Is the increasingly ubiquitous gluten-free trend screwing things up for Italian restaurant chains? According to Nation's Restaurant News, "it's a tough time for any chain that sells a lot of noodles." NRN cites recent sales slumps for companies like Macaroni Grill (same-store sales down 8.5 percent), Bravo Cucina Italiana (down 6.7 percent), and Brio Tuscan Grille (down 5.2 percent), and also point to Olive Garden's recent, very public struggles.
NRN also references a 2013 study by market researchers NPD Group indicating that "a third of consumers are trying to cut down on gluten." A more recent NPD report shows that "11 percent of consumers follow a gluten-free diet," and that "only a quarter of those living in a gluten-free household ... do so because of celiac disease."
Perhaps Olive Garden execs should blame the gluten-free sect for losing their private jet privileges. In the meantime, forward-thinking chefs like Del Posto's Mark Ladner are staking their claims on the continued popularity of gluten-free diets; Ladner's much-talked-about Pasta Flyer project aims to bring high-quality gluten-free pasta to the masses.