Reading Restaurant Menus: the despair and the glory

MaryKate and Corinne of sparecake.com at some taqueria in Denver
MaryKate and Corinne of sparecake.com at some taqueria in Denver

I just read this in an online menu:

SHRIMP & GRITS

spicy New Orleans garlic sauce, poached eggs, Cajun seasoned baked grits

peanut-free, tree-nut-free, gluten-free, egg-free, soy-free. ALLERGENS  dairy

The menu writer appears to be working from the top 8 allergens list, which is fair, except they’ve failed to acknowledge two of the 8. Of the final two, fish and shellfish, one of these is in this dish. And this dish lists “poached eggs” on the line before it says “egg-free.” So as to not distract you from the important parts of the menu listing, I’ve also corrected three typographic errors.

The restaurant’s website description talked about their seasonal inspirations, local sourcing, and vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options. But the subsequent menus were inconsistently marked. Only one was marked like the entry above, with allergens. The others just marked “vegetarian” options (which, in my experience, usually means they contain dairy, eggs, or both). Some of them listed ingredients, some did not.

I read this menu and assume that this restaurant will try to kill me. I assume that the owners and managers do not at all know what the hell they are doing. I don’t trust this restaurant at all. But I worry about someone new to their own allergy apocalypse or to their child’s allergies, because when you’re new to this world, you might look at that and think the opposite — that this is a place that you could eat in safely because, look, they listed allergens.

This is one of the reasons that I prefer to check out menus online before visiting restaurants. I can look at how they label their menus. I can look for obvious errors like this. I can look for restaurants that either label dishes “gluten-free” or even have full gluten-free menus — but that also have a disclaimer about not being celiac-safe, or discuss how they can’t prevent cross-contamination in a way that leads me to believe that their kitchen staff has no training. I make a lot of value judgements based on how things are worded, and I am comfortable with that because this is my health.

Even with this pre-vetting, it doesn’t prevent experiences like the one Jack had the other day. I was having serious transit issues and was running late, so he ended up ordering food for me at a new-to-us restaurant that I had pre-vetted online but had not called. (I do not usually call. I am not always my own best advocate, I know. I should call.) They advertised “gluten-free buns” for their burgers and a dedicated fryer for fries, as well as all their locally-sourced ingredients. This made me hopefully that they’d carry one of the local gluten-free buns like two other burger places we’ve visited. In Seattle, both Olivia’s and NuFlours sell wholesale gluten-free vegan buns that are safe for me and tasty. They are local dedicated gluten-free bakeries, and their products are excellent. There is one other local option I’m aware of, the large Franz Bakery company, but their buns contain eggs & aren’t safe for me.

Jack asked about the gluten-free buns, and no one knew. One employee brought out a box with an ingredient list on it, but it was a Sisco box for the regular buns. Given the lack of knowledge, he smartly ordered me a bunless burger. Both other burger joints we’ve been to have had the ingredient list on a card or taped up near the register so they can answer questions, as they know that many (not all, but many) people ordering a special bun may have a need to know the ingredients. Simple, but remarkably uncommon.

I am amazed at the number of businesses advertising gluten-free or allergy-friendly products who do not have information about their ingredients on their promotional materials, on their websites, or even in their stores. If you are trying to cater to this market, you are not doing it well. When I’m visiting a city other than my own, I’m looking for these types of businesses, but if I can’t even find a sample menu on your Facebook page or website, I’m probably not going to take the time to call you to find out what you have. And I definitely won’t go out of my way to visit.

I do understand that the majority of the restaurants and bakeries I’ve tracked down to visit are small businesses with limited capacity. The food allergy market is small, and so is the celiac market, though the “gluten-lite/-friendly/-aware” market is large. But it seems to me, as a patron instead of owner, that small businesses catering to this market should maximize the utility of their websites by making sure they provide as much information as possible — including how best to contact someone. If you want the food allergy market, be clear about what you do and what you don’t.

“Dedicated gluten-free facility” or “dedicated peanut/nut-free facility” are important distinctions, as cross-contamination issues for these two allergens seem to be a greater concern than many others. I haven’t seen a lot of other “dedicated free” facilities, personally, but would be interested to know if others have.

But rather than track down the bad websites, which are mostly businesses I did not bother to visit (or “out” the business whose menu I copied above, which isn’t productive — although if you recognize yourself or your business in this description — fix it!), I thought I would link you to a few businesses I’ve found in my travels that have done it right — including a few that told me clearly that driving way out of my way wasn’t worth my while, which I appreciated. List the ingredients. Be transparent. That’s all we want.

Taffets bakery in Philadelphia has done an excellent job of listing all their ingredients and being open about their processes. Because most of their breads have eggs, we didn’t make a special trip to visit, but their website was really informative and allergy-friendly.

Sweet Freedom in Philly also does a great job of listing ingredients for most of their standard recipes, and in the store they have carried through in labeling what’s in the case, as well. They do claim to be “corn-free” but I know that those of you who are corn-allergic would have some questions. If you’ve asked them, feel free to chime in.

My two favorite dedicated gluten-free restaurants in Seattle are Capitol Cider and Ghostfish, both of whom do decent jobs on their online menus. Both are clear, upfront, that they are dedicated gluten-free businesses, which helps. Ghostfish lists ingredients, and marks what is vegetarian, vegan, and dairy-free. Their staff, from experience, is well-trained to not guess but check with the chef any time a diner has questions. (And their corn chowder made me ask my server if it was really vegan — but it is.)  Capitol Cider‘s menu is done similarly – not all menu items list potential allergens, which has made me ask extra questions about some of them, but the ingredients lists and allergens on most things are super-helpful and confidence-boosting.

And for dessert, Seattlites, check out Frankie & Jo’s (vegan ice cream, gluten-free, but mostly nut-based, all ingredients listed for all flavors).

Because we want good things for all of you who read this blog because you have allergies or someone you love does, I also offer the following tips:

Be clear about what type of business you are. If you are a vegan business, a gluten-free business, or both, state it clearly. Don’t make a reader guess. If you’re worried about scaring away customers, you don’t have to make it your headline, but put it in your “about” page. We are reading most of the website.

If you are a gluten-free business, tell me whether your store and cooking space are dedicated gluten-free spaces. Same if you are a nut-free or peanut-free business. Cross contamination for these particular allergens seem to be a bigger problem than for other ingredients.

If you want to claim you are corn-free, consider reading our page on why we don’t declare recipes “corn-free.” See if you still feel comfortable with that designation.

If your products are mixed — some are gluten-free, some aren’t, some are nut-free, some aren’t, you serve seafood but also non-seafood, some of your dishes are vegetarian and some aren’t — tell us how you insure that things aren’t screwed up in the kitchen. Do you have dedicated prep and/or cooking spaces? If you fry foods, do you have a “safe” fryer — do you have a dedicated gluten-free fryer or a non-seafood fryer? Do you use peanut oil to fry things? Do you train your staff using a specific protocol (Massachussetts has one)? Do you use particular dishes or serving protocols?

If you’ve taken the time to do these things, TELL US. Advertise your work. Eating out is a big part of social lives in the US, and it’s a part that becomes a minefield when you have food allergies. We really want to go out to eat, but safely, and if you make it easier for us — let’s just say that we’re dedicated patrons.

Readers, do you have good (or bad!) examples of allergen statements on menus? We’d love to know about them.

    Talk to us.