Our son has been gluten free for over 12 years now, after a diagnosis with Celiac Disease in April 2005. We have dined out considerably since then...and traveled extensively in the U.S. and to many major European cities. There have been ups and downs along the way -- both pleasant surprises and occasional disappointments.
I've written in the past about the Top 10 Mistakes Restaurants Make When Trying to Provide Gluten Free Meals. Don't get me wrong...even as the founder of GlutenFreeTravelSite and the Dine Gluten Free mobile app -- along with this Blog -- I'm actually not particularly hard on restaurants that at least make an effort to serve our gluten free community. And frankly, our 14-year-old son is pretty easy to please as well. As long as there are a few options on a menu -- and they are prepared safely and with optimal taste in mind -- we are happy. At this age, he is content with a juicy steak, a burger on a decent gluten free bun, simply prepared gluten free pasta, most gluten free pizzas, and any chocolate dessert that can claim it's gluten free!
My Top 10 listing from months ago hits on how some restaurants muck up things that should be simple -- or mess up things they must get right (like safe preparation) if they're going to enter the gluten free realm.
My recent frustration is, surprisingly, not on my original Top 10 list. And yet it dawned on me after a trip we just took to Hawaii that this was at least the third time in just the past two years that we've encountered the same rather baffling situation...
Restaurants that can offer a wide range of gluten free meals fail to properly note that fact on their menus.
So many gluten free diners have no idea that they can enjoy a meal similar to what their dining companions are enjoying.
I don't know exactly what the issue is. Restauranteurs, if you are reading this, why would you go to the effort (and expense) of stocking things like gluten free pancake mix, gluten free hamburger buns, gluten free bread, and gluten free pasta and NOT make a note of this on your menu?
Some of you GF folks might wonder what I'm talking about. Maybe you've never encountered this. Or maybe you have -- but just didn't realize what you were missing.
But take, for example, our recent trip to the island of Kauai. We just returned less than a week ago and had a lovely time. How could anyone not have a lovely time in Hawaii? (Just check out this view from our room...)
As usual, I had called the resort way, way ahead of our arrival. The resort was the Marriott Kauai Beach Club in Lihue. We are owners of a Marriott Vacation Club timeshare, and we used our points to book this Bucket List trip with our kids for the week leading up to Christmas.
When I spoke to the resort's sous chef a few months before our arrival -- and then again later to confirm -- he assured me there were plenty of options for gluten free diners to enjoy at breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the resort's main restaurant, Kukui's (pictured below). We discussed various menu options, and I asked about whether they were able to offer gluten free pancakes, muffins, hamburger rolls, pizza, and pasta. They typically stock -- or can prepare -- all those things. I learned our son would have the option of safely ordering steaks, seafood, pasta, and gluten free flatbread for dinner and burgers and salads for lunch. Breakfast would give him numerous choices, whether he ordered off the menu or ate from the buffet. All sounded good.
Best of all, when we arrived, we found the chef's promises were legit. Our son dined on many of these items throughout the course of the week.
However...it was only because I knew these items were available and knew to ask for them that we had the good experience we did. Had I not called ahead of time, I would not have had any way of knowing the resort could accommodate gluten free guests so well.
There were very few notations about gluten free options on any of the menus. The breakfast menu simply stated to make your server aware of any allergies when ordering. The lunch menu listed one salad (kale and toasted quinoa) as being gluten free. That's it. And the dinner menu had no mention of gluten free other than stating that gluten free flatbreads were available. So, according to these menus, a gluten free diner would be fine if they stuck to kale salad and gluten free flatbreads all week.
Why don't places like this at least notate all items that can be gluten free with minor modifications?
I assume high-end resorts like this want to please their guests, right? Of course they do.
And I assume if they've gone to the trouble of stocking certain gluten free substitutes and training their kitchen staff on proper preparation, then they want these products to get used.
So why only list a fraction of the items they have available? It gives the impression that there is very little a gluten free diner can eat...and therefore they will likely take their business elsewhere. This is lost revenue for restaurants.
It also gives the impression that the kitchen staff doesn't want to -- or can't -- make simple modifications to make a meal safe for diners with dietary restrictions. (And in this case, I knew from talking to the sous chef that they certainly could.) In fact, I ordered the most delicious macadamia-crusted fish the night we dined at Kukui's. It wasn't gluten free as it typically comes (which was fine, as I'm not Celiac), but when I asked if they could modify it to be gluten free, the server said that they could. So why not make this clear on the menu?!
The most unfortunate part of the story involved me coincidentally running into another Celiac traveler at the bar one day. I was ordering a burger on a gluten free bun for our son, and the woman next to me introduced herself and said that she, too, had Celiac. So we got to talking...and I came to find out that she had NO idea they offered gluten free buns. She had eaten her burger the day before in a lettuce wrap (and that was not by choice!). And she was not aware of any of the special breakfast offerings like wonderfully moist homemade muffins that you could request in advance for any morning. She was not aware of the gluten free pancakes or gluten free pasta. But how would she know, given that nothing was mentioned on the menu?
Now, perhaps she should have asked to talk to a chef at her first meal upon arrival. But many people just assume that if gluten free items are available, they will be noted on the menu.
This is not the first time we've encountered this. Far from it. The same thing happened on a Royal Caribbean cruise two years ago (also at Christmastime). We had a fabulous time. And our son ate very well...there were typically three or more entree options to choose from each night at dinner...and even gluten free pizza on board. But many items I knew were available were not mentioned on the menu. I had only learned about them by talking to someone at Royal Caribbean prior to our trip. And it wasn't until I was granted a special tour of the galley (because I was writing an article for Simply Gluten Free magazine) that I learned that there was a different gluten free bread made for dinner each night (we'd always just been offered the same basic variety). It wasn't until this tour that I learned Udi's gluten free cookies (individually wrapped in cellophane) were available (that sure would have come in handy to have as a supplement for the non-GF cookies in the boxed lunch/snack given to us for our full-day excursion at one of the ports). And it was on this tour that I also learned that the chefs would happily prepare gluten free crab cakes for our son if given a day's notice (who knew?!). I was elated and frustrated at the same time. How many gluten free travelers sail on these cruises only to accept "less than" options?
Again, this is lost business for these cruise lines and resorts. Instead of impressing their gluten free guests with the ability they already have, they keep these things hidden to all except the vocal few who ask a ton of questions and do advance research.
This past April, our family spent 3 nights at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Pennsylvania. It's a highly regarded resort with many different dining options on site (good thing, because there isn't much else around in the way of dining). Their restaurants range from poolside dining (in the summer) and a sports bar/restaurant to an expensive Frank Lloyd Wright inspired restaurant and the five-diamond, five-star Lautrec. But they, too, undersold their capabilities. Gluten free items or modifications I'd been told were available were rarely mentioned on the resort's menus. I only knew the extent of what they were capable of due to my correspondence with the dining staff prior to our trip.
And, ironically, it was this same frustration (with resorts making their gluten free options a mystery) that first inspired me to launch GlutenFreeTravelSite 10 years ago. We had spent a week with extended family at Beaches resort in the Turks and Caicos. Even back then, there were a surprising number of gluten free meals the resort could offer our then 4-year-old son. But nothing was ever specified on a menu, so after each meal, I'd have to track down the chef at the restaurant where we were planning to have our next meal (the resort had numerous restaurants) to find out what the options were. Back then, it often meant reading ingredient labels and asking a ton of questions about preparation. I figured I wanted to share what I'd learned with other GF travelers who might be staying there in the future, so the idea for GlutenFreeTravelSite, a forum for user-submitted gluten free dining and travel reviews, was born.
So it's weird to be coming full circle 10 years later. While the restaurant and travel industries have made admirable progress on the gluten free front in so many ways (thank you to all who are responsible for that!), there remains room for improvement, especially from a marketing and communications standpoint.
Restauranteurs: you don't need to hide your gluten free prowess! It is good business for you to be publicizing this capability if you can safely serve gluten free guests quality offerings. In today's competitive dining scene, it can help set you apart and result in repeat business from large groups of family and friends. After all, it's often the gluten free person's needs who are put first when selecting a restaurant or vacation destination, be it a resort or cruise. And with that gluten free person typically comes a larger group of paying guests!
Be proud of your abilities to offer safe and delicious gluten free meals, all of you chefs out there! It's not easy, and your business should be rewarded for its efforts! Just please let us know all the wonderful GF meals you can cook for us!
GF folks: Please share your own experience -- good, bad, or frustrating -- at restaurants, hotels, resorts, or cruises. It's through this sharing on GlutenFreeTravelSite that we can all benefit and find the best places to dine and travel. Simply follow the prompts to submit a review on this page of our site. Feel free to leave comments about this post below as well.