Is Your Menu Truly Gluten-Free? Training Your Back and Front of House Staff

So, you’ve decided to meet the demands for gluten-free fare on your menu. Ask yourself these questions: Are you all in? Confident in your kitchen practices and staff to make the right decisions? Willing to risk it all?

Anything bearing the label of gluten-free must be trusted implicitly by the four million individuals suffering from celiac disease. For example, General Mills is a brand that conveys such trust, and the company advertised and produced supposed gluten-free Cheerios. And then General Mills was hit with two false advertising class action lawsuits because the Cheerios were not truly gluten-free. Domino’s Pizza marketed gluten-free pizza crust back in 2012. It was not truly gluten-free and safe for those with celiac disease.  The disclaimer in the fine print created a public relations nightmare.

Customers with celiac disease do not trust gluten-free claims anymore because there are 44 million other people avoid gluten simply due to the perception of a healthier diet option. Food manufacturers and restaurants are marketing to that fad to gain stomach share and sales profits, but these gluten-free options may not be truly gluten-free. It begs the question: Are you or your staff skeptical of customers requesting gluten-free dishes? Trust is a two-way street and is essential for a successful gluten-free menu.

Managing this type of menu at your restaurant affects not just the back of house, but the front of house, too. With the right policies and procedures, you’ll have the best hand in the game.

Back of House Needs for Supporting a Gluten-Free Menu

Ideally, gluten-free menu items should be stored, prepped, and produced in a separate kitchen.  Most likely, this is not achievable. However, there are guidelines for setting up a separate space to fit the FDA’s minimum requirements of being gluten-free and eliminate cross-contamination.

  • Store gluten-free items in clearly labeled, tightly sealed containers in dedicated areas.
  • Create a separate prep area for gluten-free items, just as for any other allergy concern.
  • Use color-coded cutting boards and utensils for prep and serving.
  • Dedicate separate pans and equipment, including fryers, to cook gluten-free foods.
  • Change disposable gloves and aprons between tasks to ensure no cross-contamination.
  • Use plates and bowls of a different shape for gluten-free items. Perhaps round for standard menu items, square for gluten free, or vice versa.
  • Clean prep areas thoroughly between busy times.
  • Check ingredient labelling on any products — especially condiments — regularly.  The soy sauce that was once considered gluten-free may now contain a wheat by-product.
  • Clearly communicate your gluten-free needs with your vendors and ensure they will deliver safe product.

If you are unsure about producing gluten-free breads and pastries, these items can be sourced from local gluten-free bakeries. This also provides a great opportunity for cross-marketing within your community. Finally, make the small investment in GIG (Gluten Intolerance Group) or GREAT (The Gluten-Free Education Awareness Training) certification for your entire establishment.

Front of House Needs for Supporting a Gluten-Free Menu

The voice of your restaurant belongs to the front of house staff. Anyone that comes in contact with a guest must be trained to answer customer questions about the kitchen and the safeguards taken for those with celiac disease.

  • Have a separate gluten-free menu, even if it limited.
  • Waitstaff must communicate any allergy concern to the chef.
  • Honor any guest request for information about preparation methods or ingredients.
  • Serve gluten-free dishes separately or from a different tray to avoid cross-contamination.
  • Waitstaff must keep hands and clothing clean to avoid unintended contact with gluten or other allergens.

Don’t Be Half-Baked

Perhaps your establishment is offering dishes that are gluten-free, but maybe the kitchen isn’t gluten-free certified. In this case, you are meeting the trend for those customers that have made a conscious choice to eat gluten-free. For those with celiac disease, you are not completely prepared to meet the needs of this consumer base.

  • Note on the menu that dishes are prepared in a kitchen that also produces menu items with gluten.
  • Waitstaff should be prepared to tell customers there is no separate kitchen or prep area for gluten-free items.
  • If a guest tells you they have celiac disease, be prepared with a statement that he or she cannot be served safely. The guest will appreciate full-disclosure, and a lost sale is worth eliminating the risk of a lawsuit.

Finally, make a commitment to be either in or out of the gluten-free game.  

Not Interested in Implementing a Gluten-Free Menu?

Maybe the risk and liability of going gluten-free in today’s world is too scary. Perhaps certification is too expensive, and alienating customers looking for gluten-free means mitigating a big risk. Maybe dealing with the myriad of other allergies such as eggs, tree nuts, shellfish, and milk is enough. Be aware, the same basic steps for following a gluten-free menu apply to these other allergens. ServSafe training is a must for all employees to ensure proper food safety procedures. Staff must be able to answer guest questions confidently and to understand the importance of properly handling any food allergy.

For more information about gluten-free certification, visit: