Surviving Gluten-Free at Meetings?

Are Meeting Planners and Restaurateur’s Missing the Boat When it Comes to Accommodating Dietary Issues?

By Marlisa Brown MS, RD, CDE, CDN

Accommodating customers on special diets has become a daily occurrence which is impossible to ignore and it needs to be handled carefully.  It is unknown why so many people today now have food allergies and need to avoid gluten.  For example the amount of people who have celiac disease alone has increased 4-5x in the past 50 years and the cause is still yet to be determined. 

When it comes to providing for a specific dietary request it can vary from one person to the next, for example; one customer may only need a small dietary change, while another may become violently ill if they consume even a crumb of an offending food.  This is something that food service workers don’t always understand and why they don’t take some requests seriously.  In general all precautions need to be maintained for each customer every time unless a customer tells you otherwise. In my work I have identified the biggest reasons why some food establishments and catering venues succeed and while others are failing.  Failing means their customers are the ones who will end up suffering, which will not only lose those customers but their friends and families will also leave as well.  Even places that usually do a great job sometimes make mistakes especially in small or busy kitchens where it is hard to prevent cross contamination.  Therefore specific precautions are needed to reduce these unfortunate issues.   

With the busy lifestyles, meetings at work, conferences, catering, take out and more those with special dietary issues will continue to dine out and look for delicious, safe food.   

Below are the biggest problems I have found that need to be addressed.   

Biggest Mistakes Made in Restaurants and At Special Events:

In the Kitchen:

  • Not having something on the menu that explains the policy on how they will handle special requests.
  • Making the mistake that frying food kills the allergen, which is not true.
  • Use of a contaminated toaster to toast gluten-free bread.
  • Not knowing how to read labels and making a mistake on what they tell customers.
  • Not taking customers’ requests seriously.
  • Food service employees not changing their gloves enough, or wiping their hands on a contaminated side towel.
  • Picking off the croutons or other offending food off of a customer’s plate and then serving it.
  • Not offering appropriate alternatives or sides and providing plain, unseasoned foods with no sides to a customer while charging full price.
  • Using the same tongs or spatula to toss safe and unsafe foods.
  • Cooking safe foods on the same grill or flattop as contaminated foods.
  • Head chef preps all foods and goes home, line chefs unaware of all ingredients.
  • Not wiping down a surface with an allergen safe material before preparing food.

At Service:

  • Inadequate Training of Staff. This is of particular importance at catering events, or when meeting planners have given out a card with someone’s dietary needs noted on it and none of the regular service staff is aware of it.
  • Not having a set protocol or not following the protocol when a customer comes in or calls in with a special dietary request.
  • Staff unaware of ways to handle requests without embarrassing customers. Most import is making sure that personal health questions are kept to a minimum and done discreetly.
  • Having different people serve the food without assuring the customers at the time of service that this is the safe choice that was ordered.
  • Arguing with a customer that there was no way they did something that made the customer ill.
  • Not identifying the food clearly in the window so servers won’t accidently pick up the wrong plate when delivering the food.
  • Placing safe food next to problem foods on buffet line, which increases the risk of cross contamination. Especially if people are not using the correct utensils.
  • Not labeling foods correctly on the buffet line, this includes dressings, and toppings.
  • Not hiring a specialist to make sure that protocol established is truly safe.
  • Not testing the staff regularly to make sure they are following training correctly.

Every establishment and event is unique and the plan to provide safe food will differ from place to place.  Only experts in these areas can help make sure that appropriate steps are taken to keep food safe.  This is the hospitality industry so customers are dining out to be catered too.  Remember always that everyone is entitled to a safe, delicious, enjoyable dining experience. 

Marlisa Brown (Healthcare Marketing Specialist) is an expert in dietary intolerances, she is an Registered Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator, Chef, Professional Speaker and  Author, of several books including “Gluten-Free Hassle-Free” and “The Gluten-Free Hassle-Free Cookbook” which also include information about food allergies, vegetarian meals and Low FODMAP recipe modifications. 


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