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I have wrestled with how to approach this topic for some time. It began with a request from a blog follower who was looking for an article on Gluten Intolerance and how restaurants respond. So after a fair amount of contemplation, here is my response.

“Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us.” I think many of us remember that advertising campaign by Burger King in an attempt to sway customers away from their primary competition. What we didn’t realize back then (nor did Burger King) was that statement would grow to define a new generation of consumer. Many in the field of management would agree that we are in the midst of a service economy, one that places the customer clearly in control of the experience of buying. Since that ad, we now have 24/7 accessibility to products and services on-line, do our banking via computer, self diagnose ailments through WebMD, customize the electronics that we can’t live with out, and look at restaurant menus as a guide of suggestions, but certainly not something that is written in stone.

Now, I have long been an advocate of the customer experience and responding to their needs, but as I reflected on this topic I began to wonder if we were on the verge of going too far.

From a chef’s perspective there are really two types of restaurants. The first is an operation that views food as a commodity and the menu as a way for customers to personally create what they feel is important to them in the moment. The other is an operation that is an expression of the owner, chef, operator’s beliefs and passion about food. Both are important and have their place in a community. The challenge for operators is when customers of a commodity expect the passionate chef to treat their food as a commodity or the commodity operator to approach their cooking as the passionate chef.

I totally understand the concept of “the customer is right,” but wrestle with the needs of the chef or owner to present their art. An analogy might be the graphic artist vs. the master of fine art. Graphic artists need to be responsive to the requests of a client (the person paying for the work), even when they do not agree. The graphic artist sometimes needs to put aside what they would create when the client is adamant about a certain shape, size, color or layout. This goes with the turf. The fine artist on the other hand is expressing himself or herself through the medium that they choose and a potential buyer would never dream of asking the artist to change. Now, applying this same principle to business it is important to understand that the graphic artist will likely be more financially successful than the fine artist, but that is the choice of the creator.

The passionate chef may methodically plan a dish on the menu with a keen understanding of different flavors and textures that marry perfectly and as a result make the dish what it is. Leaving off a sauce, changing a vegetable, changing certain seasonings will alter the original intent of the dish and just as an art enthusiast would not ask a painter to change his or her palate of colors, it would not be appropriate for a guest to ask a chef to change the intent of a dish. On the other hand, why shouldn’t a person who needs to cut back on sodium or calories be able to enjoy a dish that suits those dietary needs?

In recent years there has been an exponential growth in the number and breadth of food allergies and intolerances; there is a difference. A food allergy, in extreme cases can cause anaphaltic shock, closing a person’s airway and even leading to death.

“A true food allergy causes an immune system reaction that affects numerous organs in the body. It can cause a range of symptoms, in some cases, life threatening. In contrast, food intolerance symptoms are generally less serious and are limited to digestive problems.”

“If you have a food allergy, even a tiny amount of the offending food can cause an immediate, severe reaction. “

“Food intolerance symptoms generally come on gradually and don’t involve an immune system reaction. The exception is Celiac disease, which has some features of a true food allergy and does impact the immune system. People with Celiac disease are not at risk of anaphylaxis”, however, the long-term impact of Celiac can cause serious health problems such as diabetes and even certain forms of cancer.

The Mayo Clinic


The challenge today is it appears that some guests may use the terms inappropriately. Sometimes their dislike of an ingredient is expressed as an allergy or intolerance, thus leading the kitchen into cautionary mode. Allergies need to be taken very seriously by restaurants and once a guest discloses their allergy or intolerance (real or fabricated) we have an obligation to protect them, and the property. A gluten intolerance, as an example, is not as simple as avoiding flour. They may very well be gluten in some of the ingredients that a chef uses (as an example – soy sauce includes gluten). A seafood allergy will require that the line cook use separate, sanitized, pans and utensils and cannot touch seafood and then the product the guest ordered. Are you frying shrimp in your deep fryer? Then pommes frites for that seafood allergy won’t be acceptable. Chefs and cooks need to be on alert when an allergy alternative is requested. We need to know what goes into the dishes we create.

So, the question is, when is “have it your way” too much to expect of a restaurant and what are the options for chefs? The reality is we cannot abdicate our responsibility for the health and well-being of our guests, however, other guest choices may or may not be honored, this is always the restaurants choice. Keep in mind that we are in the service business, a challenging industry that thrives only when guest spend money and return often. A good start is to build options into your menu. Vegetarian and Vegan menu items should no longer be viewed as an after-thought, they should be as exciting and flavorful as every other item on the menu. Listing basic nutritional information about your menu items will demonstrate to guests that you care and show them how to work with the menu to meet their needs. Having a protocol in place for working with food allergies and intolerances will make the process of accommodation that much easier for your line cooks, and earmarking for the staff which items are taboo for certain allergies and intolerances will help everyone involved.

If it is any consolation, every restaurant is learning to not just deal, but rather be proactive with this new reality. It is not going to get any easier so you might as well approach it with the same creative enthusiasm that you do those signature dishes that define your cuisine.


Harvest America Ventures, LLC