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Gluten must be handled appropriately by staff in order to ensure customers with allergies and intolerances have comfortable, safe dining experiences.

Why Handling Gluten Is a Bigger Deal Than You Think

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Staff must be able to confidently answer questions, or restaurants risk losing customers.
By Lindsey Yeakle December 2017 Expert Insights

For those living gluten-free, dining out can be a challenge and potential source of anxiety. While many restaurants have gluten-free (GF) offerings, ensuring that procedures are followed to avoid cross-contamination and that all ingredients used are truly safe is a paramount concern for GF diners, and being able to answer questions in a straightforward and accurate way needs to be part of wait staff training. For example, if a diner with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is asked if it is “a preference,” such a response from a restaurant’s wait staff can raise a red flag concerning whether the food is GF. 

In addition to calling safety into question, asking if GF dining is a preference is also an inappropriate intrusion upon the diner’s privacy regarding their health status. Can you imagine a server asking a guest who orders a “Heart Healthy” menu item if they have a heart condition or diabetes? Whether a diner prefers gluten-free for health reasons or as a personal preference should make no difference to the server or the restaurant.

Ideally, every member of a restaurant’s wait staff should be knowledgeable about their restaurant’s menus and food preparation processes, but that is not always the case. To alleviate their uncertainy, those with celiac disease and NCGS need to know that the restaurants they frequent are attentive to the details of preparing a safe gluten-free meal and therefore will ask a lot of questions. The growing popularity of GF has led many restaurants to want to get on the bandwagon by offering GF options, but often they do not have a complete or accurate understanding of what that specifically entails. In a busy kitchen, attention and care is needed to separate the gluten from non-gluten foods in the preparation stages and even in storage to ensure against cross-contamination.

In restaurants that offer dedicated GF menus, we have found that the ability for a server to answer diners’ questions on gluten-free issues satisfactorily is far less of a problem. The awareness of what can cause gluten contamination and a willingness to follow reasonable guidelines to prevent it is the best defense the restaurant, its staff, and its customers have to avoid any problems. There are third-party GF certification programs that can offer useful and practical advice to implement a true GF menu without having to tear down and rebuild the kitchen.

Servers may also participate in tested and established GF practices, allowing them to confidently answer a diner’s questions about the GF status of dishes. “Yes” or “no” or “Let me go and ask the chef,” are all very appropriate answers and provide the information GF diners are looking for. On the other hand, responses such as, “Well, the menu says it’s gluten-friendly,” or, “It must be OK because we have another gluten-free guest who eats it,” or “I think it’s gluten-free,” are not acceptable. Everyone involved in foodservice in a restaurant should be aware enough of the issue to know if the food either is or isn’t gluten-free.

GF diners frequently must ask questions to make sure what they are going to eat will not make them sick. To be hospitable to these guests, foodservice establishments should do everything they can to ensure their safety. That starts with having in place food preparation procedures and precautions against cross-contamination to make sure food designated as gluten-free truly is gluten-free. It also requires continual training of staff to provide transparent and unambiguous answers to any questions GF diners may have.  

Guests who prefer GF often share information about restaurants with their friends and associates, and word-of-mouth is some of the best advertising a restaurant can have. Restaurants that get it right are sure to win a loyal, appreciative GF clientele.

Lindsey Yeakle, gluten-free food service quality control manager for the nonprofit Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG), has a culinary history working at 4-star and 4-diamond rated restaurants, and she founded Alligator Pear Personal Chef Service. A celiac disease diagnosis encouraged Yeakle to attend culinary school at Indiana University of Pennsylvania Academy of Culinary Arts to learn how to design dishes that delight diners who have all types of dietary needs and restrictions. In June 2016, Yeakle decided to use her background and education to help the gluten-free community by working with GIG.