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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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A revised hygiene hypothesis (with tips for the hypothetical slob)

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Photo © pfly | Flickr Creative Commons

Researchers, as you likely know, are eager to learn why food allergies, gluten intolerance, and celiac disease appear to be on the rise. Many are fond of the hygiene hypothesis, which states, in a nutshell, that decreased early exposure to bacteria—i.e., being too clean as babies—predisposes us to all kinds of autoimmune and allergic BS.

I’m fond of this hypothesis, too. I’ve been known to turn down offers of hand sanitizer, citing it as my reason. Still, I propose that it is incomplete. The full hypothesis should read:

Good hygiene may cause celiac disease, but bad hygiene keeps it strong. 

We all know this on a basic level, and some people don’t even seem all that blown away by it. I’ll mention, shuddering, that having this disease means I’ll need to wipe down countertops for the rest of my life, and they stare at me as though wiping down countertops were something they’d always done. People diagnosed with celiac disease who know how to wield a sponge are lucky; they’re one step closer to good health. But those diagnosees who trend toward the slovenly side must cultivate a neat streak, and (as you may recall from my ode to mess) it’s a heavy leaf to overturn in a day! I would contend that a leading cause for a lack of response to a gluten-free diet, right up there with non-adherence, is poor hygiene.

Sloppy sufferers who have spent weeks on a strict diet and still feel ill may need to look beyond the standard “sneaky gluten” hiding places. For these hypothetical sufferers, I’ve taken the liberty of compiling a list of additional warnings. Please keep in mind that the below suggestions are intended to address a strictly hypothetical celiac patient.

  • If you bite your nails or put your hands to your mouth, you may be picking up traces of gluten. This is especially likely if you don’t tend to make a specific point of cleaning under your fingernails.
  • If you were accustomed to eating breakfast at your computer before diagnosis and if you ever dropped a Cheerio (or several) onto your keyboard, you might be picking up cereal residue every time you touch said keyboard. If you then put your hands to your mouth—say, if you have continued to eat breakfast at your computer—you might be ingesting particles of gluten.
  • If you are a green type who carries your groceries home in a tote bag, and if you have also eaten a hunk of apple cake out of said tote bag on the subway, and if you happen to have not washed that tote bag since before diagnosis, you might be ingesting cake crumbs that are stuck to your potatoes (if you aren’t the most finicky ever about washing your produce).
  • If you have been known to wipe your hands on your jeans when no napkin was available, and if you happen to have not washed those jeans since before diagnosis, and if you continue to use said jeans as a napkin and then put your hands in your mouth, you might be ingesting traces of—really, who knows what at this point.
  • If you are partial to eating in bed, and if you don’t fret too much over dropping crumbs in said bed, and if you haven’t washed your sheets since before diagnosis, and if you bite your nails or put your hands to your mouth in your sleep, your dream about eating cookies may not be so far off from reality.
  • If you drop a fork on the floor and if you decide to use it anyway without washing it first, and if you haven’t swept your floor since—charitably speaking—before diagnosis, you may be consuming forkfuls of gluten.
  • If you have always been an unrepentant slob, and if you haven’t yet changed your ways, and if you still feel sick as a dog, you might want to think about quitting your nail biting and doing a few loads of laundry. One way or another, it’ll probably do you good.

Like I said, this post is all about hypotheses and hypotheticals. The above list is not even a little connected to my personal life. However, you may be interested to know that I did recently quit biting my nails and do a few loads of laundry. Before sitting back down at the computer to eat breakfast.

If you have more hygiene suggestions or tough love for the aforementioned hypothetical celiac patient, feel free to include them in your comments!

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