The Savvy Celiac asks “Are gluten-free menus all they’re cracked up to be?”
I read a terrific thread of comments on LinkedIn the other day. A page called “Celiac Handbook: Living and Loving the Gluten-Free Life” had a great discussion about how readers felt about the slew of restaurant gluten-free menus. The post was started by Amy Leger of the Savvy Celiac (www.thesavvyceliac.com) and, in my opinion, had some very surprising comments, which is why I asked her permission to reprint them here. To see the original LinkedIn page and add your comments, click here.
Here’s what the thread looks like so far (names and a few irrelevant comments omitted):
Gluten Free Dining Out: A Love-Hate Relationship by thesavvyceliac.com. I love it when restaurants have gluten-free menus. But I hate it when things go wrong with the meal. It seems to happen more often these days to us– is it happening to you? Tell us your experience in a survey.
SP: I own a pizza restaurant. My mother talked me into making her a gluten free pizza and the rest is history. My gf menu is the same as my pizza menu. It’s one of the most comprehensive gf menus anywhere. And we do it right. Even my gf help is celiac.
ER: I find the privately owned restaurants, like Steve’s place (and I’m not pushing Guido’s, I don;t even know where it is!), are doing a really good job. Unfortuantley the typical national restaurant GF menu consists of salads, steak, vegtables, potatos and for desert, ice cream! Yippeee!!! Not really trying too hard are they?
KL: I think too many restaurants have gluten free menus that aren’t really gluten free. Reading a large disclaimer saying that they cross-contaminate and their suppliers regularly change their ingredients doesn’t make me want to eat there. Restaurants with fake gluten-free menus just cater to those who are on the fad diet as opposed to those with celiac disease, as having absolutely clean surfaces and utensils is a must. I appreciate those restaurants that have a gluten-free menu and take the diet very seriously, though. Gluten-free certification also draws in business as well.
JN: I think it’s great that there are more restaurants who offer gluten-free options. Unfortunately, many “gluten eaters” just don’t understand cross-contamination. And how the smallest bit of gluten can make a Celiac sick -for days. Many places believe if they offer food made with gluten-free ingredients, that’s all there is to it. It’s frustrating to try to explain cross-contamination to “gluten eaters” but if we don’t try we’ll all be eating at home.
AG: The cross-contamination issue is huge for me when I eat out. Some restaurants are very meticulous about using separate bowls, utensils, etc. for gluten-free food. However, if a restaurant and/or server doesn’t understand the issue you may well find yourself reacting to whatever contaminants touched your plate, utensils or the pots and plans they cook with. Also, the issue of those who just want to eat gluten-free because they choose to as opposed to celiacs who absolutely must eat that way is a problem. You have to make sure your server understands that it is absolutely a health issue that you must adhere to. But what goes on in the kitchen may be beyond their control unless they inform a chef who is well versesd in the ways of G-F cooking. Additionally, I have seen many supposed G-F menus that just tell you what to delete from an item to make it G-F (and often pretty unappealing).
HDH: Yes, cross contamination is still a concern and all Celiacs need to keep educating us all. Start with your family and they too can help the cause. But it is a start in the right direction. At least these restaurants have heard the words GLUTEN FREE- its a step.
RA: Having had a gluten free baking company for almost 6 years and being a chef for 30 when I opened [my cafe], gluten had already been a major part of our world. My staff is trained in the GREAT program (I actually helped design the program) which is offered through the NFCA. We actually reverse-engineered the menu where the ingredients were sought out to be gluten free FIRST. We do offer glutenous breads and rolls but they are in their own dedicated area with color coded utensils, squeeze bottles and such.
HDH: Certainly your comments are valid, some restaurants do a good job of serving gluten free meals others don’t, often it’s the staff or training that is at fault. Many of the chains do a fairly good job. If you can find a restaurant that serves only gluten free food, great, but that’s usually not possible. So what is the next best option? For people who travel for work what is the answer? Often chain restaurants will be fairly consistent in their ability to serve GF food. So stay away from the big M, but P.F. Changs usually gets good reviews.
PFS: I have enjoyed finding restaurants with GF menus only to be dissapointed that they increased the pricing of the menu because it is a “specialty”. I told one waiter that I would order the fish tacos from the main menu as it was exactly the same as on the GF menu at half the price. I think some restaurants think people go Gluten Free because it is the “thing to do” when the majority of the population has to be on a GF diet or they die- point blank. I wish I was given a raise in my salary when I was diagnosed with Celiac so that I could keep up with the pricing at the restaurants. I have found more locally owned restaurants have kept their pricing very reasonable and will continue to frequent their business, but the national chains will not be seeing much of me. Wish they would really understand what it is like having Celiac and trying to find a delicious, satisfying meal at a decent price :).
CK: Training, training and more training is required. Turnover in the food service industry means that restaurants have to make a serious commitment to training to do GF safely. Even then there are mistakes. Then the continual review of their ingredient sources is important. I am spending 2 full days with a restaurant group doing audits of the processes and procedures they have already put in place in order to say they are accredited as a Gluten-Free Food Service. It is an intense time but if a restaurant is really committed they will commit to 3rd-party audits by qualified people. (I am not the only auditor here for 2 days – boy have they asked for a heavy dose of external over sight!) But in my opinion it is what makes chain and large restaurants more safe and their GF menus credible. I personnally would rather see a restaurant do naturally GF items on their menu than necessarily try to bring in GF products they dont know how to handle. GF options on an existing menu are a first step to trying to add other options. We should be thankful they are trying.
Are you as surprised as I by these comments? I guess I would’ve thought there would be a lot more enthusiasm for GF menus. Not that the commenters weren’t grateful, but they obviously showed concern that many restaurants may simply add a GF menu and think they’ve covered all the bases, without training about cross-contamination and other issues. Are they doing it simply to bring in the “casual gluten-free” crowd? Certainly a possibility… and a concern. I think KL’s and CK’s comments about gluten-free certification may be the most important. Maybe that is the “true” way of differentiating the casual GF restaurant versus the more serious one.
I know Amy would like to have you share your thoughts on her page (linked at the top) and I would also love to read any comments here. Do you share the concerns of some of the posters? Have you had great or concerning experiences at restaurants with GF menus? Click on Reply or Comments below.
I would also like to mention that AllergyEats is currently a partner with the Gluten Intolerance Group in designating all GFRAP-certified restaurants on the AllergyEats main site. When a user runs a restaurant search for a given location, the results table will show the GFRAP logo in the far right Information column if that restaurant has been certified.
AllergyEats also displays its proprietary “allergy-friendliness” ratings as well, and the gluten-free menus of certain restaurants. Please check out the site and consider helping increasing its value for the whole food allergy and intolerance community by rating your personal restaurant experiences. It only requires answering 3 questions (with an optional comment box) and can take as little as a minute. Click here to go to AllergyEats (www.allergyeats.com) now.