Why don't the Chains Understand Gluten Free?

Our family can only eat out together at one restaurant.  It’s called Nandos.  It’s a very nice place but sometimes it would be nice to try something new.  I am a Coeliac.  My mum isn’t Coeliac but she is gluten free like me.  She is lucky because she gets to try food that I can’t eat. My mum has tried really hard to make things easier for me.  She wants me to have the same experiences as other kids my age.  Most of the time, I manage this.  The only time it is a problem is when it comes to restaurants.  My mum and dad are really careful about eating out with me because they don’t want me to get sick.  This has happened in the past and it’s horrible. It is very scary and it has made me not want to eat out in case something bad happens.  Sometimes there is no other choice but to bring my own food.   This is safer but it is not the point of eating out at a restaurant.  The whole point of eating out is to try new things.  I do appreciate it takes a lot of effort to make gluten free food for me but if we can do it at home I don’t understand why restaurants can’t do it too. Most of the time I am okay with this but sometimes I want to ask them ‘how would you like it if you couldn’t eat anything in a restaurant?’  

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Ruth Balhetchet (age 11)

A few weeks ago I saw something on Twittter which sparked my interest.  A hamburger chain was asked about providing gluten free buns and their response was encouraging.  If you know of anyone who can supply us a good gluten free bun, please get in touch.

To make a long story short I did get in touch and I was successful in securing a meeting.   I set off with some freshly made buns in my bag. Thanks to First Great Western delays, gusting winds and finding myself face down in the gutter for a few brief seconds, I arrived 25 minutes late to my meeting.

 I had 9 minutes to state my case.  Amongst my strongest points, was the fact that just by catering to the gluten free community they could increase their annual turnover by a minimum of £900,000.00 per year.

We talked about their menu and about my visit to one of their branches. I was interested to hear why they were looking for a gluten free bun when hardly anything else on their menu is gluten free. Was their need for a gf bun the start of a more allergy friendly menu?

It turns out they just wanted a bun to satisfy those pesky people who keep coming in and asking for gluten free menu choices. What about cross contamination? Nope not interested in that. What about widening your offer?  Nope, we don’t see a need to do that.  What about changing some of your recipes to make them gluten free?  Why would we do that?  We don’t want to downgrade our offer, by selling gluten free food because we all know that gluten free food is awful and nothing like real food.

What did you just say?

I went into preachy evangelist mode and then time was up.  My contact gathered his belongings and I was left sitting on a banquette irritated at my failure to make a single iota of difference. I felt bad about letting down my daughter who despite not being keen on burgers was incredibly positive about my bun and very keen to have more places to meet and eat out with her friends.   

Over dinner that evening we discussed ‘mum’s day.  My husband came up with a great observation.  I wasn’t 25 minutes late for the meeting; I was 5 years too late.  If this meeting had taken place at the very start of this chain’s development, then it would be possible to construct a menu which could cater for allergies.  As it was, trying to make retroactive changes at this point, is simply too difficult.

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Chains are not designed to be accommodating.  There is a well-oiled system, workers obey the rules and they don’t go off piste.  There is a huge machine behind each of these chains, and one small deviation will have a huge impact down the line.  Changing a salad dressing or the coating for your onion rings or adding a separate fryer isn’t as simple as it might seem. The ramifications of one small ingredient or recipe change results in lots of costs and lots of hassle. 

Despite the difficulties, I am appalled by the lack of compassion and sympathy given to those who can’t eat wheat, gluten, nuts, eggs, dairy and all the rest of the 14 top allergens.  As Ruth states….how would you feel? 

At many chains, the way they deal with allergens is to hand you a matrix so you can work out for yourself what you can eat.  And that’s it. When you ask about leaving something out, or frying some chips in a pan separately, or baking your fish instead of frying it, cheery staff turn a bit pale and look at you like you are the biggest pain in the neck.  At one chain recently, I asked if my child could have a smaller portion of fish.  The reply was no, our fish comes in a standard size.  I laughed when the waitress said this, because it seemed ridiculous.  When I said just serve us half a portion, she looked horrified because there was no way she could do this.     

Although some chains do offer gluten free options, it concerns me that very often this is just a token gesture.  Take for example Pret, who introduced a GF wrap.  Would it surprise you to know that this wrap is not suitable for coeliac’s due to cross contamination issues?  Or Wahaca’s GF menu which highlights that some menu items on their gf menu aren’t entirely gluten free?

The other big issue is safety.  When chains introduce random allergy free items on to their menu, without really considering how this fits into their operating systems, they put allergy customers at risk.  Most people with severe allergies ask lots of probing questions about the handling of food and the risk of cross contamination.  But some may not.  Why? Because it can be embarrassing, tiring and awkward to always be in CSI forensic mode.   Allergy customers just want to go out and eat a meal like everyone else without having to think too much about all the possible risks involved.  If your child has ever had a reaction after eating at a restaurant, you know it isn’t possible to ever let down your guard. 

As far as I’m concerned all restaurants, catering and eating establishments should be required by law to have basic allergen training.  This should not be left to the discretion of the business.  It should be mandatory in the same way that basic health and hygiene is part and parcel of running a food based business.  If I saw a certificate which stated, this establishment and all employees have had allergen training, I would be very happy to eat there. 

We also need courses and teaching modules which focus on allergy cooking.  We need to encourage food businesses to think about how they can offer allergy friendly menus and we need to change the perception that just because something is allergy safe, it does not mean it will be tasteless, bland or second rate. 

And finally we need chefs that are properly trained.   Chains have deskilled chefs and reduced them to opening bags of ready prepared food to be put in a microwave.  Proper qualifications and training should include being able to read, write and communicate clearly with customers. 

Providing for those with allergies should not be seen as a burdensome tax or a punishment.  It is a wonderful opportunity.  You can increase your market share, unleash your creative genius and show just how wonderfully warm, hospitable and welcoming you can be.

Adriana (Ruth's Mum)

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