The Diner ➡️ The Server ➡️ The Kitchen
Let’s talk about the importance of sufficient food safety training and a positive attitude on allergies for front of house staff in the food industry.
It’s not uncommon for people to have a bad experience when eating out; maybe the staff were rude, the food took ages to arrive or you think that it was a waste of money and you could have cooked a better meal at home. If, however, you’re someone who has special dietary needs like an allergy or food intolerance, you’re likely to have a negative experience more often than not. Alongside the usual gripes, you have to make sure your dietary requirements are confidently understood, deal with the anxiety of knowing you might end up sick from eating something you shouldn’t and accept that eating out will never be the same as it was when you were free from food restrictions.
One thing that can really take the pressure off is having a good server that takes time to listen to your requirements, makes every effort to put you at ease and generally knows their stuff. But sadly, you aren’t always guaranteed that treatment.
Now that really takes the biscuit!
One of my frustrating server experiences was going out for brunch as a newly diagnosed coeliac. I’d checked the restaurant menus and allergen matrix online which I’d studied before we went (as we do) and worked out that I could have the breakfast with gluten free toast but no sausages or black pudding as these both contained wheat. So when we ordered, I explained I had coeliac disease and asked for the gluten free version of the full English breakfast and my partner asked for the normal full English but when read back, the waiter just said two full English breakfasts. I asked to confirm that one of those was going to be gluten free and got the response ‘oh yeah, one breakfast with gf toast’.
Low and behold, my breakfast came out with GF toast but still had the sausage and black pudding on the plate which I questioned. The waiter really didn’t understand the problem even though I explained I’d checked the matrix and several times he said ‘I think they are gluten free’ and rolled his eyes when I asked him to double check with the kitchen. After a lot of back and forth and asking to speak to the manager, they finally apologised and said that the sausages and pudding weren’t safe for me so could I please not eat them. I then had to explain (to both the waiter and the manager) that because they’d touched the rest of my food and I wasn’t confident that my requirements had been properly communicated to the kitchen and that I’d like a new breakfast.
After about 10 minutes, my partner having pretty much finished his meal, the manager came over and asked if I did actually want a new breakfast or if I didn’t want to eat. I thought the kitchen were already sorting me out a fresh plate! Anyway, she apologised and asked if she could get us a coffee on the house to make up for the mistake with my order and for the wait. After the absolute rigmarole we’d gone through explaining my dietary requirements whilst to be honest, being made to feel like the biggest inconvenience, she served my coffee to me with a normal biscuit balanced on the spoon. Come on!
If I hadn't already checked the online allergen matrix then I’d have happily eaten my ‘gluten free’ breakfast and could have had a nasty case of being glutened. Not only did the waiter not understand or take seriously the severity of my order, the manager clearly didn’t consider cross-contamination and the whole experience was embarrassing for me to have to cause a scene and consistently double check and question everything.
I thought to myself, if this was what eating out was going to be like as a coeliac, I’d rather stay in and cook going forward!
Luckily, since then, my confidence has been restored and I’ve had some great dining experiences over the past few years in and outside of the UK. That’s not to say that every meal out is smooth sailing; it’s still struggle a lot of the time and I think the main issue I come up against is the noticeable lack of understanding and/or empathy from servers.
It got me thinking about the requirements for food safety training in the UK for non-kitchen staff and the negative views people have to those with additional dietary needs.
What does the law say?
Throughout college and university I worked part time as a waitress in various restaurants, but not once did I receive any food safety training. I was shown how to make a flower out of a napkin, that gammon isn’t just chunky bacon and self taught how to conceal a laugh when someone asked for spotted dick but aside from nut allergies, I wouldn’t have been aware of other allergies or intolerances nor the severity of them. Given, I wasn’t the one whipping up dishes in the kitchen, but I was the one person who carried all requests and dietary requirements from the customer to the kitchen.
Did I ever disregard peoples dietary requirements like the waiter did with me?
Did I confidently and correctly answer allergy queries despite having no training?
Once I graduated from uni, I actually got a job in marketing for a food safety auditing and training business and, lucky for the blogger and coeliac in me today, I learnt a lot about the legislation and procedures that are put in place for food establishments to follow in order to be compliant in food safety laws. Annoyingly, I left the job a few months before I was diagnosed with coeliac disease or I could have sneakily used it to my advantage to find the best and safest places to eat at!
UK food safety training isn’t black and white and there’s nothing in legislation to state what level of food safety training a member of staff must have; it’s for the business to decide what is appropriate based on their role. Industry guidance for back of house kitchen staff is that they should have at least level 2 food safety training whilst front of house staff should have at least level 1.
If businesses can’t prove they have trained staff or have a training plan in place, they’ll loose marks on their food hygiene inspections. But does that mean that all businesses are adhering to the guidance set out?
😵💫 The advice given by the Food Standards Agency is ambiguous so the importance of training certain roles could be overlooked
💸 Training of any sort is an expense, so if a business is trying to think of ways to cut down on their spending, food safety training for non-kitchen staff might be top of the get rid list
🧑🏽💻 eLearning is becoming the most popular way to deliver training courses but can be easily skimmed through and completed without the employee really taking in the information
🗓️ Are businesses making sure to renew training as and when required or is it a tick box exercise for new starters which isn’t looked at again
From working at a food safety company, I saw clear examples of food businesses cutting corners on training like above; only kitchen staff and managers were set up for training, the questionnaires at the end of tests were retaken multiple times until they got at least 60% correct and training wasn’t always scheduled to be renewed when needed.
Is that an attitude I hear?!
Sufficient food safety training will no doubt educate front of house staff on the severity of allergens and intolerances and hopefully encourage them to liaise better with customers. However, if someone holds a negative attitude or belief towards any kind of dietary requirements, training will only take you half way.
It’s almost an ongoing joke that people who are gluten free are just annoying people. It only takes a search of ‘gluten free’ on Twitter or Reddit to be faced with post after post slating us for being the nightmare customer and calling us ‘entitled snowflakes’. Ouch!
Even though I have coeliac disease and not a gluten intolerance, I 100% stand by the fact that anyone with a food intolerance, mild or severe, deserves to be treated with as much seriousness and respect as someone with an allergy. I’m sure that anyone one with additional dietary requirements is with me when I emphasise just how jealous I am of people who can walk into a restaurant and not have to tell the server their entire medical life story.
Do people possess these views because of the fad diet culture and trends that have taken off over the past few years and have arguably taken away from the fact that most people who follow a particular diet are doing it for medical reasons. Or could it be down to more and more people now going vegetarian or vegan, many of whom are also viewed negatively and judged but are blurring the line between choice and need.
Whatever the reason, if someone holds these beliefs then they’re less likely to take allergens and other requirements seriously.
Interestingly, I came across a study done in Düsseldorf which explored food allergy knowledge and attitudes among restaurant staff in Germany. They found that out of their research group only a third were able to name three food allergens and regarding attitudes, 42% believed that many food allergies reported by customers simply aren’t true.
In conclusion, they found that knowledge of the participants was poor and could put those with food allergies at increased risk when eating out, even in those who had received training.
I’d be interested to see a similar study done in the UK!
So, now what?
I think it’s safe to say that regularly training front of house staff on food safety and allergen awareness is incredibly important, together with having a positive and empathetic attitude towards customers who have additional dietary needs.
A server who has this will go a long way and is more likely to:
communicate better with their customer
confidently answer questions the customer has on food safety and allergens
feed back requests to the kitchen correctly
go above and beyond so the customer feels as comfortable and relaxed as possible
There’s also a much smaller chance of any slip ups and the customers will walk away happy, safe and likely to spread word of their positive experience at a great business. One small change can make one big difference!
Could a restaurant experience make you as happy as Nicole Kidman divorcing Tom Cruise?
We are Glee
We want Glee to be the number 1 go to platform for users to find and review gluten free restaurants all over the UK, from big chains to small stand-alone cafés. A big focus will be how well you would rate the servers knowledge on gluten free food and cross-contamination; if you don’t think it was up to scratch and there are a lot of reviews that say the same, it’s a great opening for us to reach out to the restaurant or for them to see for themselves and hopefully put some changes in place.
They might want to:
Review their training procedures and put in refresher sessions to keep everyone up to date
😁 Invest in formal training by an accredited food safety business
🤗 Make sure that their staff and management have a positive attitude towards people with allergies and intolerances
🤩 Add in a procedure for staff to ask if anyone has an allergy they should be aware of whilst giving out menus
🥳 Start labelling dietary requirement dishes with a flag so that the customer feels more at ease
At the same time, if you have had a great experience at a restaurant where the staff were super knowledgeable and went above and beyond to make you feel certain your dietary requirements were met, then review review review! Rave about the place, name drop your amazing waiter, urge people to visit because the more positive reviews places have on Glee, the more others will strive to be that good and change their gluten free ways. Who knows, maybe in years to come we won’t need Glee because everywhere will be great at being gluten free.🤞🏽
Spread the Glee!