Tuesday 8 January 2013

The Great Debate

So I have just had a VERY interesting conversation and I think we should discuss this. The conversation was with the Vice President of Operations for a major restaurant chain. The exchange poses some debate and we should talk about it. Well, I will talk about it and you all can just sit there and listen because I’m a bitch like that.

I was recently at this major chain’s restaurant with my family. The chain (like many others) has a Gluten FRIENDLY menu so we decided to eat there because, as you might have heard, I have Celiac Disease and cannot eat Gluten. Just to keep any new people up to date.

On this particular day at this restaurant the floor was getting railed.

*GETTING RAILED – DEFINITION - VERB : having far too many customers for the amount of servers and cooks scheduled to work forcing the servers to scramble and run around frantically to try to serve 17 tables while maintaining some form of customer service which is basically impossible. The cooks must perform the jobs of twice that many chefs in half the time a task again, which is basically impossible. This has happened to every server and cook in the world at one time or another. This causes heavy drinking after shift when you realize that you made no money because your service was so bad and yet your socks are wet from sweat, beer and your own melted dreams.  Otherwise known as: in the weeds, underwater, drowning, bullshit scheduling and getting fucked.  Will one day be a funny story but not for at least a decade.*

Really, the servers kept their heads up and kept smiling despite the crazy flow of people coming in the door. I made it clear to our server that I was Celiac and I said what I say EVERY time I eat at a restaurant. I said, “I am very severe so please ask the chef to use clean pans, clean hands and clean plates when making my food.” The server said they understood.

Bottom line – I ate Gluten. I was sick. I wrote an email.

Now, the Vice President of the company wrote me back and asked to have a phone conversation about the incident which we did. He made it VERY clear that they are NOT a gluten FREE restaurant and that they do not claim to be, nor do they want to be. At any point during your meal, you could consume gluten.  He was very nice and apologetic about the poor service but he said that their Gluten FRIENDLY menu was for the people who select gluten free as a diet choice NOT for Celiacs.
And there is the issue.

This gauntlet once AGAIN falls to that stupid moron who has read some diet book or seen some stupid infomercial and decided that cutting Gluten out of their diet will make them:


 More toned
 The next bachelor
 More energetic
 More dateable
 Have more to talk about at parties
 More fertile
 Dentally desirable,
 More like me.



I am also aware that restaurants don’t make the claim Gluten FREE for liable reasons. They use terms like Gluten SENSITIVE or Gluten AWARE or in this case Gluten FRIENDLY which imply of course that it’s not guaranteed Gluten FREE. I find this interesting because I have no idea how I would EVER prove to a court of law that I was glutened by a restaurant. What am I going to do, get a good old colonoscopy and have the doc take pictures with a polaroid?

Begin completely factious courtroom scene….

“Your honor, please find plaintiff’s exhibit A:  A microscopic picture of the victims Villi. As you can see, it is trampled down and looks like the grass in the field after Coachella. Please note, your honor that I have no way to prove WHAT caused this damage.”

Like really?

ANYWAY, they use the term Gluten FRIENDLY to make it clear, the VP said that they are NOT a Gluten Free Restaurant and that Celiacs should not expect to get a gluten free meal there.

My argument was, then don’t have a Gluten WHATEVER menu. Don’t. Because to be honest, the ONLY people that it ACTUALLY matters to is Celiacs and it DOES give the impression that you know what you are doing - that you have the training in place to handle a special meal like a Gluten Free one. If you can’t do it the whole way, don’t do it at all. I also argued that anyone who cuts Gluten from their diet for any amount of time will start to feel ill when they ingest trace amounts: so even someone without Celiac Disease will get sick from eating somewhere if the kitchen does not use a clean pan or cutting board.


What does a Gluten FRIENDLY menu imply?

In my opinion, a Gluten menu doesn’t need special items on it. Chicken IS Gluten Free, Vegetables, fruits and nuts ARE Gluten Free. It is how these items are prepared that subject them to Gluten. I assume that a Gluten FRIENDLY menu means that every item on there comes to the restaurant without gluten on them and will be prepared in a clean environment.  In my opinion, a special Gluten Menu implies that someone there knows what Celiacs is, maybe that’s my mistake.

But I literally eat out at least twice a week at both chain and upper end exclusive restaurants. Some of my favorite chains for Celiacs are Moxies (awesome allergy awareness), Earls, Montanas, Joey Tomatoes, Chop and even Original Joes does a pretty good job. I have NEVER been sick at any of these restaurants so someone there is making an effort.

Now, the restaurant I went to doesn’t get any complaints about their Gluten friendly options either, in fact, my complaint was the first of its kind. This means that they are doing something right. Which leads of course to the question, what happened in my case?

In my opinion, the floor was too busy, the cooks too busy and the restaurant too packed to ensure the safety of my food. I think that a cook that was totally overwhelmed used a pan that had JUST had a breaded item in it or he didn’t have time to wipe down the cutting board covered in bread crumbs. I think he knew better, I just don’t think he had time. OR he didn’t even know; maybe the server didn’t even have time to ring in the modifiers. That’s what I think happened. I think someone fucked up. I think accidents happen.

But that is just my opinion.

I was however, certainly impressed that I received a call from the company to apologize for the poor service and discuss the matter. A lesser restaurant wouldn’t have given a shit.

 So- here’s the question: what obligations does a restaurant have to Celiacs?

My answer is NONE.

 A restaurant has NO obligation to cater to me if you don’t want my business.

 I think it comes down to customer service. If you want Celiacs at your restaurant, you will make an effort to ensure that actual Gluten FREE food is on your menu and your chefs make every effort to avoid cross contamination when they hear a Celiac is in the house. If you don’t care about the “1 in 100” Celiacs AND their families as a customer, go ahead, gluten away. No hard feelings, just be honest about it.  

 Will accidents happen? Hells ya! Should you just say, we fucked up, really really sorry? Hells ya. Celiacs poison themselves for pete’s sake. That is our life; we won’t die, well, not today anyway.  Eating out is a risk that we take on every time we leave the house.

 It certainly feels like LESS of a risk at a restaurant with a Gluten SENSITIVE menu so if you don’t want us there, don’t have one because in my opinion, it sends the wrong message but that’s just me.

What does everyone else think?

What do you think when you see a special gluten menu at a restaurant? What does that mean to you?

Comment here or tweet me! @afreakingceliac


  1. First, thanks for the list of restaurants that take things seriously. That's very valuable information for me. Now on to your questions.

    It's been a few years since I practiced Law in Calgary so the following can't be considered legal advice but my recollection of the law on this can be summarized as "no means no".

    The long story is they were informed of how to not poison you and they accepted the duty not to poison you when they agreed to serve you. They breached that duty of care and as such you have a right to be restored, as best as possible, to how you were before they screwed up.

    Its completely trite and irrelevant for them to point out they didn't HAVE to accept responsibility not to poison you. They DID accept the responsibility when they served you and if there was a time for them to refuse to accept responsibility it was before you took your first bite.

    As far as the menu goes, they made an impression that it was safe for you to eat there by saying gluten "Friendly" or "Sensitive" but if they meant that its not safe for Celiac sufferers to eat there they should have done what Dominoes does by adding "not safe for celiacs" on their "gluten-free" menu. They invited you to think that it was safe to eat there by their advertised gluten awareness and did nothing to warn you otherwise.

    You raise the issue of proof. Your testimony is pretty damning proof of itself and in cases like "he says" vs. "she says" the balance of probabilities would likely fall to you without need of any scope. Just saying what you posted that it was busy and you think they screwed up is called prima facie evidence which is enough to put the burden on the restaurant to prove they didn't poison you (good luck with that one).

    If I were a practicing lawyer in Calgary I would like to send them a nice note saying compensation would be accepted in the amount of at least a few days lost wages plus a nominal amount for pain and suffering. But as I'm not I will ask you to "out" the restaurant so I don't get poisoned like you did.

    1. Intresting points Clyde. I never would consider suing a restaurant or asking for compensation for poisoning me. I really just think it's a risk that I have to take eating out as a Celiac. Now the restaurant (which I agreed not to name on the blog and will uphold my word) did have a warning on the menu that stated it wasn't a Gluten Free restaurant - I find most places do this but with some care, I am not sick after eating there.

      I like your point about just agreeing to serve me is the promise of my safety but again, I think mistakes happen and I have no hard feelings.

      Does anyone know if a restaurant HAS been sued for glutening a Celiac? Were they successful?

  2. Laurie,

    I appreciate that mistakes happen and you have no hard feelings.

    I've done a search and I can not find a reported case in Canada about suing a restaurant over gluten poisoning. I did find over 400 cases about food poisoning and I think you might find this recent case from Saskatchewan (nut allergy) interesting. (In the end the plaintiff basically got about $1000 and his legal bills paid, which is worth writing a letter but probably isn't worth suing over.)

    Hope you are feeling well soon.

    1. That's interesting Clyde. Thanks for looking into it. I wonder if we will see a court case in the future as more people are diagnosed? We shall have to wait and see.

  3. I spoke with a local Edmonton restaurant today as they were looking to expand their gluten free offerings. They are hoping to introduce new buns to replace a bread they were using for burgers. The chef mentions that celiacs (or simply gluten free customers) love the restaurant since it is hard to find a gluten free veggie burger. Upon further probing, he mentions that his homemade veggie burger contains oats. I, of course, as what type of oats they use. Regular oats. I mention that oats are not gluten free, and if he was to use them he should really be using uncontaminated oats. His response: He only uses about a teaspoon of oats in each burger so it's really not a big deal and his customers are fine with it.

    Sometimes life is just depressing. Now off to call the Edmonton CCA to see if they can talk some sense into him.

  4. That is totally depressing! I often assume that a Chef has made himself familiar with Celiac's - guess I was wrong!