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Friday, October 24, 2014

In Defense of Asking if a Restaurant Can Make Gluten-Free Food

Posted By on Fri, Oct 24, 2014 at 2:03 PM

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A few weeks ago, a pair of San Francisco restaurants posted window signs that have stirred up a hornet’s nest of anti-gluten sentiment. The first to make news was SO’s “We don’t give a shit about gluten-free” tirade; the second was Burr-Eatery’s sign claiming nobody was gluten-free in Colonial Mexico. 

Both signs were championed by locals, which further marginalizes those who have medical reasons for avoiding gluten, carbohydrates, or other foods. The mockery may be brought on by overly aggressive customers on fad diets, but the ripple effect doesn’t end there.
Although it appears as though both signs were prompted by extraordinary circumstances — an unruly customer in SO’s case, a cascade of negative Yelp reviews by Burr-Eatery customers who didn’t seem to grok the restaurant’s authentic Sonoran schtick — their messages and the surrounding discussion carry a broader message that’s hostile to diners with a legitimate interest in knowing what’s in their food. (Which, by the way, is basically all of us.)

Particularly in the past year, gluten-free eaters have become the butt of jokes. Not long after an extremely tiny study suggested that people who thought they were gluten-sensitive might not be, many news outlets gleefully accused them of crying wolf. Jimmy Kimmel asked gluten-free New Yorkers what gluten was — and poked fun at those who had no idea. Last fall, Jimmy Fallon made light of gluten-sensitive folks in a comedy sketch, and even a New Yorker cartoon suggested that people who eat a gluten-free diet are annoying.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of people out there who are sensitive to gluten. While perhaps 1 percent of the population has celiac disease, research shows that 18 million Americans could have some form of gluten intolerance. For them, a dusting of flour, a bite of couscous or a drizzle of soy sauce can mean several days of illness. The good news is, these conditions are easily treated through diet. But the bad news is, dining out can be a minefield. Some cuisines just don’t work well without gluten, while San Francisco’s cramped kitchens and food trucks almost guarantee cross-contamination. It’s limiting for those who have to avoid gluten, and for those who like to dine out with them. It’s also probably scary for chefs who would like to make a delicious meal for someone without worrying about whether it’s going to make them sick.

For now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require restaurants to say what’s in their food. In that light, maybe restaurants like So and Burr-Eatery are doing potential patrons a giant favor by telling them to steer clear and not expect accommodation. But I’m pretty sure it’s Business Management 101 not to be nasty to customers. Especially when you wind up implying that your customers don’t have the right to to ask if your restaurant can make its signature dish in a way they, too, can enjoy.

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Beth Winegarner

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