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Advice for Restaurants from Patrons Like Us

Advice Restaurants: Heather and Carla in New Orleans each holding a glass of sparkling water

This is part of a series of posts and tools around dining out. Nima has some great infographics on dos and don’ts for dining out from both the restaurant and the patron point of view, as well as some great tips on questions that people can ask when they dine out. This post is about our hopes and dreams when we dine out.

Heather and I (Carla) travel a lot together. That means we end up dining out a lot together, too, which is a little tricky because our food identities are nearly opposite. I’m vegetarian, severely lactose intolerant, allergic to mushrooms, and sensitive to almonds. Heather is paleo to manage Crohn’s symptoms, meaning she’s got a grain-free, legume-free, mostly dairy-free and refined-sugar-free diet alongside limited roughage. So between the two of us, we spend a lot of time figuring out where we can eat. It’s critical when we’re on the road to stay healthy, so we’re ready and able to meet people and be energized for our work.

Along with our dietary restrictions, at one meal this year, we mixed in Sharon, who is a flexitarian with a shellfish allergy. Imagine how restaurants feel when we roll in, or more accurately, how we *think* they feel. We’ve got loads of questions and need to feel reassured, even if we have our Nima to test as an extra precaution.

To that end, here’s some tips for restaurants on ways to provide reassurance.*

The Restaurant’s (or Food Truck or Food Vendor) Website

We have to be able to find you.

Without a doubt, Heather and I research before we go out to eat. We’re looking everywhere: the Nima app, blogger travel guides, Yelp, Foursquare, Google, TripAdvisor, local restaurant guides, basically anywhere that might have information on gluten-free, paleo, or vegan options.

We want to look at your menu beforehand.

Once we find a spot that looks feasible, the most important thing we want to find is the menu! Some websites/apps like OpenTable and Foursquare have menu information available, but in the event of specials, it’s nice to be able to go to a restaurant’s website and see what they have. As well, restaurant menus often have guidance around their friendliness to various dietary needs.

Menus also give you an idea of what else is being prepared in the kitchen. For example, if a menu is full of pizza and pasta and doesn’t have but one gluten-free offering, it’s not likely to to be a good place to go.

We also want to know if you can’t accommodate special diets.

In San Francisco, the rise of farm-to-table restaurants means that menus may be more limited and that there is less room to accommodate. Guess what? That’s actually helpful to state on your website. If you don’t want to or can’t accommodate, that is okay – it really helps in the decision-making process and actually shows that your restaurant has some awareness of what’s happening in the kitchen.

We want your menu to be accurate.

Some restaurants have separate gluten-free or vegetarian menus. Others merely mark a menu with letters or icons for how they can prepare various dishes.

As we peruse the menu, we look to see how well things are labeled. In the past year on at least two occasions items with farro (a form of wheat) have been in dishes labeled gluten-free. If a vegetarian dish is served with meat, it’s no longer vegetarian.

Advice Restaurants: Restaurant menu with mofongo highlighted. Says "vegan, served with a side of chicken broth. wheat free"

So is this vegan or is it served with chicken broth?

We also want to see if it’s truly free-from or needs to be altered to make it so. The menu at Green Goddess in New Orleans does a nice job labeling both vegan, vegan available, gluten-free, and gluten-free available. It gives you a little extra piece of information before you head out.

The Reservation

Read any special notes for reservations

If we don’t have time to call, we will often make a reservation on OpenTable or Yelp before we arrive. If at all possible, we add information to the reservation about our dietary needs. There are two possible outcomes that show respect for your patrons. One is to read it, realize you can’t accommodate dietary needs and let us know in advance. This has happened here in San Francisco, and I’ve been more likely to recommend the restaurant to others because it’s clear they really pay attention to dietary needs. The other is to use it as part of the guest experience and repeat it back when people arrive, or when you call to confirm a reservation. Del Posto in New York did an amazing job of this, calling me the day before a visit to go through everything we had listed as our needs. It really helped to reassure me before we came in for lunch the next day. If you have separate allergy menus, have those ready when you seat the party and reinforce that the wait staff can accommodate or answer questions.

Do you keep notes on guests? If you do, then noting dietary needs and preferences can help to ensure that returning customers needs are known before they even walk in the door. You may also want to review if you have any notes on what worked well or what didn’t in previous visits and inform both front and back of house staff about these needs before the guest arrives.

The Phone Call

Be prepared to answer questions — even if it means getting back to someone later

There are times when we’ve had very limited choices or someone else has made a dinner reservation. If we don’t get a choice in the matter, we may call ahead to see how well the restaurant can handle our dietary needs. We also sometimes call when places have seasonal or ever-changing menus. In some cases, the person answering the phone has asked a bunch of questions and offered to call back later once they’ve had a chance to chat with the chef. A good answer is better than a manufactured and inaccurate one. That said, some basic training on food sensitivities and intolerances is helpful. If someone’s taking the time to call, you can guess they really need this information.

The Visit

Have separate menus

This is one of those that generally helps a group heave a sigh of relief. If there are special menus available, even if they are some repeats of what is on the main menu, it shows what the chefs already know can be made to fit different needs. If people have noted special needs in a reservation, the host should have those ready for them when they arrive. If the host asks every guests simply “do you need any special menus?” it can help someone out who may not even know that is possible. The menu can also serve as visual reminder for serving staff that this order is different, says Ruth Hayden of Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants. She suggests making them different colors or a slightly different shape than the regular restaurant menu. This way the staff knows you asked for a special menu, especially if you were seated by the host and the server hasn’t learned about your needs just yet.

Listen

As we prepare to order, we may ask for clarification on menu items. In some cases we’ve had a bunch of questions and the server has left to go answer the first one without getting the full list of questions. This can mean that servers are going back and forth, and sometimes end up confusing the different needs from around the table (and getting annoyed at us for the multiple trips to the kitchen).

Ask follow up questions

It’s also okay for the server (and manager or chef) to ask clarifying questions. Given the number of people who eat gluten-free for lifestyle, it’s fair to ask if people eat gluten-free by choice or by need. This clarification can help to underscore the differences in the level of precaution that should be taken. On the dairy side, I’ve been asked if items cooked in butter are okay (no) or if I prefer oil or water (yes). It is not okay to ask things like “how allergic are you?” or “what happens when you eat it?” Frankly, the whole table can be spared the sharing of symptoms or someone forced to divulge personal health details.

Provides suggestions and guidance

Front of house staff can make or break the experience. The more knowledge staff members have about how food is prepared, what alterations can be made, and how things can be plated, the higher the level of confidence the establishment inspires. Help us by offering the best suggestions for our articulated dietary needs. This needs to be based on listening. It doesn’t help to tell me that I should order the mushroom lasagna after I’ve just said I can’t eat mushrooms or to tell Heather the quinoa bowl would be great when she’s grain-free. Heirloom Cafe in San Francisco suggested I get some kale added to a regular pasta dish after I asked for it minus some other items. Being willing to sub starchy sides has made Heather smile. It’s really nice when we don’thave to eat plain lettuce or a piece of completely bland grilled chicken. “Free-from” doesn’t have to mean free-from flavor. Going above and beyond a bare bones meal provides an added delight.

If you provide great information about food preparation or steer us away from making unreasonable accommodation requests, it provides a great sense of reassurance as to what the restaurant can actually do. When someone tells us the fryer is shared with gluten-containing items, we get a much better feelings about a restaurant because they are knowledgeable about their food prep areas.

Serve the meal and confirm the order

When you live in terror of having bad meal aftermath, it’s great when a server confirms the special nature of an order. Some restaurants, like P.F. Changs, use different plates for gluten-free items, while Friedman’s in New York will put a paper flag in gluten-free orders. Whether it’s a visual or verbal reminder, it really underscores the level of customer service needed.

We’ve had lunch with a celiac blogger where they brought out a gluten-free panini on the wrong bread. We had to Nima test it to figure it out, and the blogger was glad she didn’t take a bite before testing! Confirming the special order eases the mind before the first bite.

Check in

Whether someone is confirming a meal is free-from using Nima, or is merely sampling a food and checking it out, do come back by the table and see how things are going. While this is typical of good customer service, a quick check-in allows for any follow up questions.

Handling Feedback or Issues

If there is an issue – say Nima detects gluten or peanut, don’t take it as an insult or a challenge. If you can ask, as the manager of a venue in San Diego did, “How can we do better?” it’s reassuring. Help the patron walk through the food preparation process. Is there some place where contamination occurred that you didn’t think of before? Can you try to make the dish again in a dedicated space? One thing we’ve learned is that our Nima community really wants to make everyone’s next experience better. If we can help isolate what happened, your restaurant will know for the future and make dining better for every free-from customer after that. Will you help us get there?

*This post is not to assume that restaurants have to do all the work to satisfy these needs. We’ll be sharing some follow up posts about the patron responsibilities, too.

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