Today 1.3 million Brits are following a gluten-free diet, and the free-from market is forecast to grow by more than 40% to £673 million by 2020. It comes as no surprise that food and drink outlets across the country are working hard to claim their piece of the (gluten-free) pie, however sadly many fish and chip shops in the UK are missing out on the lucrative free-from market. Of 533 fish and chip shop venues registered on Coeliac UK’s Venue Guide, just 34 are gluten-free accredited.
One of these is The Real Food Café in Tyndrum, Perthshire, which got ahead of the trend in 2009 and has been serving gluten-free fish and chips for a decade at the gateway to some of Scotland’s prime walking destinations. Catering for gluten-free customers had always been a topic close to the heart of Sarah Heward, who launched The Real Food Café in 2005 in a disused Little Chef. She explains: Some of my family are coeliac and I always felt it was really tough for them because they had such limited options back in 2005 so I was determined to put gluten-free fish and chips on the menu.”
Creating a gluten-free version of a traditionally stodgy, comfort-food dish wasn’t an easy task. Back in 2005, there were very few commercially available gluten-free batters and with low awareness around gluten allergies, Sarah was faced with the added challenge of educating her staff and customers on why it was important for The Real Food Café to go the extra mile.
“People thought it was strange – including the staff,” says Sarah. “Nobody understood it at the time.”
Having tried some of the commercially available gluten-free batters and not being happy with the results, Sarah took matters into her own hands and created one using gram flour. She also purchased a separate fish fryer for gluten-free fish and chips to minimise cross-contamination.
“Gram flour is yellow so gave the correct colour. It was ok but nowhere near the commercial products available just now – it didn’t go as crispy. We tried in a rudimentary way to ensure there was no cross-contamination, but it wasn’t as polished as the process today.”
After plenty of research and trial and error, The Real Food Café developed a reliable, good quality gluten-free fish and chips and began selling the dish in 2009. Since then, the production process has become much more streamlined and sophisticated and today there are separate food handling practices, equipment and storage for gluten-free dishes. In addition, staff undergo thorough training, completing Coeliac UK’s online module as a minimum.
With plenty of high quality, commercially available gluten-free products on the market today, The Real Food Café is spoiled for choice in terms of its gluten-free batter and uses one from Middleton Foods. In addition to its fish and chips, the diner offers gluten-free mushy peas, malt vinegar, soup, salads, overnight oats and home-baked cakes.
Having driven innovation in the field 10 years ago – well before it was a trend – The Real Food Café has established itself as a leader in gluten-free fish and chips. Demand for The Real Food Café’s gluten-free fish and chips has increased considerably over the years, with 2,953 portions sold over the past 12 months, compared to just one or two portions a month in the first year of operations.
Serving 200,000 customers a year, The Real Food Café’s turnover today is approaching £1.5m. Sales of The Real Food Café’s gluten-free items topped £21,000 in 2016, a figure which rose to £26,000 in 2017 and is projected to reach £31,000 in 2018. The majority of these sales are gluten-free fish and chips.
Although gluten-free sales still make up a relatively small percentage of total sales, the additional sales of drinks and dishes purchased by customers who accompany gluten-free customers, drives total estimated revenue up by around four times the figure for gluten-free fish and chips alone.
The Venue achieved its GF accreditation from Coeliac UK in 2014 and has since maintained its A-grade each year. It has also been hugely successful in the FreeFrom Eating Out Awards, which celebrate free-from excellence in the food and drink industry. The eatery took home Gold Awards in the Fish and Chip Shop category in 2017 and 2018 as well as a Gold Award in the Crème de la Crème category this year.
“At The Real Food Café we’re committed to catering for all dietary requirements. Being an inclusive business is something that goes across the board for The Real Food Café – from catering for those customers with access requirements to those with food intolerances,” says Sarah.
“While I had bigger fish to fry in the early days and our gluten-free offer was a slow burn, intuitively it felt right to me. Gluten-free is now a hugely lucrative part of our business and I look forward to continuing to develop our offer in line with the dietary needs of our customers.”