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Celiac Catalyst — Disney Bullies Gluten Free Child

18 May

What a day for Celiac Awareness!  The web is all a buzz with Gluten Dude’s latest post about a Disney television show plot line where a gluten free character is bullied, mocked and, in my opinion, assaulted.   The Disney Channel show “Jessie,” aired an episode guest starring JJ Totah who plays Stuart. Described as a”9-year-old smart wiz boy” by Wikipedia, Stuart encounters some rough moments in the episode because he is gluten free.

In the episode with the controversial scenes about gluten, Stuart is attending a sleepover at his friend’s house only to find that his dietary needs are mocked and undermined.  Here is the clip posted by Gluten Dude:

 

 

I think it should go without saying that these scenes are abhorrent; however, if things simply go without saying, then I am out of a job!  I cannot believe that Disney would target such an incredible community: the Celiac Kid community.

Anyone who has met a Celiac kid will surely have left with a strong and lasting impression.  When I led the Celiac Disease Foundation’s youth events at last year’s conference I was blown away by the maturity of these kids.  Celiac kids are articulate. They are persistent. They advocate for themselves. They read labels that took me years to master how to decipher.  They explain complicated things to grown ups on a regular basis!

Imagine being the one kid at the birthday party who can’t eat the cake. The one kid who is left out of the pizza party that his class won for selling the most magazine subscriptions. The one kid who reads labels on Halloween candy before trading with friends.  The one kid who had to ask the waitress questions about an order.  Celiac kids are constantly singled out and must learn adapt to complex social situations at a very early age.  We are talking about children who may have spent years sick, weak and tired who have finally discovered what it feels like to be strong and healthy but, the cost to their new found health is a brand new life that seems counter to what all their friends at school experience.

We know the Celiac Kid community is fantastic and it isn’t fair of Disney to target such an inspiring group; however, my criticism of Disney goes much further than simply targeting a great group of kids.

Disney is incredibly litigious. They do not care how big or how small you are, if you infringe upon their copyright they will get you.  Why? Because they care about what products, what people and what words have the Disney name. They care deeply about the quality of products that say “Disney.”  Given this fact, I take extra offense to the absurd display of ignorance and bigotry in their episode of Jessie. Someone at Disney brainstormed the concept, someone wrote the script, someone read the script, edited the script, practiced the script, recited the script, filmed the scripted being read and then edited the film and not once in this process did they stop to think that maybe there was something wrong with the idea of bullying a child with a gluten-related disorder.

A friend, playing devil’s advocate, asked me “Well, CC isn’t the allergy/nerd schtick pretty common for comedy?”

A) No. No it is not.

B) Find an episode of child’s television show post-1995 that has a plot-line where a child with a food allergy is attacked by bullies using the allergen.  I promise you, you will not find a show where some low-life bully spreads peanut butter on the peanut-allergy kid’s desk without his knowing. You know why? Because it isn’t funny. There is nothing funny about children being in pain.

The thing that gets to me the most is the part of the episode where a child throws glutinous pancakes at the gluten free character.  If someone threw anything glutinous at me on purpose, I would lose it.  Honestly, I think that should be considered assault.  Kids cannot think it is ok to play with allergens or bully kids using allergens when Celiac Disease or anaphylactic allergies are involved. If it seemed funny on the show, it will not seem funny once it happens at a real school, with real students and real health issues.  It is so incredibly irresponsible of Disney to treat food allergies and the like so flippantly.

Disney is a huge huge company. It is going to take more than Gluten Dude’s blog post and CC Gluten Freed’s post to make them truly listen.  There is a lot of buzz on Facebook and Twitter and there is an electronic petition going around to get the episode removed from the air but in order to get a reaction we need to make some more noise.

PLEASE SIGN THE PETITION by clicking on this link! If you are willing to put in the time, please contact the company directly by clicking this link. After all, it is Celiac Awareness Month and if none of the things on my list of how to best celebrate the month appealed to you, then this may be your way of contributing to the cause!

The Celiac/gluten free community is so connected and passionate. We need to act together to get a sort of Celiac catalyst effect going. May is Celiac Awareness Month and it is time we start spreading some especially given the nature of this issue. This episode is out there and our kids are watching it and forming opinions about the gluten free community and how they should relate to people who are gluten free (or have any other food-restriction, for that matter).

 

Readers, please don’t feel discouraged or blood-boilingly angry about this! We are so lucky to be a part of such a great community that advocates for itself.  We can support each other and, probably most importantly, support and protect our Celiac kids! I know a lot of gluten free moms, dads, aunts and uncles (mine included) that want awareness efforts that specifically  help the younger Celiacs live healthy and happy lives!

 

Please contact Disney about this issue! If you don’t have time to write a full comment then  just quote via copy and paste parts of this post or Gluten Dude’s post.

 

-CC

The Domino’s Effect

10 May

A Little Bit of History

Domino’s Pizza was founded in 1960 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Today, it is the second-largest pizza chain in the United States (second to Pizza Hut) and has more than 9,000 established franchised stores in the world. An incorporation with a successful foothold in 60 countries has a lot of power over the pizza industry’s reputation and the expectations of consumers with respect to the quality of service that a reputable pizza store should meet.

Domino’s has a history of being the first of its industry to adapt certain unique marketing techniques. For example, in 1973 Domino’s started advertising their 30-minute guarantee to customers. If Domino’s couldn’t deliver the pizza within 30 minutes of ordering, your pizza was free. In the 1980s the offer went from a free pizza to $3 off due to liability issues. Consumers began to speak out about the dangers of the 30-minute guarantee, expressing that it caused the delivery people to engage in unsafe driving. Eventually the 30-minute guarantee advertising campaign was dropped due to political and legal pressures.

What does this history have to do with the new gluten-free pizza crust?  Domino’s has a history of being pizza pioneers when it comes to advertising.  Ironically, the marketing campaigns employed by Domino’s seem to have a domino effect: once Domino’s does it, all of the other chains begin to follow suit.  If history is to repeat itself, I wouldn’t be surprised if more pizza chains not only start offering gluten-free crusts but also follow Domino’s lead with regard to how they offer this new product.

Domino’s Gluten Free Pizza

As most people in the GF and celiac community know, Domino’s started offering a gluten-free pizza crust on May 7, 2012.  Ironically announced during Celiac Awareness Month, the company explicitly stated that this gluten-free pizza is not designed for people with celiac disease.  The pizza crust, in a vacuum, is gluten-free.  What is the catch? Domino’s hasn’t taken any of the necessary precautions to prevent cross-contamination.  In fact, on their website they state “While the Gluten-Free Crust is certified to be free of gluten, the pizza made with the Gluten-Free Crust use the same ingredients and utensils as all of our other pizzas.”

Here is a video that Domino’s made to help get the word out about their new product.

Their advertisement for gluten-free crust starts off by saying “Because we are honest people, here is a disclaimer.”  For the record, a more accurate beginning to their disclaimer would state “Because we are lazy people, here is a disclaimer.” It would simply take a bit more education, training and effort to provide a fairly safe gluten-free option.  At the end of the video ad you hear the narrator saying “Ok, enough already with the disclaimers we are really excited to tell you about our new gluten-free crust…”  Not only is the crust not actually gluten-free but Domino’s goes so far as to dismiss their disclaimer as if it is an irrelevant formality

Issue #1: Gluten Free Labeling Laws

The FDA is close to formally establishing the legal requirements necessary to label a product as gluten free.  Despite being on the books as an issue needing regulation for several years, the FDA has failed to respond to public pressure until now. The FDA only regulates food products but I wonder why the government recognizes that products should be regulated for the gluten-free status but not restaurants that offer similar products.

Government entities like the USDA and FDA protect the US population by regulating highly distributed, manufactured and agricultural food products.  This is important to prevent public health catastrophes related to contaminated food products.

In general, it would not make sense to allocate government resources for regulating restaurants on a federal level because, in the past, if a restaurant had contaminated products or unsafe practices it wouldn’t affect enough people for it to be considered a federal issue. Unfortunately, in the world of chains and franchises, the idea that restaurants only impact their immediate surroundings is no longer true.

In this context we are talking about a pizza company that is located in every single state in this country with over 5,000 individual restaurant locations.  The kitchen ingredients used by Domino’s can affect a large part of the US population and, more relevantly, their institutionalized kitchen protocol can affect people on a population level as well.

If Domino’s wants to offer a gluten free crust they should be subject to some form of regulation since their product is so wide-reaching.  If Domino’s had a kitchen protocol that had all their chains set the ovens to a temperature that consistently undercooked meat, resulting in food poisoning, we would have a national health crisis on our hands.  I don’t know why we are turning a blind eye when it comes to gluten free protocol in the kitchen.

Furthermore, calling their pizza “gluten free” should be considered false advertisement, if not fraud. Their appeal to the gluten free market is abhorrent.  The gluten-free market base is depression-proof and has been consistently and substantially growing for the past 10 years.  You should not be able to con your way into this market. If you take a chicken breast and dredge it lightly in flour before frying it, is this entree gluten free? NO. Is the chicken breast itself gluten free? YES. Similarly, if you have a gluten free pizza crust it is no longer gluten free if you cross-contaminate by preparing it in an environment covered in gluten-based flour (similar to a light dredging, if you will).

Issue #2 Corporate Precent

One of the main reasons that I find Domino’s actions completely unacceptable is because of, what I am calling, corporate precedent.  California Pizza Kitchen started offering a gluten free pizza crust before doing their homework.  They developed a crust but did not research cross-contamination protocol.  As a result, customers complained.  Did CPK slap a disclaimer on their menu and call it a day? No.  CPK pulled the pizza from their menu and started working with the Gluten Intolerance Group to develop a strategy to make their kitchen safe for gluten-free pizza cooking.  Domino’s justifies their lack of concern for cross-contamination by saying that the crust is for gluten intolerant or gluten sensitive consumers. Interestingly, although Domino’s argued that they are catering towards the gluten sensitive population, the Gluten Intolerance Group is the organization that stepped up to help CPK prevent cross contamination.  I really enjoyed this post by Linda who points out that, of all the gluten sensitive people she knows, none of them have “mild” senstiives” and they do not appreciate a contaminated pizza!

                                  

Domino’s has stated that they simply don’t have the kitchen capacity to make a truly gluten free pizza.  It seems reasonable that it might be hard to make a profit if they had to change their kitchen set up for this product.  Then I remember PF Changs, a nationally represented corporate restaurant chain that has successfully created a gluten free menu and has changed their kitchen set up to accommodate safe food preparation.

Before Domino’s the precedents set by various corporations trying to go gluten free have been in favor of trying to prevent cross-contamination. I fear for the gluten free future of the restaurant industry now that such a large and financially successful  company has started saying that it is ok to take the easy way out.

The Bigger Picture

Supply and demand: a fundamental concept in economics.  If consumers demand a certain product, the market will supply it. What happens when the supply and demand get muddled and confused?  Poor products. In response to perceived consumer demands restaurants and food companies are responding by creating “gluten-free” products.  The problem is that the market is not understanding the true nature of the current demand.

Supply is not the issue right now.  There are so many gluten free products on the market.  If current product supply were the issue I would pick up some frozen pizza crusts at Whole Foods, go to Domino’s and ask them to heat it up for me.  What is in need, the demand, is education and awareness.  I don’t need Domino’s to create and produce a tasty recipe for a pizza crust. Udi’s, among other companies, has awesome pizza crust already. What we need is a safe place to dine out 

Empowerment

I want to remind my readers that CPK stopped offering their gluten free pizza until they could establish a safe kitchen environment in response to a letter by a customer.  If you want Domino’s to take accountability then send them a letter (or write them an email) explaining why taking the gluten-free pizza one step further could make a huge difference in your life and in the lives of many other people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.

Here is their mailing address:

Domino’s Pizza LLC
30 Frank Lloyd Wright Drive
Ann Arbor, MI 48106
(734) 930-3030

 

Check out my posts on the importance of writing letters and letter writing tips for advice.

Ultimately, if we want to change the market then we need to change the nature and clarity of our “demand.” The first step to this change? Advocate for yourself.
A note about NFCA

Check out their letter from Alice Bast discussing their involvement with Domino’s Pizza.  NFCA has taken a lot of heat for seemingly endorsing Domino’s.  Domino’s reached out to NFCA to consult about their new gluten free product.  NFCA informed Domino’s that the pizza is not safe for Celiacs and reviewed their ingredient lists and kitchen practices to draw this conclusion.  Although the Amber designation is fairly controversial, it is better than Domino’s advertising their pizza as gluten free without a disclaimer.  Check out this post by Linda from theglutenfreehomemaker.com  about why the amber designation may be a huge step back for the Celiac Community. Without NFCA Domino’s might have simply not let consumers know about the serious cross contamination risks.

-CC

Letter to the owner – Untrained Waitstaff

12 Nov

DISCLAIMER: I will not reveal the name of the restaurant. The point is not to place blame but, rather, to see what happened and how I relay that information in a letter. The restaurant in question took steps to correct these problems and were very cooperative.

Dear Mr. *****:

“Eat at your own risk.”  That is the challenging reality of the life of someone who suffers from Celiac Disease.

I was diagnosed with celiac disease several years ago, and my life changed forever.  No longer was food a source of comfort and joy, but rather it became something of which I now had to be wary and even afraid.  The pleasure of eating out and experiencing amazing cuisine was hampered by the fact that I could no longer simply order something that looked or sounded amazing.  Instead, I became that customer – the one with a million questions, the one who seemed to hold servers hostage at the table, the one with whom order taking became a chore.

At [Restaurant], however, I thought I had found a culinary haven.  It was a place designed to accommodate different needs and it had a true philosophy on which it based its practices.  Unfortunately, an experience earlier this month has shattered that impression.  I know this all may sound melodramatic, but it is important for you to understand its importance in the life of someone with celiac disease.  We cannot take food for granted – our joy is always tempered by our fear.  That is the burden we bear and finding a place in which we can feel safe and let down our guard for a moment is not something we take for granted.  We share that information with others in the celiac community.  We promote and we praise that restaurant.  To then be harmed by that same institution is very distressing.  When someone with celiac disease ingests gluten, the aftermath is not just a few hours of stomach pain – that is just the beginning for us.  Our physical reactions can take days, even weeks to subside and they are not pleasant.

I am grateful to you, [Owner], for reading the attached letter I have sent to your General Manager concerning my recent experience at [Restaurant].  I hope it will encourage all of you to really take seriously your role in promoting well being and that it will result in better training of your staff.  It can’t just be words on a website – it needs to be actions on the floor.

Thank you very much.

Sincerely,

Cecilia Bonaduce

Letter to the manager – Untrained Waitstaff

12 Nov

DISCLAIMER: I will not reveal the name of the restaurant. The point is not to place blame but, rather, to see what happened and how I relay that information in a letter. The restaurant in question took steps to correct these problems and were very cooperative.

Dear Ms. *****:

I am writing to follow up on a frustrating and disappointing experience which took place on June 9th at [Restaurant].

I have been a loyal customer of [Restaurant] ever since being diagnosed with Celiac Disease several years ago.  My family and friends frequently dine at your restaurant, in particular, because of your voiced commitment to providing gluten free food and health conscious service.

On June 9th, however, I was not only flabbergasted by the lack of knowledge of your staff but was ultimately physically harmed by their poor training.  I ordered the vegan Mac n’ Cheese and asked for it to be prepared gluten free.  The waiter took note of that.  As he was walking away, I reminded him to make sure it was going to be prepared gluten free.  Upon receiving the dish, I asked the waiter, for the third time, to confirm that it was gluten free.  The waiter assured me that it was and left the table.  With that assurance, I took a few bites of the dish, but for some reason still felt very uneasy.  Consequently, I called the waiter over one more time and asked him to double check with the kitchen staff.

Upon returning from the kitchen, he then informed me that the dish was not prepared gluten free!  He said that the fried “crispy onions” that were sprinkled on top of the dish were not gluten free, but that the pasta was safe.  Needless to say, I was horrified that I had ingested even (what I thought at the time) was a small amount of gluten.  My nightmare had only just begun.

After returning home, I began to feel sick and woke up the next morning with tell-tale blisters covering my arms.  Consequently, I went back to [Restaurant] to ask some questions about what I had actually consumed.  A different server informed me that [Restaurant] does not have gluten free pasta at all and in fact the ONLY part of the dish that was gluten free had been the crispy onions!  One of your servers got the information completely backwards resulting in my consumption of pure wheat gluten.  I cannot describe how betrayed, not to mention, physically ill I felt.  And while my physical symptoms are abating, the sense of betrayal remains.

I do not want to eliminate [Restaurant] from my list of restaurant choices; however, appropriate action needs to be taken.  Your staff, both servers and kitchen team, need to be properly trained and must be aware of what allergens are in the dishes that you serve.  The customers trust your restaurant, and it is unfair to lure us into a false sense of security.  Your website proclaims that [Restaurant] continues to base its mission on [Owner]‘s goal of sharing “well being.”  Unfortunately, my well being was seriously damaged by my experience at [Restaurant].

I look forward to hearing from you with respect to this experience and what actions you are taking to ensure that no one else experiences this level of harm because of inadequately trained staff.

Sincerely,

Cecilia Bonaduce

Importance of Letters

12 Nov

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.

-Cc

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