu, and hope they will be attentive to the details and open to community feedback.