Up your waiting game! 5 ways to better serve gluten- and allergy-free restaurant-goers

Some restaurants don’t compromise. “No substitutions,” their menus declare, and their waiters seem to think patrons should put up or shut up. Unfortunately, for customers with celiac disease or food allergies, neither option works. Most of us would sooner get up and leave.

Any restaurant is free to choose to lose my business this way. I’m concerned, though, with those that do try to accommodate us. Third-party programs exist to train their staff in safe food service. But judging, for example, from the name of one of the big ones—NFCA’s GREAT Gluten-Free Kitchens—these programs focus primarily (though not only) on the food preparation.

Customers rarely get to meet the chef or peek into the kitchen (though a chef who personally introduces him/herself, and who offers a tour of the kitchen, would be a “great” chef indeed). Though the chef, soux chefs, and line cooks could be doing everything right, we customers have no idea. We interact with the “front of house” crew: the host, the server, the bussers. And it’s there that many restaurants go wrong.

waitress with tray of tacos

Is that a flour tortilla I spy?
Photo © Give2Tech | Flickr

A special menu, though a start, is not enough. We need some special service, too. Waiters and waitresses, try these five service “ups” to get your gluten- and allergy-free guest’s thumbs up.

1) LISTEN UP.

Do this FIRST. Allow me to give you my spiel, even if you just heard the exact same thing two minutes ago from another gluten-free customer who has read the same eating-out advice that I have. I need to feel like you’re not only hearing me, but listening to me, so try a nod or two and a serious expression (not a smirk—practice in the mirror). Don’t cut me off to say, “We know all about that here.” You may mean to project confidence and competence, but instead you sound dismissive or condescending. And perhaps you missed this day in kindergarten, but it’s rude to interrupt.

2) SPEAK UP.

Remember, this comes after you’ve listened. Tell me you understand—unless you don’t, in which case ask. Explain which items are gluten-free, and which can be made gluten-free with modifications. Tell me what your restaurant staff does to avoid cross-contamination with gluten. Tell me that you will inform the kitchen of my needs. Don’t tell me, “If it’s marked gluten-free, they know to avoid contact.” That’s BS. No way is the kitchen taking extra precautions every time someone orders hummus just because hummus has a “gluten-free” asterisk on the menu.

3) ’FESS UP.

This can happen in place of #2, if, post-spiel, you feel you can’t accommodate me. Trust me: I’d rather know. I’ll go somewhere else, or sit without eating. Either way, we’ll get along better. This can also happen at any point throughout the meal, if something goes wrong. If a piece of bread went onto my plate, tell me they’re making a new one so my food will be late. I won’t blame you; I’ll appreciate it.

Italian waiter carrying tray of subs

“Hang on…this might not be quite what you ordered.”
Photo © Stephen Wu | Flickr

4) KEEP IT UP.

The game isn’t over with the order. Ideally, the same server who took my order would bring the food, and note, “This is the gluten-free such-and-such.” (That’s the time to demonstrate your steel-trap memory, by the way, not while taking the order.) For a real gold star, bring out my food in a separate trip from dishes containing gluten, especially bread. I get it, you can carry seventeen trays at once with a wine bottle on your head. But show off your octopoid dexterity to someone else. Don’t carry my gluten-free babaganoush underneath a plate of crumb-shedding pita.

5) FOLLOW UP.

Give me a chance to provide feedback. Ask how everything is, and practice #1 while I’m answering. If something went wrong, try to fix it—as you’d do for any other customer.

All of these “ups” require one important “down”: slow down. Servers need to take the time to properly communicate with me and with the rest of the staff, who in turn need to take the time required to make and serve the food safely. To do it right, the pace has to be slower. (I’ve proven this to myself every time I’ve tried to cook in a shared kitchen.)

I get that this isn’t a popular request. Servers may imagine every moment they spend with one customer as a moment in which a different customer is tapping his fork, waiting to give his dessert order, and scaling down his intended tip. But I’m not asking for a lot of time. I’m asking for what would, over the course of a meal, amount to an additional minute per step (or less): time that wouldn’t unduly impact other customers’ experience, but would infinitely improve mine.

waiters race

Although waiters’ races do in fact exist, and look like fun, I’m more impressed with slow and steady.
Photo © Gwenaël Piaser | Flickr

I rarely eat out, but while visiting my brother in DC this weekend, I tried several restaurants listed in Find Me Gluten-Free. We went to Busboys & Poets, Rasoi Indian Kitchen, and Cava Mezze. All of them had gluten-free menus, but my satisfaction varied, largely based on service.

Until more servers brush up on these tips, I’ll be eating at home, where I can source and cook my food exactly the way I like it, not worry about communicating with strangers, and throw all the dishes in the dishwasher when I’m done.

Now that’s what I call service.

Tell me your favorite tips for waiters and waitresses, and your best and worst restaurant experiences. If you are a waiter or waitress, I’d love to hear how you interact with gluten- and allergy-free guests, and what you’ve learned from it.

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20 thoughts on “Up your waiting game! 5 ways to better serve gluten- and allergy-free restaurant-goers

  1. Mary Kate says:

    I have to admit, I’m not always my own best advocate, but yes, feeling listened to and taken seriously would help a great deal.

  2. cav513 says:

    As a former waiter, I appreciate this! Learning to make a diner feel attended to doesn’t require a lot of time, but it does require timing. One of the things we learned is that getting an order right away isn’t all that important, but acknowledging a newly seated table’s presence is: within 40 seconds a waiter needs to stop by, ideally with a glass of (thankfully, gluten-free) water and a “Thanks for coming today, I’ll be back to take your order shortly”. The weird thing about restaurants, is that they operate, almost without exception, in rifts in the time continuum…right after 40 seconds comes 5 minutes, and then 30 minutes. But a glass of water and quick word can restore the time line so that 41 s comes after 40!

    • Molly says:

      That’s great advice. I had no idea the normal rules of physics didn’t apply in restaurant world but I suppose it makes sense. Must be why we always feel so much heavier leaving them, too. You know, something to do with gravity. 😛

  3. Casey says:

    Great list! There definitely needs to be a change in the food industry – all of the responsibility to eat safely gluten free shouldn’t rest on our shoulders.

  4. thepatientceliac says:

    I was in DC for a conference last year and went out with my friend for a lazy Sunday brunch. We went to a diner that was listed as having GF options on the internet. I spoke with both my server and the manager, explaining that I had to not only be served food that was free of wheat/gluten, but that I couldn’t eat anything prepared on a shared surface. They assured me I would be fine and that my food would be prepared on separate equipment.
    Our plates were brought to our table and I was just about to take my first bite when one of the cooks came running out of the kitchen, yelling “Don’t eat that!” to me. It ends up that my omelet had been made on the same surface as a flour tortilla (or something like that).
    Bad experience b/c I almost got glutened.
    But good experience b/c it was prevented at the last minute.
    We ended up leaving and we did not have to pay and we went down the street to a fabulous little place where I was able to eat GF safely (I can’t remember the name, but it is down the street from the Omni Hotel, on a corner).

    • Molly says:

      Geez! That’s too bad and must have been stressful, but I’m glad the cook came out just in the nick of time. Next time I’m in the area I’ll go lurk around the Omni Hotel and try to find the better place. 🙂

  5. russtourant says:

    Molly, great article! My cousin is celiac, my mom is paleo, and I’ve dealt with the worst of Vegans in my day. I agree with you whole heartedly, and also with the gentleman above who explained the space/time continuum within the walls of a restaurant. I work with it on a daily basis, it’s my life’s work. With that said, remember that their are few of us or who make it like that on purpose. The problem I’ve found with people not learning their menu’s and taking allergies seriously are because it isn’t their bread-winning job or they are just stupid. My best advice is if you aren’t totally satisfied with how your server is communicating with you about the menu, ask for manager, because any good one is required to know the menu, inside and out, just as any kitchen employee. 🙂

    • Molly says:

      That totally makes sense. It’s unfortunate that waiters and waitresses are in a position to do real harm to their customers but don’t think of their jobs as a weighty responsibility, but of course they wouldn’t necessarily, if they were young or simply working the job for a paycheck, or, as you say, just stupid. The one manager I spoke to over the phone at the start of my whirlwind weekend of dining out was incredibly educated about their menu and practices and made me feel totally safe going to that restaurant…unfortunately no one else was that confidence-inspiring!

  6. […] Given that I’ve had restaurant training on the brain, I have some questions about GREAT I hope to ask. If there’s anything you’d like to know, let me know. […]

  7. […] Up your waiting game! 5 ways to better serve gluten- and allergy-free restaurant-goers (spruestory.com) […]

  8. PaulaCooper says:

    Wow Molly! This could be an advertisement for the Dine Aware experience. Addressing exactly those issues on a consistent basis is exactly why I created the company. I say it a lot…menus don’t come with a side of confidence. Great, well-written, informative article (even if it isn’t an ad for my company – haha). Cheers!

    • Molly says:

      Thanks so much, Paula. I’m glad you enjoyed the article and also glad that folks like you are out there working to get restaurants to adopt these habits. In my opinion, it’s really important to have people within restaurants working on our behalf, because advocating for ourselves only goes so far. Not to just keep hitting you with links to my own writing (!) but I also wrote about this here, focusing on how to convince more chefs to adopt gluten-free/allergy-free safety procedures.

      • PaulaCooper says:

        Hey Molly…love your articles and advocacy. Great info!

        The key for me (us) is informed decision making. The only way we can ‘advocate’ for ourselves as they expect is if establishments are proactive with their information and training, 100% of the time. This is at the heart of Dine Aware.

        Obviously, my goal is to have establishments commit to Dine Aware. 😉 If you ever wanted to chat more about what we do and how we plan to do it please let me know. I’d be happy to schedule a call to fill you in.

        • Molly says:

          Thanks again, Paula! I was reading your blog today too and it sounds like we’re really on the same page. Great stuff. 🙂 I’d love to chat about Dine Aware. I’ll get in touch via email.

  9. […] trouble spots therein) might be put to a good cause raising awareness in the restaurant industry. I’ve written about this topic myself, but geez! I’m a Gemini; I can’t be expected to stay interested long enough to DO […]

  10. […] could name a single gluten-containing grain other than wheat. That’s one test I wish chefs (and waiters, too) would invest a little time and energy prepping […]

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