One of the unique challenges of adhering to the gluten free diet is dining at restaurants. You’d think that because Celiac patients have such serious reactions to consuming gluten that restaurants would be well prepared to deal with such clients due to liability. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. People with Celiacs do not react immediately nor necessarily apparently. This delayed reaction is, in essence, a get-out-of-jail-free card for restaurants.
Saying the words “peanut allergy” in a restaurant is quite similar to saying “bomb” at an airport. Immediately the waitstaff begin to listen more carefully, you can watch as they make a large asterisk next to your order on their notepad. I hope that one day people with Celiacs will elicit the same response out of waiters, but for now our burden is to learn how to effectively communicate what we need and why we need it in an efficient and persuasive manner.
I don’t mean to sound like a cynic, but the reason that restaurants are so careful with nut allergies is not, typically, out of compassion, it is out of fear. Liability is REAL. We live in an incredibly litigious society. Luckily, this fear of lawsuits can serve as a great motivator. From my experience, nothing screams lawsuit more than snail mail.
Sending a letter to a restaurant that has “glutened” you can help change the way that restaurant responds, in the future, to customers who cannot eat gluten. I have had several experiences now where a letter has resulted in a dialogue with mangers and owners about Celiac customers and what they can do to improve. At one restaurant near my home in North Hollywood, the manager instituted a new policy that all GF meals must be on a different colored plate so that chefs and waiters do not ever get confused. Colored plates solve the problem of “chain of custody.” For example, you order a salad to be prepared GF, your waiter sends that order in to the chef who prepares the meal accordingly, another waiter then goes to deliver the meal and realizes the chef “forgot” to add the croutons so he grabs a handful to complete the order before delivering it to you.
I am not saying you should threaten litigation, what I am saying is that any time a customer sends a letter accusing a restaurant of bad and/or hurtful service they will respond due to fear of potential future litigation threats. Sending a letter explaining what happened and why you are displeased can go a long way towards changing the restaurant industry.
What should a letter contain?
1. The date and time you were at the restaurant
2. Details of your experience (waiter’s name or description, what and how you ordered, any dialogue that occurred between you and the waitstaff)
3. What about the meal was not gluten free (cross-contamination? an ingredient? did the waiter have wrong information about a dish?)
4. Explain why it is important (what happened to you as result of your expereince at this restaurant)
5. Encourage a response (say you would like to speak with them further about your experience and what they can do to make it sure doesn’t happen again)
You can check out letters that I have written to managers and owners of several restaurants over the years and you can see their responses. I have had a 100% response rate and, in 90% of my experiences, the owner or manager sent me another follow-up letter explaining what steps they took to improve their service.
Being “glutened” is, in all honesty, a victimizing experience that can weigh over you physically and mentally for weeks. Letters are empowering, the perfect antidote to nonphysical effects of unwillingly consuming gluten.