How to Make Gluten-Free Diners Feel Safe in Your Restaurant

by Swipely Team on February, 19 2013 in Marketing


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Celiac disease is not an intolerance like lactose or even gluten intolerance. While many people who have popularized a gluten-free diet are reaping the health benefits, a person with Celiac disease has a full-fledged autoimmune disease.

Even the crumb from an over-toasted English Muffin can cause an influx of stomach pain and other symptoms that takes days to recover from. Many business owners who don't realize this will prepare gluten-free menu items on the same counter tops that they prepare everything else.

Lately I've spoken with a few restaurant owners who are interested in creating a safe-haven for people who suffer from the disease and want to enjoy dining out safely again!

Amanda Mahoney, a gluten-free blogger who suffers from Celiac disease offered to help out with her endless expertise on gluten-free living and food allergies. "Eating at a restaurant when you have Celiac Disease can be extremely unnerving and can make you feel like you're the center of attention for all the wrong reasons," says Mahoney, "fortunately, there are positive steps restaurants can take to help reassure their gluten-free diners and ensure they keep coming back to your restaurant."

Here are Mahoney's five steps for creating extremely loyal gluten-free foodies:

1. Have a gluten-free menu. 

This is a great first step to earning more customers and generating interest in your restaurant.   Your gluten-free menu should have at least a couple options for each category on the regular menu.  Most items on a regular menu can easily be made gluten-free.  Once word gets out that you have a gluten-free menu, gluten-free diners will likely call you and inquire about it.  

2.  Have a dedicated gluten-free space. 

Your gluten-free pizza isn't really gluten-free if it's prepared on the same surface and baked in the same oven as regular pizza. And your gluten-free pasta is no longer gluten-free if it's boiled in the same pot of water as regular pasta.  A salad is not gluten-free if the croutons were just removed.

Not all restaurants can afford to have an entire separate oven and completely separate prep areas, though.  There are still affordable ways to make your gluten-free diner safe from cross-contamination.  Some restaurants keep color-coded utensils to know which ones can be used for gluten-free meals.  Others have dedicated prep and cooking space for gluten-free foods.

I've talked to pizza restaurants who have their salad prep employee do all the gluten-free pizzas since they're not in contact with flour all day.  Another comforting tip is bringing the take out box to the table, and packing it there to avoid another instance of cross contamination. Many gluten-free diners are not looking for 100% gluten-free restaurants, they are just looking for a restaurant that can provide them with safe food so they can enjoy eating out like other people.

3. Be knowledgeable.

This is your chance to shine!  In order for this to be effective, it needs to start with management and trickle downwards. When a potential customer calls to ask about your gluten-free menu, they will ask about your preparation methods and what steps you take to avoid cross-contamination.

Everyone, from the hostess to the waitstaff, should be educated on what gluten is, what type of effects it can have on someone with Celiac Disease, and what steps are taken in your restaurant to make the gluten-free diner safe from cross-contamination.

You should know, for instance, that although french fries or tortilla chips are likely gluten-free on their own, if they're fried in a common fryer with breaded items, it's no longer gluten-free.

Also, it's okay to say no.  We would rather hear that you confidently know something isn't gluten-free and why, than end up getting sick from eating something we were told was safe.

You should also know that many items on your regular menu can be prepared gluten-free in spite of not appearing on a gluten-free menu.  This demonstrates confidence in your food and service, knowledge of cross-contamination and understanding of your customer's needs.  These first three steps are guaranteed to get a gluten-free foodie into your restaurant.

4. Have a plan. 

Come up with a plan specific to your restaurant that details how you will handle gluten-free patrons from the moment they walk in the door.

The restaurant owner, manager and/or chef should be involved as soon as it's known that a customer is gluten-free. Introduce yourself, reassure your customer that you'll keep an eye on their meal and make sure it is prepared correctly. Remind them how you will keep their meal safe from cross-contamination.

Most importantly, make your customer feel welcome, normal, and comfortable without drawing too much attention to them.   Many restaurants have more than one person serving a table and it's easy for miscommunication to happen.  Having one person oversee your gluten-free guest's entire experience will help ensure no miscommunication or mistakes happen.

5. Follow-up. 

Before the customer pays for their meal, the manager or owner should again go to the gluten-free customer and see if everything was served to their satisfaction.

Unfortunately, autoimmune reactions from gluten aren't always immediate like they usually are with food allergies, so they may not be able to give you a 100% accurate assessment right away.  Let them know that you value and welcome their feedback and that they're welcome to call you with any issues afterwards.  This feedback is critical to improving your operations and gaining a good reputation and following with people who have to follow a strict gluten-free diet.

Mahoney notes that, "the gluten-free community is big and getting bigger," and that sites like Find Me Gluten Free can make a gluten-free friendly restaurant go viral in your community. "As you earn their trust, you also earn the trust of their friends, family and other gluten-free diners."

I whole-heartedly recommend reading her blog, Celiac and Allergy Adventures, which gives great advice for all types of small businesses, along with personal insights on what gluten-free really means.

Also, if you're a gluten-free diner, please use the comment section to add your bonus tips for restaurant owners!

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