Gluten-free options were once limited to a small selection of dry sandwiches, or at best, a mealy cookie. But chefs have tapped into the growing customer base, which has high expectations when it comes to expansive options.

According to a 2019 report published by the Medical Journal of Australia, 11 per cent of Australians were following a gluten-free diet. Further to that, a study conducted by Mordor Intelligence found the gluten-free food and beverages market in Australia is predicted to register 7.8 per cent annual growth between the forecast period of 2020 to 2025.

The numbers are hard to ignore, and chefs have come to discover gluten-free products have come a long way. With some experimentation and a bit of cost-benefit analysis, it’s possible to create products that appeal to a mainstream audience.

Most people are partial to a sweet treat, and gluten-free pastries have burgeoned in popularity in recent years.

Hospitality talks to The Windsor Hotel’s Pastry Chef Felix Goodwin and Dom Marzano from Eat Cannoli about how they are creating products that tick all the boxes.

The Windsor Hotel in Melbourne sits at the upper end of Collins Street; it’s an area that attracts a certain standard of hospitality options. For their latest venue offering, The Windsor Hotel engaged Felix Goodwin, a pastry chef with extensive experience at Melbourne restaurants including Donovans, Saigon Sally and Sunda.

The yet-to-be-named bakery will soon open on the street-facing corner of the hotel and will specialise in high-quality pastries, cakes and coffees. It will also be entirely gluten-free.

“I know we’re calling it a gluten-free bakery, but from an outside point of view, I don’t want it to be known for that,” says Goodwin. “We want to create a product and an experience that’s highlighting the quality of the ingredients. It’s a gluten-free bakery second.

“The gluten-free element is a highlight for a lot of people, but you don’t have to be gluten-free to enjoy it. You’re not going there for a product that has been compromised to be gluten-free.

“There are products that are gluten-free, dairy-free and nut-free, and they miss out on what they could be; I just want to focus on the one dietary. I’d prefer to have a great product that’s gluten-free than a substandard one that is gluten-, dairy- and nut-free.”

The approach to gluten-free-second baking is indicative of a new wave of bakeries
that want to be known for products that aren’t purely rated on how many dietary requirements they meet.

Eat Cannoli in the Melbourne suburb of Preston is owned and operated by husband-and-wife duo Dom and Kate Marzano. Similarly to Goodwin, the pair wants to provide a product that is comparable to anything else on the market and caters to a gluten-free customer base.

“I don’t think it’s okay anymore to say, ‘It’s like that because it’s gluten-free’. Sometimes people have a preconception that it’s going to be a certain way because it’s gluten-free, but then when they eat our products, they can’t believe how nice they are,” says Dom Marzano.

“It takes time to develop, but I didn’t want to create products that were gluten-free and sit on my hands saying, ‘It is how it is’. I still want it to be the best product you can buy, and we work really hard at keeping it that way.”

It goes without saying that creating high-quality gluten-free pastries is more time consuming and labour-intensive than following the standard baking rulebook, which goes a way towards explaining why gluten-free bread has developed a reputation for having a dry mouth-feel and a lack of flavour.

But with a bit of experimenting, the results can equal — if not surpass — traditional counterparts. For both Marzano and Goodwin, it’s been a process of learning the regular rules of pastry inside out, and then breaking them. Although the results have taken a while to perfect, the results have paid off.

“You’ll often start with what’s out there,” says Goodwin. “I’ll look at the gluten recipe and the gluten-free recipe and see what’s different. As long as you understand the process behind the recipe and the different steps, you can work out if there are better ways to do it or experiment with different flours.

“Baking is often just about creating the right balance of flours for specific recipes. The gluten recipes often use gluten in different elements of the recipe and sometimes not at all. You’ll often be working on a protein level, on a fibre level and on a starch level — those are the element you’re playing with.

“After that, you’ve got taste. For example, if you’re using a pea protein, the product is going to have a really strong flavour, so it’s about balancing out the flavours you’re putting in so they don’t hinder the outcome of the product.”

To offset the labour costs of the experimentation process, Marzano and Goodwin have focused on making a few products well, rather than trying to do everything at once. While the core offering of Goodwin’s gluten-free bakery will be canelé, babka, cookies, madeleines, cakes and sourdough, Marzano is focusing on creating cannoli, piadina and brioche.

As a result, the customers have been flowing in. There’s an appreciation for the gluten free element, but there’s also an appreciation for artisans specialising in a handful of products and doing them better than their competitors.

“Before we opened our permanent shop front, we put our names up for a few market events and people loved what we were doing; they loved that it was gluten-free and we were selling a lot because the quality was so good,” says Marzano.

“It was pretty much decided then and there that it was going to stay gluten-free. We thought we may as well get Coeliac Australia accreditation, and we did. After
the certification, we ended up finding it was our strength. It drew a lot of people to our shop because they were interested in what we were doing.”

For anyone thinking of pivoting their approach to capture the growing gluten-free
customer base, another obvious consideration is cost. While customers generally expect to absorb some of the cost of alternative products — whether it’s a gluten-free babka or an oat milk coffee — there’s a balance that needs to be struck if you want to retain a regular client base.

“The cost of ingredients is definitely more expensive; it’s sometimes eight times more expensive,” says Marzano. “The cost of a kilo of gluten-free flour compared to regular flour on a commercial scale is sometimes six or seven dollars. And sometimes you have to factor that into the cost of the goods. We try not to as much as we can, but it can be really difficult with some products. You just need to work within your price point and keep it so that it’s still affordable.”

For Goodwin, the balance has been struck by creating equilibrium between products with low and high margins. While some products necessitate a mark-up, others can be passed onto the customer without too much of a sting.

“The cost is considerably higher with some items, but we hope to offset that with things like a canelé or a donut, which have more accommodating margins,” he says. “If we can balance our sales, we hope to be able to balance out those margins as well. So with something like the sourdough, we won’t have to sell it at a ridiculous markup just to make profit because there are other items that even it out for us.”

As with any other sector within the industry, it comes down to quality. Just as customers expect to spend more at a fine-dining restaurant than they do at a casual establishment, they are also willing to fork out extra dollars for artisanal products that require an added amount of labour.

“I know that sometimes people just look at the costing then try to produce a low-cost item, but you can’t expect people to pay for that,” says Marzano. “People do expect to pay a bit more if they’re buying a gluten-free product, but that’s why it’s important you give them the best quality you can.

Not only are they paying a bit more for something because it’s gluten-free, but also
because of how much better it is.”