Saturday, June 23, 2012

Don’t Let the Chain Gang Get You

Until just a few years ago, we frequented chain restaurants with abandon. When Rick was diagnosed as Celiac/severely gluten intolerant, all of that changed, curtailing our traveling to a great extent.

“Why?” you might ask. The particular chain restaurant you choose for chow is only as good as the owner at franchises such as Ruby Tuesday; the manager and/or chef on duty at the time of your visit; or the dedication of corporate to provide a gluten free option for its gluten free customers. While “Chef’s Cards” (click for link to our Che'fs Card) are helpful, they do not make you bullet proof. As a customer, you have no way of knowing the chef’s card ever reaches the person who is actually preparing the food or, if it reaches them, whether they actually follow the instructions. Is this just one more damn thing down from corporate for them to deal with, or is it advice on how to prevent problems for a customer? I suspect this happens often in the context of a busy food establishment trying to serve the greatest number of customers in a minimum of time. The bottom line is you can eat food that innocently came into contact with food containing gluten even in well meaning restaurants. In those not so careful and do not care, the risk is even greater.

We avoid chain restaurants like the plague, but occasionally get caught enroute and are “forced” to eat at such places rather than unpack the entire car to get to our prepared food. This past Thursday was exactly one of those days. We passed up a rest area right off Interstate 65 where we could have had a picnic lunch opting to eat at the Ruby Tuesday at Exit 130 a couple of miles down the way, thus avoiding having to fight mosquitoes and other insects while eating.
When we asked the hostess for their gluten free menu, she literally had the proverbial “deer-in-the-headlights” look on her face. A waiter proudly came to her assistance and said “No problem” as he reached for their $5 appetizer menu to place on top of the regular menu.
Enter person number 3—another server whose response to a polite request for a gluten free menu was, and I quote, “The manager will have to print you one off.” What do you mean—print one off? There should be one ready and in good shape for every customer who asks for a gluten free menu. By the way, knowing we had asked for a gluten free menu, she still pushed us to order a gluten laden appetizer and later dessert. Do you think she understands “gluten free”? I would wager she does not.

After waiting over 20 minutes for someone to print a gluten free menu, I demanded to speak to the manager who seemed rather, for the lack of a more polite term, a bit miffed to be bothered with us “gluten free” folks. We finally got the menu after the manager had instructed me to “sit down”. That is the term teachers use when unruly students are out of their seats in class. I know; I was a teacher. In this case I was a paying customer.

When I took the manager to task about not having a properly trained staff, he explained that his staff was trained. Now wait just a minute, if this guys folks were so well trained, why in the heck would the waitress press us to order a gluten filled appetizer when we had asked repeatedly for a gluten free menu. My response to this lie was a defiant “NO! Your have not trained your staff.” The three I have spoken with thus far do not know what gluten is or which foods contain gluten.” To that response, I received a disgusted sigh.

My husband and I gave the manager—yes, the manager became our waiter—our orders, both from the gluten free menu. We gave the manager our “Chef’s Card” and insisted he attach it to the ticket. Rick’s meal came back perfect; mine had croutons on top. While it is true I am not intolerant to gluten or have even a slight sensitivity, I ordered from the gluten free menu for two reasons. First and most importantly, I simply feel better not ingesting so much gluten, thus avoiding eating wheat, oats, barley and rye to the degree possible. Second, I was giving the manager a pop quiz—remember, I am a teacher—on gluten free dining in this particular establishment. He and his restaurant got 1 out of 2 meals on that one ticket correct, yielding a grade of “50” which is a big old fat “F” on his report card.

The croutons were truly not a problem for me; I simply put the croutons on the side of the platter and did not eat them. If I were like my husband, however, who becomes extremely ill when exposed to even the slightest bit of gluten, I would have been very sick from the crumbs on the salad.

Instead of just venting at the manager, who seemed not to care and was simply annoyed, I decided to dust off my researcher’s cap and do a little internet sleuthing. I looked up the websites of the last three chain restaurants where we had eaten: Ruby Tuesday, Longhorn Steakhouse and Maggiano’s.

Here is what I learned. Ruby Tuesday is a franchise, meaning that while corporate has responsibility to provide training and guidance and to set policy, the quality of the day-to-day operation is up to the local owner. However, I did find an interesting quote on their website addressing the subject of training extensively. According to their website . . .

           Ruby Tuesday invests millions of dollars in performance training annually, among the 
           most in our industry. We view this investment in our people as a number-one priority for 
           operational success. Our award-winning Quality Training department has been 
           internationally recognized by the American Society for Training and Development, and 
           was presented with the 2006 BEST Award for our devotion to top-box instructional 
           design and our holistic approach to learning. Our in-house Quality Training team 
            touches every single initiative implemented in our restaurants.

I found the last sentence the most amusing. Either the “trainers” do not know the seriousness of Celiac/gluten intolerance or food allergies are not considered an initiative worthy of addressing (all their food allergy information is supposed to be in a single notebook, which in this case had to be printed in its entirety every time someone comes in to this particular establishment with any food allergies). I also found the Ruby Tuesday chain no longer listed on Gluten Free Registry’s website. However, the Ruby Tuesday menu listed on, but I could find no reviews of the particular location in Greenville, AL where we ate.

Longhorn Steakhouse’s website did not mention training or having a gluten free menu whatsoever even though this chain is listed extensively on Gluten Free Registry’s website. Similarly, some locations are good with conscientious managers and/or chefs who take the subject seriously. Others, like the Ruby Tuesday manager in Greenville, could not care less.
Oddly, Maggiano’s did not boast about their overall training or their gluten free menu. Maggiano’s is one of a family, aka, chain of restaurants. Having eaten at their Perimeter Atlanta location a few times, I am convinced that this particular location to be dedicated to keeping their customers happy and safe. When asked about a gluten free menu, the hostess simply smiles and explains she will have one of the chefs on duty come to our table to talk with us. Every time the chef will cheerfully ask what we are in the mood to eat. We tell him, and he takes it from there. Even the servers remember us from one time to the next, including what we ordered and the type of wine we like. Now that is what I call service! A little expensive? Yes! Worth the money (and piece of mind)? Absolutely!

A couple of sites you might find helpful when navigating gluten filled waters circling the chain restaurant world include:

· This one provides a worldwide map. You simply type in the location; little balloons reflect gluten free restaurants in that particular area. Simply click on the balloons for the names. You can also print a list or gluten free restaurants located in the area you are interested in visiting. The site also allows you to leave reviews, which I find helpful.
· This site provides menus as well as locations around the world. You can leave reviews if you are a registered user of this website.
Being a southern native, I have always been very cognizant of the civil strife many of our citizenry experienced earlier in our history. Asking for a gluten free menu in a restaurant that does not care if you eat a safe meal or not can be likened to Rosa Parks demanding a seat in the front of a bus in Montgomery Alabama. Maybe the gluten free community should learn a lesson from her and insist on being treated equally to restaurant patrons who can eat anything. 

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