Gluten-Free Dining: We Don’t Really Want to Be “Special”

February 28, 2012 at 10:49 am 7 comments

Last Monday, I decided to step away from my desk for a much needed day off. A mental vacation, a road trip to do a bit of shopping, and lunch with my best gal pal would be the perfect way to spend the day off! After stocking up on herbs and spices at Penzeys and checking out the furniture store sales, I met Kyle at her favorite restaurant.

Kyle and Beckee

Kyle and me

History Note: Kyle and I have been best friends since freshman year in college. People mistake us for sisters because we kind of look alike and think alike. We stood next to each other when we married our mates, and we birthed our babies exactly one week apart. When I was diagnosed with celiac disease, Kyle immediately learned about my diet, figured out how to feed me and threw a dinner party. Over the years, we’ve taken a few ‘girl trips’ where the days consisted of coffee on the patio, shopping, researching fabulous gluten-free dining spots, and ordering everything gluten-free so we could share plates. She is truly a GFBF (gluten-free best friend).

Lunch at the Biltmore

One of our previous "girl trips" - Lunch at the Biltmore

Kyle has been trying to coax me into dining at her favorite restaurant for years. It’s not that I hadn’t eaten there; in fact, I had dined there many times 20 years ago…BC (before celiac). I had not stepped foot inside since because they didn’t offer gluten-free options until recently, and I had been leery of dining there before important business trips or meetings for fear of possible cross-contamination. I just couldn’t take a chance.

So I decide, what the heck, it was close by and they have dynamite salads. How can they screw up a salad, right? Plus, it’s a Monday and surely they won’t be that busy. Plus, Kyle knows the owner/chef and staff well, and I was curious about their gluten-free menu.

I arrive to a packed room. Kyle waves to me from the bar where we plan to sit. After hugs and catching up, we ask for menus. Kyle asks for the gluten-free menu before I do…she’s so excited. We wait.

Eventually, the bartender comes back and spouts off the daily specials. We ask for the gluten-free menu again. He turns away, digs under a pile of menus, and puts it in front of me. Laminated and single-sided, it lists about ten choices. Salads and entrees were listed with instructions about what to leave off the dish. No prices, no restaurant logo, no description of the dish, no GREAT Kitchens seal either, but I knew that wasn’t going to be there – they haven’t gone through our gluten-free training.

I had a bad feeling. It was a busy lunch, I could see the kitchen staff hustling, and I had a gluten-free menu that didn’t really give me much guidance or confidence in the outcome.

Kyle looks at my menu and offers hers with colorful descriptions and prices to help me choose a few options to investigate. She waves over the owner, asks me to dig out a business card, and makes an introduction. (Kyle is extremely proud of me. She’s the one who gave me confidence and support to start a gluten-free consulting business 5 years ago, which lead to my dream job with NFCA.) With a smile, she hands him the card and says, “This is my dear friend who works for the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. She is the director of a program called GREAT Kitchens.” The owner took a look at my card and replied, “So, am I under investigation?”

Was he kidding? He didn’t look like he was kidding. Did he need to be investigated? We laugh it off, and I ask for some help choosing lunch. The tortilla strips on the salad are fried in the same oil as breaded foods, but the menu doesn’t mention it. The grill does not have bread products cooked on it – good news. The salad dressing ingredients…I can tell by his face he isn’t really interested in sharing the recipe. I order the grilled salmon salad with vinegar and oil on the side. I notice the owner pop his head into the kitchen to possibly alert the staff.

Our salads arrive in front of us. They are fine. We eat. We pay the bill. We leave. Hugs and back on the road.

Driving home, I just felt terrible. I had an hour to stew over what had just happened. I wanted to cry because I just felt awful. My food was fine. No cross-contamination, the salmon was perfectly cooked, the greens were fresh. But I still felt horrible, empty inside. I had just been to a well-known restaurant that many people would give a four star rating for exceptional service, food quality and ambience. Not so much for me…maybe a half a star for their gluten-free guests.

The next morning Kyle called and said, “Have you ever been treated so poorly in all your life? I can’t believe how rudely we were treated. And that menu, how could you call it a gluten-free menu with nothing to help you make good choices? I’ve been getting madder by the minute thinking about it.”

Unfortunately, this wasn’t my first time dealing with restaurants that offer gluten-free options/menus to keep up with the trends but don’t really understand the customer. This past year, restaurants offering gluten-free options rose 61% according to foodservice consulting firm Technomic. Gluten-free guests have made progress in getting the attention of the restaurant industry by requesting options. But we have a long way to go to make sure they understand that special diet customers don’t really want to be special. They want to know that their food is safe and that their needs are understood. They just want to enjoy their lunch with a friend.

– Beckee

Learn more about NFCA’s gluten-free restaurant training program: GREAT Kitchens

Entry filed under: Beckee. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Annsley  |  February 28, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    Great article Beckee! I’m so glad you wrote it. I’ve had so many of the same experiences and though it shouldn’t be that way, it’s nice to hear similar stories and know it wasn’t in your head. It was really nice that Kyle picked up on that, too.

    Thank you for sharing that and all of the work you do on GREAT kitchens that make such a difference in my life!

    Annsley Klehr

    Reply
  • 2. Audrey  |  February 28, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    A much needed posting on a topic that tends to get pushed aside. I’m gluten-resistant (not celiac) and it’s hard to go out sometimes because I don’t want to be difficult. I have had to order two menus, ask about ingredients – wait staff might hate me… 🙂 Anyway, thanks for sharing this.

    Reply
  • 3. Niki  |  February 29, 2012 at 8:39 am

    Great article!!! I feel the same way & have avoided eating at restaurants because of “The Fear; I have been out to eat once in over a year. I have a GFBF, too, and I have to tell you that between her & my husband, I have a great support system! I just wish I wasn’t so terrified to eat at places other than my own home.😦

    Reply
  • 4. Jennifer  |  February 29, 2012 at 8:42 am

    This is a great article, and you are so lucky to have such a great friend. My 9 year old is Celiac, and it’s difficult to take her to a restaurant. I’m always leary of things even if they say gluten free, because who knows what happens back in the kitchen.

    As awareness around Celiac grows, I hope that things get easier for my daughter.

    Reply
  • 5. Diane Mogck  |  February 29, 2012 at 8:51 am

    I read this thinking Wow this is me….I have found 1 area place that have welcomed me with open arms & they have the most wonderful GLUTEN FREE menu and caring staff!!!!! They have a dedicated kitchen & chef-Pasta Pomodora – Voorhees NJ and I love it there BUT why can’t other places offer the same? I am a certified personal trainer, aerobics instructor and sports nutrition consultant and many people mistake my celiac driven menu needs are fueled by some crazy weight loss or diet! I have been told oh you are so picky afraid you’ll gain weight – No I’m afraid I’m causing damage to my intestines, I’ll break out in that awlful burning rash, my stomach will pass all my food right thru me and my spring bloodwork will show low B-12 and other problems!!! Keep the focus on better health for celiac’s – would love to have a job as a spokesperson !!!!
    Sincerely, Diane

    Reply
  • 6. Dorothy  |  February 29, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    I enjoyed reading your article. I went to a restaurant Sunday afternoon and asked for the gf menu before being seated. I was told it could not be found. The man who seated us told me that I could just order off the regular menu, “anything with a leaf”. It is a good thing that I read further and saw that the “leaf” was for low fat. The more I thought about it, the more upset I became and called the next day to let management know that the staff needed a lot more training.
    At least the waitress knew what was on the gf menu.

    Reply
  • 7. MH  |  February 29, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    Hi, Great story. We have just ventured into the GF world 6 months ago with our 3 year old. We live in The Netherlands and GF life is shocking. Foods mostly available at organic stores only (with an incredible limited range and tasting and looking like cardboard). Stocks running our there anyway, so we have been out of her preferred breakfast cereal for weeks now (with toddlre tantrums nearly every morning as a result). Can’t get any basics I want in the town where we live. Going out is another ballgame. People haven’t even heard of CD. They look at you as if you are asking if they have travelled to the moon. We just get a rude, no we don’t have anything but a salad and it may be best to bring your own bread as we don’t stock it as it just goes off and it’s so expensive. SHE IS THREE!!! Would you serve a full bowl of salad to a three year old? She is a great eater which is surprising for what she has been through, but not a bowl of salad. I usually bring my own food as that is even what the restaurants suggest I do anyway (but nowadays we just don’t lunch out much as it’s no fun for her). My heart cries though when I hear how customer unfriendly they are. We have just heard about a nearby restaurant that has GF available and GF bread in store in the freezer, so we will go and check that out for her as apparently it’s very child friendly too. Am so wanting to be involved in raising GF awareness. I too did not know anything about it till our little one had the diagnosis. Life is so much nicer for her now. I wish that for everyone with undiagnosed CD. CD is apparently the most underdiagnosed disease here in The Netherlands. Currently only 1 in 1000 people are being diagnosed. How do we get the drs so clever they start to diagnose more. Where oh where do we start. Once we have more people diagnosed there will be more people asking for GF foods, which means that the availability of GF food should improve and knowledge increased as well. Am sure that awareness issues are a problem everywhere, and this story shows that too. I will do my best to do my bit in the meantime (and everytime we go somewhere we keep asking the question of they have GF food available, even though we know the answer…..)

    Reply

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