Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Are Gluten-free Restaurant Goofs Growing?

Recently, I was told about some very odd mistakes that restaurant staffers made at places with printed gluten-free menus. While nothing happened to make anyone sick, the mistakes are so strange that I’m compelled to share them. Most people know that just because someone hands you a gluten-free menu doesn’t mean they understand what gluten is. It’s up to gluten-free diners to ask the right questions and determine what the staff does or doesn’t know. The exception is when you’re a regular customer and the staff writes gluten-free on your ticket before you can ask them to.  

The first goof was at a national chain that has American cuisine and a gluten-free menu that includes a killer brownie dessert. At a location in Kentucky, a gluten-free diner was told by the server that everything on the menu was gluten-free. The customer knew that was not the case and asked the server to go ask someone for help. The server came back and nicely apologized that he was mistaken – the hamburger buns, pasta and other various things were not gluten-free.

The next week, the same customer was in Atlanta at another national chain that has a gluten-free menu. The place specializes in burgers and has gluten-free French fries. The server at that place said the fries were not gluten-free even though they are clearly listed on the gluten-free menu. The customer was a regular and had enjoyed fries there for over two years. After an awkward conversation, the server left the table to find out about the safety of the fries. They returned to the table to report that the fries were gluten-free, but only as of that day. Unlike the server in Kentucky, this server was not particularly friendly and didn’t want to admit they had made a mistake.

In both of the above cases, there was no harm done, but that is because the customer knew more about the gluten-free options at the restaurants they were visiting than the servers assigned to their table. At both places, the managers and/or the people making the food knew the fries were gluten-free at the burger place and that not everything on the menu was gluten-free at the other establishment. That is really what mattered – or is it?

Let’s say that someone new to the gluten-free diet goes to either place and has the same experience. Seasoned gluten-free diners would know that incorrect information was being shared with them, but newbies would not necessarily be so informed. At the place where everything here is gluten-free” (except that it’s not), the customer might just get excited and order a whole lot of gluten dishes and pay the consequences later. I’ve been to a gluten-free restaurant and overheard people at tables next to us ask the servers if everything is really gluten-free. People who are not expecting to hear that news are shocked, to say the least.

At the place where the uninformed server insisted that that fries were not gluten-free, someone would just go without fries that in fact, were safe to consume. This would not cause anyone to get sick which is a good thing. But if the person went there because someone told them the fries were gluten-free and they didn’t get to order them in the end, they might not ever go back to the place. How is that good for business?

It’s exciting to have more gluten-free dining options than we can possibly even try, but it can be exhausting to play twenty questions with a server at a place that promotes their gluten-free menu. I feel like it’s my responsibility to know what gluten-free means and it’s the restaurant’s responsibility to know what is gluten-free at their establishment. At least someone there needs to be informed and it would be nice if the servers had some knowledge about the gluten-free menu where they work. If that isn’t the case, the place should not state that they can accommodate gluten-free diners, period.



  1. Unfortunately the same thing is happening here in New York City. An NYC Celiac Meetup member recently told me she got really sick after eating at a GFRAP restaurant. This wasn't the first time either. The staff said they would investigate but she really got no answers.

    It really is up to the consumer to be diligent about asking and reasking questions to both the waitstaff and management. Even though, you can not be guaranteed a gluten-free meal but at least you would have done your due diligence.

  2. Hi Erin! I agree that at least if you know what you're doing, you can ask the right questions. I just think there are more people out there eating gf to be trendy than those of us that can't eat gluten and it's not working in our favor when it comes to dining out.


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