Why Training Is the Key to Accurate Messaging About Gluten-Free Foodservice

Although restaurants are increasingly interested in meeting the needs of gluten-free consumers, there’s plenty of room for improvement in the messaging used to communicate about gluten-free options. When staff are unable to answer basic questions about your gluten-free menu, or ask inappropriate questions of guests who inquire about gluten-free options, consumers may have doubts about your ability to ensure their safety or prepare a dish that meets their dietary needs. Without this assurance, gluten-free consumers are likely to take their business elsewhere – or, worse yet, leave negative reviews on popular dining apps. Training your staff in best practices for serving gluten-free dishes is one of the best proactive measures you can take to avoid such conflicts, as well as to demonstrate your commitment to ensuring the safety of gluten-free diners.

Messaging about gluten-free options and safety protocols begins with your menu. The first step is to clearly identify any gluten-free dishes. The menu is also a great place to indicate whether you are validated by a third-party program like Gluten-Free Food Service (GFFS), a designation that signals to gluten-free diners that you take their needs seriously and are implementing the proper measures to eliminate cross-contact.

Once you’ve addressed the messaging on your menu, it’s important to make sure your staff is prepared to answer questions about your gluten-free program. Nobody wants to feel like a salad is their only option on a menu, but many gluten-free consumers are hesitant to try new options due to concerns about food safety. The more equipped your staff is to answer questions about gluten-free options and the procedures used to prevent cross-contact, the more likely gluten-free consumers are to make your restaurant their go-to choice for eating out.  

In particular, it’s important to prepare your staff to answer the following questions:

  • Do you use dedicated equipment and kitchen areas to prepare gluten-free dishes?
  • How do you prevent cross-contact in your salad bar?
  • Do you employ alternatives to wheat flour to prepare gluten-free baked goods and pizza dough? If so, what are they?
  • What ingredients do you put in your pasta sauce?
  • Do you use separate pots of water to boil gluten-free pasta and pastas containing gluten?

Meeting the needs of gluten-free consumers also extends beyond the front of the house. While members of your kitchen staff are unlikely to interact directly with customers, they do need to know what procedures to follow if they run out of an ingredient and be trained on how to validate that any substitutions they use are indeed gluten-free.

Another key factor in earning consumer trust is using the correct terminology on your menus and during service. Restaurants often use ambiguous terms like gluten-friendly, gluten-removed or no gluten to describe their gluten-free dishes. However, these terms can raise red flags because they do not communicate adherence to FDA standards, making them functionally meaningless to gluten-free customers. When writing your menu, stick with the designation “gluten-free” to signal that you are familiar with FDA requirements and have the proper procedures in place to follow them.

It is also important to train customer-facing staff on the correct etiquette for interacting with guests who disclose that they are gluten-free. Topping the list of missteps is asking whether a patron eats gluten-free out of medical necessity or as a lifestyle choice. Questions like these are an invasion of privacy and suggest that you don’t follow standard procedures for preparing gluten-free dishes. When responding to requests for gluten-free options, the best policy is to focus on the protocol you use to prepare foods with potential allergens. When answering customer questions, your front of house staff should also take care with their tone of voice and body language to demonstrate that they are listening actively to the concerns of gluten-free customers.

In terms of training format, the possibilities are virtually endless. One potential starting point is creating a reference sheet that lists your establishment’s answers to frequently asked questions. Pre-shift stand up meetings are an excellent opportunity to remind staff of your gluten-free protocol. More in-depth training methods include online courses and PowerPoint presentations on allergens and gluten-free food preparation. When business is slow, you can also quiz front-of-house staff to verify that they have mastered standard answers to questions about your gluten-free menu.

If you’re looking for support in developing your gluten-free program, consider validating your restaurant with a qualified third party. Gluten-free validation programs like GFFS provide helpful resources and training materials. They can also review your menus and other messaging to ensure that they won’t set off any alarm bells for your gluten-free customers.

As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a good first impression, and this is especially true of gluten-free foodservice. Even if you correct errors when they occur, there’s no guarantee that you’ll win back the trust of a gluten-free diner. Knowing what questions customers are likely to ask, training staff on standard answers, and ensuring you have the proper food-safety protocols in place are three crucial ways you can not only generate rave reviews, but also earn loyalty from gluten-free consumers who can trust you to honor their needs.