Know What’s on the Menu – Your Customers Expect It

While the headline might make some think we’re stating the obvious, today’s customers expect waitstaff to know much more than a description of what is on the menu. Thursday is Celiac Awareness Day so it seems a good time to remind everyone of the need to make sure your operations are aware of the disease and understand what staff need to know, ensure training is in place, and you can accommodate customers with this disease.

Celiac is a serious disease. Those affected want to be able to enjoy eating just like those who don’t have the disease. People with celiac disease need to clearly understand if a meal is safe or unsafe for them. It’s each organization’s responsibility to make sure the information delivered is accurate.

Gluten insensitivity is not a fad, and it’s not something to ignore. Frankly, neither are any of your customer’s specific requests. Because they are important to the customer and, if you want the person to return, should be important to you.

It’s critical your staff understand when allergens are included in the foods you’re preparing and serving. Include how staff should handle inquiries from customers in their orientation and training. Consider refresher courses as well since this information can be forgotten over time.

Since passage of regulations pertaining to gluten in 2013, the Food and Drug Administration has tightly regulated how companies need to identify gluten and other allergens in foods. According to Dr. Alessio Fasano, “The food industry took this seriously and did an exceptional job with the new labels, aided by the fact that the FDA spelled out exactly what was required.” Resources available from the FDA include:

Companies interested in catering to different allergy groups need to invest both time and money in making sure systems are in place that guarantee results. Education, monitoring and marketing are all part of ensuring your establishment and products meet the needs of these sensitive populations.

Certifications are available for restaurants and foodservice operations that want to make sure they’re okay for celiac sufferers. These include programs through Beyond Celiac and the Gluten Intolerance Group that provide support, especially for colleges and universities.

Your communications program should also include messages about your efforts. If you’re going to take the time and spend the money to make sure your customers’ needs are met, for goodness sake make sure you tell them it’s there. Take pictures of products or menu items and feature them on social media channels your customers frequent. Also, make sure your products are labeled correctly according to FDA specifications, and gluten-free menu items are called out. It makes those customers feel more welcome.

Probably the most important piece of any celiac/allergy program is making sure your team is well informed and trained. They are the frontline for customers since you might not always be the first point of contact. Some thoughts in this regard:

Waitstaff Training

Make sure your team understands what celiac and gluten mean

  • Train them about the dishes on the menu and what items are gluten-free

  • Make sure they feel it’s okay to tell the customer they need to check with the kitchen

  • It’s okay to ask if they don’t know

  • Treat the customer like they are important -- just as they would any other customer

Kitchen Staff Training

Make sure your team understands what celiac and gluten mean

  • Offer training on reading labels. This sounds basic but it’s important they understand what is truly gluten-free. Labeling isn’t always consistent

  • Define what it means to be gluten-free and gluten-light

  • Instruct them to err on the side of caution with menu labeling

Watchdog Groups

There are entities beyond the Federal government’s FDA that serve as informal watch dog groups for those with celiac and gluten intolerances. They have Facebook pages and other entities that will publicly list companies which might make a mistake in labeling. For example, the Gluten-Free Watchdog Group randomly selects and tests products to see if they are truly what they say that are. Product manufacturers will want to keep an eye on these pages to make sure they aren’t listed there incorrectly. That’s also why you need a public relations firm to monitor your company’s “mentions” on the web, and to regularly tell your story.


Public relations programs can also make sure companies are recognized for their good efforts because celiac organizations are not just about calling out those who make mistakes. The annual Gluten-free Awards are just one opportunity to be recognized for gluten-free products. Companies must first register their gluten-free products in the buyers’ guide. Award winners are selected from the guide or by respected gluten-free bloggers.

Directories, Certification & Training

There are several product directories and listings of companies and restaurants that are certified to have gluten-free products. None are comprehensive but they are definitely trying and growing. The best advice is to seek them out and ask to be listed. It will only help your business.

Restaurants, schools, colleges and camps wanting to be gluten-free certified should consider Beyond Celiac’s certification program called GREAT Kitchens. This is a series of online program for chefs and front- and back- of-the-house staff. It includes of a variety of resources for training teams about gluten-free food handling.

The National Celiac Association has a listing of gluten-free restaurants as well as guides for school cafeteria programs and college campus survival. These are oriented to consumers but offer good guidance to college foodservice programs as well. Another is led by the Gluten Intolerance Group, including a relatively new food services division providing certification for food companies like meal prep companies and restaurants.

One thing is sure. As more people are diagnosed with celiac, or even gluten intolerances, there will be continue to be growth in these areas. Competing directories and certifications only mean there’s a true need for these programs they eventually will merge to become stronger and more comprehensive resources for those who need them.

Additional Celiac Resources

National Institutes of Health

Beyond Celiac

GREAT Kitchens

National Celiac Association

Gluten-Free Certification Organization -- Product Directory

Gluten-Free Food Service

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The Barber Group

Gig Harbor, Washington


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