While restaurant business is beginning to pick back up after three years of the pandemic, many establishments are now facing new struggles with supply chain issues, rising prices and getting good help (or any help at all) at wages they can afford. For restaurants that serve gluten-free dishes, streamlining or eliminating certain processes might seem like an obvious way to cut costs and accommodate staff shortages. However, this only results in a greater likelihood of mistakes with negative impacts on customers’ health and your restaurant’s reputation, both of which can become costly over time.
Rather than eliminating gluten-free menu items or cutting corners on food safety, restaurants can maximize resources by putting processes for preparing and serving gluten-free dishes in writing. Not only are written policies essential to demonstrating compliance with FDA standards, but they also help you prevent mistakes by creating a standardized process for your employees to follow. If a mistake does occur, you can refer to your written policies to identify any gaps in your staff’s knowledge and assure customers that you have the procedures in place to make things right.
You have a lot of options for documenting your gluten-free processes, most of which are inexpensive and relatively simple to implement. For example, a notebook that includes correct terminology (e.g. “gluten-free” instead of “gluten-removed” or “gluten-friendly”), processes for preventing cross-contact and answers to frequently asked questions can be a great way to keep a running list of practices and procedures. Just make sure you place the notebook in a location where it is accessible to all staff at any time. Other options include hanging posters in the kitchen or communal work areas and posting procedures online. No matter what form your communications take, you’ll also want to ensure you’re asking appropriate members of your staff for input when documenting processes. While it doesn’t matter who writes the final draft, it’s important to ask the people who prepare and serve gluten-free dishes to weigh in on the specific steps, since they know their jobs better than anyone else.
To make sure you cover all aspects of gluten-free foodservice, start from the back of the house, and work your way to the front. Whether you employ color coding, labels or some other method, your first step is to decide how you are going to identify which items are gluten-free when food comes off the truck. To store gluten-free products, consider setting up dedicated areas and be aware of placement. For example, you never want to store regular flour above gluten-free alternatives because particles containing gluten could fall into your gluten-free supply.
Placement also matters on the prep line. Instead of storing hamburger buns on the grill where you cook patties for gluten-free orders, try cooking patties in a skillet on a burner and storing hamburger buns in a separate location. When serving food, try using a different colored plate or a toothpick to indicate that a specific order is gluten-free. If you want to make things extra fancy, you can even choose a toothpick that says gluten-free.
Once you have your policies written down, it’s vital that you implement ongoing training for your staff, since any changes to your menu also require changes to your gluten-free protocols. While you should have your policies in writing, it’s important to make training available in a variety of modalities to accommodate different learning styles among your staff members. In addition to slides or handbooks, you can use standup meetings as opportunities to go over instructions for gluten-free foodservice. Informal quizzes that test an employee’s knowledge on the spot is another terrific way to reinforce learning. Whatever you do, make sure your training includes scenarios that are specific to your restaurant, since this gives staff relevant, hands-on experience with handling real-life scenarios.
Proper implementation of gluten-free procedures is important because even a simple mistake can have serious consequences for your gluten-free customers. Inviting gluten-free support groups or individual customers to offer input on your policies is a great way to get expert advice while providing staff with first-hand perspectives on the importance of preventing cross-contact. You can also get your program validated by an organization like the Gluten-Free Food Service (GFFS) and use the organization’s expertise to develop written policies and a training program.
With all the challenges restaurants are facing post-pandemic, it’s understandable that managers want to streamline their procedures as much as possible. However, putting gluten-free practices in writing and standardizing your processes are two very straightforward ways to simplify gluten-free foodservice, eliminate waste and manage staff turnover. Beyond operational concerns, demonstrating your knowledge of gluten-free standards is good for business, in that it builds trust with customers who are willing to pay for peace of mind when deciding where to eat.
Cynthia Kelly is CEO of the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) and is a dietitian and expert in celiac disease management. GIG’s food safety programs, the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) and Gluten-Free Food Service (GFFS), have been recognized leaders in the gluten-free community for more than 20 years. The GFCO certification logo is the symbol of trust for the gluten-free community, with more than 60,000 products certified worldwide. GFFS Validated Gluten Free Safe Spots, designed to establish trust with gluten-free patrons in the ability of a restaurant or facility to provide safe gluten-free food, can be found at establishments across North America and beyond. For more information, visit www.gluten.org.