Gluten-Free Dining: We Don’t Really Want to Be “Special”
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.
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).
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.
Learn more about NFCA’s gluten-free restaurant training program: GREAT Kitchens