Secrets to Serving Gluten-Free Diners
Every time I visit Choices By Shawn, I can’t help but think that there must be some way to replicate their unique system for serving gluten-free diners.
When I asked Shawn Warner what advice she would have for a restaurateur looking to serve gluten-free diners, she said:
“Know your customer and know your food.”
Simple, but brilliant, advice.
Based on Shawn’s restaurant set-up, I have outlined several ways ANY restaurant can better serve their gluten-free customers:
The following tips are very simple, but they can make all the difference to your gluten-free customers:
Design meals that are naturally gluten-free or use simple substitutions for gluten-full ingredients. This strategy will not only make your life easier, but the food will probably taste better.
Buy good quality, gluten-free ingredients. This means you need to select trustworthy vendors and educate yourself on gluten-containing ingredients and how to read nutrition labels for gluten.
Make sure the food tastes good! No explanation needed.
Put all dishes on one menu to help customers (especially kids) feel “normal” and clearly label which items are gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian, etc.
Make sure there are gluten-free options for kids. I can’t tell you how many restaurants I’ve been to with a gluten-free regular menu and completely gluten-full kids menu.
Make food to-order as much as possible. Making food to-order gives you more options for customizing meals, which may result in a bigger customer base over time.
I am not a professional chef, and the closest I have ever come to working in a commercial kitchen was my two-year stint as a Sandwich Artist at Subway as a pre-GF teen (ironic, no?), so I asked actual experts how best to set up a kitchen to serve gluten-free diners.
Separation of ingredients and equipment is essential. It is virtually impossible to keep gluten-sensitive people safe if you’re not careful about handling gluten ingredients and glutened equipment. For context, check out my previous post on how standard commercial kitchens operate.
There are a variety of ways to manage this separation depending on the restaurant’s available space, amount of staff, amount of equipment, etc. As with most things in the GF world (and life), it will most likely take some trial and error to figure out what works best for your restaurant. In general, make it harder to serve something with gluten than something without gluten. Make gluten-free ingredients and equipment more accessible. Have separate spaces/equipment/staff for gluten ingredients (as much as possible). Set your kitchen up for success (additional information below).
When planning, try your best to arrange your kitchen in a thoughtful and efficient way. When researching my series about Choices By Shawn, I kept trying to figure out how their kitchen was able to handle a large volume of gluten-free and gluten-full orders with such success, so I asked the question, “What makes this kitchen so special?” Choices By Shawn Chef, Jason Alderete, gave me an answer I wasn’t expecting. Instead of speaking to their innovative two-kitchen approach or red plates or detailed ordering system, he simply said everything he needed was easily available to him. He didn’t speak to anything GF-specific—once the gluten and gluten-free are separate, there really is no difference between a great and truly gluten-free kitchen and one that makes people sick. He was much more focused on the efficiency of the kitchen and how thoughtfully it was arranged. That is important! The kitchen needs to make sense and work for your staff.
Staff / Service
If you serve them well, gluten-free diners might be your best customers. People with food restrictions are very loyal (and grateful) to restaurants that serve us well—we are often willing to travel out of our way, spend more money, and frequent the same place over and over if we know we are going to have a great dining experience. Here are some ways to get your gluten-free diners to come back again and again:
Invest in your staff. Hire dedicated people, pay them a decent wage, and educate them on how to best serve gluten-free diners. Your customers will definitely notice, and you may even have less turnover over time. I’ve been to many restaurants (with gluten-free menus!) where the servers had no clue what “gluten-free” really meant—one server expressed complete surprise that gluten could make someone sick.
Respect your customers. Make your gluten-free customers feel welcome in your restaurant. Keep in mind that staff leaders are the ones who set the tone in a restaurant, so invest in leaders (both in the kitchen and in service) who will take dietary restrictions seriously and model that attitude for the rest of the staff. Observing these leaders will be especially helpful for staff members with language barriers.
Learn from your mistakes. Your gluten-free customers understand that it is impossible to 100% guarantee a gluten-free meal in a non-dedicated kitchen. If you demonstrate that you understand the severity of the issue, you have a chance to salvage the relationship with a glutened customer. Be willing to learn from your mistake(s) by identifying the issue and taking steps to prevent it from happening again.
As mentioned above, set up systems that guarantee success. Create standard operating procedures for every aspect of serving gluten-free diners. Think about how your customers will select their meal, order their meal, and be served their meal. What can you do to help this process run smoothly and efficiently?
Yes, it definitely takes some planning to set up a restaurant that safely serves gluten-free diners. Is it worth this extra effort? In the next post, I’ll discuss 4 reasons to serve gluten-free diners. Stay tuned!