Thursday, May 24, 2012

What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate...Gluten Free

This photo has nothing to do with this post.
A lovely, relaxing photo was simply a nice antidote to my current mood.

I promised in a post last week that I would be writing more on a book I recently read title Allergic Girl by Sloane Miller. Unfortunately, not only should I have written about it sooner, I should have studied it better.

My fabulous niece/goddaughter and I went for a nice walk along a beautiful trail that runs through our town. After a three mile trek, we decided to grab dinner at one of my favorite and familiar local burger joints. All started well with a friendly and attentive host who replied with a confident 'yes' when I asked if I could have a gluten free menu. We sat at a table right on the trail and had a very modern chat, trading phones back and forth as we discovered something new and funny on twitter or facebook. We were giggling away when the server arrived, a sweet young gal (SYG) obviously brimming with enthusiasm for her new job.

That would be the end of the happy part of this story. Let me recap the downslide.

Me: I'll have the house special burger, gluten-free.

SYG: What's that?

Me: Gluten-free. I have a food sensitivity. Just make sure you note it on the ticket. The kitchen will understand.

SYG: Okay. Your side?

Me: I'll have whatever side the kitchen recommends as gluten free.

SYG: Well, it comes with a side.

Me: Yes, I need a GLUTEN-free side. Please just note for the kitchen that I'll take any gluten-free side they recommend.

SYG: Okay

At that point, my gut said, "Get a manager, STAT." My inner southern girl said, "Don't make a fuss." The latter is a mantra from my childhood, taught by my mother. She's been gone for over ten years, yet she still beats out my intuition every time. Of course, even Mom would have agreed with my gut on this one.

The burger was brought out by a kitchen staff member who plopped down a plate of fries. I asked if they were gluten-free. He turned to another server, not SYG, and my niece saw him roll his eyes. Looking back to me he simply said, "I don't know" to which I responded, "Could you find out?"

A few minutes later, SYG came back. I asked again about the fries and she also said she didn't know. To which I said, "But I asked you to tell the kitchen to give me a gluten-free side." SYG response, "Um, let me go check."

A few minutes later, "No, they aren't gluten free. What else can I bring you?"

That was the moment of truth. The point in time where I should have said, "A manager" or "A whole new dinner" or "the big reveal of the candid camera crew for the latest episode of What Would You Do". But, no, I chickened out and said "steamed veggies." Then, and I still can't believe I did this, I ATE THE STUPID BURGER!! I still was in so much denial that my safe, reliable burger joint wouldn't screw up THAT badly, that I ate a burger that was obviously not safe for me to consume. Of course, here I am two hours later, fatigued, irritable and with an extremely upset stomach.

So, let's break down where I went wrong per Allergic Girl, shall we?

1. First and foremost, I didn't get anyone on the restaurant staff on Team Me. Ms. Miller talks quite a bit about engaging someone in the restaurant whether it be the manager, chef, or server to have an interest in serving me safely. Building rapport not only makes for a more pleasant dinner, but also a safer one.

2. I put way too much trust in the wrong person. In the book it is repeated often that the only one responsible for my safety is me. It's not that I trusted SYG to understand gluten-free, but I did trust her to communicate my order precisely to the kitchen. She was obviously too new and too overwhelmed to be expected to focus on my health. It was unfair of me to put that on her. 

3. I ignored my gut. When my head is screaming "Don't eat it!" or "Ask for the manager!" I shouldn't even question it. It's far more polite and appropriate to give a restaurant the opportunity to put their best foot forward, rather than blindly throwing in an order and hoping for the best.

4. I didn't do anything to win over the kitchen staff who served my food or to educate SYG. This is a bit iffy. After all the kitchen guy rolled his eyes at me. However, I also was on edge and anxious when I saw those waffle fries. I knew it was a no-go and I was irritated. The best move would have been to smile and state, "As I mentioned to my server, I have a food sensitivity and I really need your help to ensure I don't get sick. Could you verify for me that these fries are gluten free and safe for me to eat?" It's hard to eye-roll someone trying to enlist you as a defender. But, when someone barks in half-panic, "Are these gluten-free?", I'm sure a hectic kitchen staff member could give a rat's behind what your problem is. That may not be fair, but it is reality.

5. I wasn't prepared to not eat. One reason I ignored my gut is that I was famished. We had just walked several miles and I had nothing in my purse to nosh on. Had there been one Gluten Free Bar or protein shake mix in my possession, I could have more easily refused my burger and snacked from my purse while continuing to enjoy a beverage and the conversation. Instead, I was desperate for food and vulnerable to making a dining blunder.

There is quite a bit more in Allergy Girl that is valuable to anyone on a special diet. These are simply the top five I really need to work on. What are some of your tricks for dealing with dining out? I'm sure there are some other restaurant blunders out there. Please do share!

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