Food Allergy Counseling

Food Allergy Counseling
Sloane Miller, Food Allergy Counselor (Picture © Noel Malcolm 2013)

Friday, March 26, 2010

"Don't Eat Here"

“If you’re that allergic, then you shouldn’t eat here.”

It’s been a long time since I heard that stock phrase; however, on this day, I could see it coming.

***

A few years ago, prompted by a family member with celiac disease Mozzarelli’s started offering a gluten-free pizza option. I, along with other GF NYC bloggers went to a Gluten-Free Sunday party – it was big fun.

At the time I spoke with co-owner Chef Ronny about their gluten-free pizza dough. He told me that they were using Bob’s Red Mill as the base and also delineated the special precautions they had taken so one day a week Mozzarelli’s would be completely gluten-free. Sounded great.

I tried the pizza - tomato-y sauce and fresh mozz - but I had a reaction, a slight throaty, itchy thing, the cause of which I couldn’t isolate. Was is the fresh tomatoes - I have a nightshade veggie allergy (mainly eggplant though)? Was it the GF Bob’s Red Mill - they also mill nut flours in the GF facility? Was it some oral allergy syndrome to something blooming that day? I don’t know but I didn’t return.

That is until Tuesday.

Around lunchtime, I was in the Madison Park district and as I passed Mozzarelli’s I saw that now they are advertising Gluten-Free on major signage outside and inside of the pizza parlor (it's also all over the website). They want the gluten-free customer, one would presume. I thought I’d go in, ask some questions – maybe the recipe had changed, maybe I could have some gluten-free pizza. I have an Allergic Girl routine, some of which I outline here.

I saw someone who looked like Chef Ronny counting out receipts by the till. After looking at all the lovely GF pizza options, I walked over and said, “Are you the owner?”

“Yes.”

“Oh great! I think I may have met you once before. Are you Chef Ronny?”

“No, I’m Eli, his brother. But we look exactly alike.”

“Ah, OK. Hi Eli! I have some questions about your gluten-free pizza crust and I’m hoping you can help me.”

Eli was barely looking at me. He was still working with the receipts. As he had identified himself as the owner, he was the one I needed to speak with; but it was evident that I did not have his undivided attention. (First indication of an issue.)

“Do you still use Bob’s Red Mill as the basis for your gluten-free pizza dough?”

“No. We use a blend of a lot of different flours.

“Really. Chef Ronny told me that you used Bob’s Red Mill as the base.”

“No! Never. We never did.” (Second indication that things weren't going well - what's the truth here?)

“Hmm, OK, well that’s what he said last time I asked. So, can you tell me what kind of gluten-free flours you use?”

“I already told you it’s a blend of a lot of different stuff.” He was looking at me sideways, barely making eye contact. He seemed visibly agitated at my questions, and his mouth was twitching as he spoke. “Why are you asking?” (Third point - the owner was becoming defensive, never a a good thing.)

I kept smiling, kept my voice soft and not aggressive: “Because I have food allergies and it would be helpful to know if you use nut flours or gluten-free flours that are made by suppliers that mill nut flours.”

“If you are that allergic, you shouldn’t eat here.” (Pow, right in the kisser.)

Dismissed.

“OK,” I said and turned on my heels, Tweeting my displeasure as I walked down the street.

Mozzarelli’s advertised that they wanted my gluten-free business then turned me away when I asked about what I would be eating. What is going on here?

After I calmed down and stepped back from feeling personally wounded, I thought about the vital components for choosing (and unchoosing) a foodservice establishment for any dietary restricted patron, me included:

1. A foodservice establishment that bills itself as "gluten-free", "allergen-free", "allergen-friendly" or sells specialty goods, menu items or dishes for the restricted diet community must be transparent about their ingredients. Said another way, if you want our business, then tell us what you're doing. Babycakes, when they first opened, wouldn’t share their ingredients and I blogged about it. Now, they have the ingredients on their site and the owner wrote a cookbook detailing the recipes so we are all able to make an informed decision.

2. A food allergic, celiac or food intolerant patron can only establish trust with a restaurant when a restaurant is open and welcoming. If staff, managers, chefs or owners are rude, non-communicative, confused or uneducated about what they are selling *or* do not make an effort to welcome your business (including your questions), take your business elsewhere. Here’s my ever growing list of allergy-friendly and welcoming spots in NYC.

3. Anyone in the hospitality business should be hospitable. Patronize restaurants that are hospitable, period. Chef Ming Tsai, who headed up the food allergy laws in Massachusetts says this in The Atlantic Monthly:"I've always believed if you're in the restaurant business, which is in the hospitality and service industry, after all, it is your duty to serve everyone safe food." Tsai also said this in Cookie magazine: "And if a restaurant says, 'We'd rather not serve you,' get out and find one that will.".

Here, in NYC, we are very lucky. Not only is it a huge gluten-free playing field but the restaurant business is booming. There are at least 20,000 other restaurants in NYC to try and I know there is a high percentage of those who will welcome me and my business with open allergen-friendly arms. Stay tuned as I find more of those.

12 comments:

Jenny said...

Thanks for sharing this story--I'm sorry this chef was so unresponsive and dismissive. Why they would advertise "gluten-free" and then refuse to disclose their gluten-free flours and/or practices is really weird. Sounds like they were winging it. Can't do that with allergies, folks!

I have also warned others that even if a bakery or restaurant claims it can offer "allergy-free" of anything, you still need to follow up. Unfortunately, wanting FA or GF business and having integrity are not the same thing.

Again, thanks for sharing your story.

GFree_Miel said...

I'm so sorry that happened to you. It makes me so angry. Though I'm strictly Celiac Disease and am lucky not to have other allergies, I know I'd like to know what was in their supposedly gluten free dough. How can I trust what they're making? But there are always going to be people that don't understand the strife we have trying to find safe food. It's sad but true.


Hopefully there will be less restaurants like this eventually.

Mamita Ive said...

I understand your frustration, but I think that maybe you should have asked to talk to the chef rather than the owner. There's not excuse for this person for being rude to you, but I don't think he had any idea whatsoever how to answer you. Just because he is the owner, doesn't mean he might have an idea what goes on in the kitchen.

Aside from that, you mention he was busy working with receipts. I'm not sure if you've ever worked at a restaurant, but it can be quite overwhelming, especially for the person that accounts for the receipts. That might have been the main reason why he was so short with you.

Food Allergy Queen said...

Sloane, this is infuriating. I'm so sorry that they were being such a-holes. Sounds like they are just trying to jump onto the gluten-free bandwagon and really don't give a s**t about customer service.

Mamita, I'm sorry I disagree with you, I've been both a caterer and worked in restaurants. There is no excuse to treat customers poorly, even if you're busy -- good customer service is sometimes the only reason you get repeat customers. And Sloane was asking for HEALTH reasons, not just to be a pain, even more reason to be respectful.

Glad you're sharing this story, too bad they can't get busted like the guy who lied about his gluten-free bread that wasn't!

You go, Allergic Girl.

Gab said...

We've had restaurants that have advised us that they couldn't offer a safe experience - but they have never been rude. If anything, they are usually overly apologetic. There was no excuse for his behavior - he could have put down his receipts and given you his attention. So rude.

I'm sorry you experienced this - but think about all the other fab places you've been in NYC that DO get it.

Francisca said...

wow. unbelievable.

thought businesses are bound by law to be truthful to what they advertise. i guess FDA can't really tell restaurants how they are to "package" and market their food products, eh?
:)

Diana said...

Maybe Eli and Ronny have a Jekyll/Hide thing going on?

While I believe that every restaurant has the right to serve what they want and not necessarily accommodate those of us with special dietary needs (hey, if they don't want the business...fine), I also believe that if you're actually going to blatantly promote special dietary items and then not being truthful about them, you're putting your customers at serious risk.

Unlike restaurants who hop on other food fad bandwagons (remember when every pizza place and bread shop had a 'low carb' option?) food allergies aren't something people choose to have and generally can't just not worry about it for an evening like someone abandoning their low carb diet for a slice of awesome pepperoni pizza.

kyledine said...

That's really unfortunate to hear Sloane. I was once told I shouldn't eat at a restaurant, but only because they were concerned that a safe meal for me just wasn't achievable within their kitchen. I appreciated their honesty and transparency, qualities that seem to be truly lacking from the pizza place you visited.

Food Allergy Assistant said...

Thanks for sharing this experience. It is a great reminder of what we should look for in a restaurant. It is also a great reminder to simply leave if "something doesn't seem right". It's not worth it.

gwen said...

Talk about rude. I'd have been some steamed, too.

If you promote your business as serving those with special diet needs - as these 2 chefs do - then you should be prepared to answer such questions. If not, question arises: do you really walk the walk?

Madeleine-Camille said...

I totally agree. The last time I ate at a restaurant I talked with the waiter, and I thought I had been clear enough and all had been understood, but I guess not. I ended up reacting to something, thankfully it wasn't bad. Since then I don't feel comfortable going out to eat, unless I could watch them in the kitchen making my food.
But it's not just at restaurants that I have to be very inquisitive. Just yesterday at a potluck, I asked someone who had brought sweet potatoes. When I asked her what was in them she said "oh, just sweet potatoes and marshmallows." I asked her several times if it was just those two ingredients, and she kept saying yes, till she happened to mention that there was brown sugar and butter too. Oh, thanks for telling me that... if I hadn't known, I would have thought I could have it, and now would be in big trouble.

Katrina said...

Thanks for the great (although maddening) post. It always amazes me when a staff member acts like you are unreasonable for asking about what they are serving you. Yes, restaurants get busy, but I'm sure if they keep treating customers that way it will get un-busy very quickly.

I had the fantastic opportunity to interview Ming Tsai for an upcoming magazine article. Talk about someone who gets it! I hope his efforts help others understand that people with allergies are a potentially ENORMOUS and LOYAL customer base if they can learn to serve us appropriately.