What's Really Needed to Safely Serve Gluten-Free Guests
Finding experienced, talented restaurant staff is a tall order in the best of times, but today’s tight job market makes finding reliable help particularly challenging. For restaurants that offer gluten-free dishes—an important option in Italian concepts especially—high turnover and vacancies can place added pressure on management, who must ensure that even inexperienced employees follow safe food-handling procedures. When reliable help is this hard to find (and keep), having an effective training program, clear and concise written procedures, and professional expertise can make the difference between a safe gluten-free dining experience and lost business and reputational damage.
It’s no secret that the job market in food service is extremely competitive. With the national unemployment rate hovering at a low 3.6 percent, restaurant operators are finding it difficult to attract and retain qualified help. Consider the following:
- The turnover rate in the hospitality sector in 2018 topped 70 percent for the fourth consecutive year, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Job Openings and Labor Turnover (JOLTS) program (National Restaurant Association).
- The restaurant industry continues expanding and creating new jobs that need to be filled. Year-over-year growth in number of restaurant jobs was 2.7 percent in March. (TDn2K)
- Most restaurant companies are never fully staffed, according to TDn2K.
As vacancies and turnover climb to historically high levels and the number of food service jobs increase, restaurant operators are understandably reluctant to invest significant resources in training programs. However, compared to the risks of serving gluten-contaminated food to a patron with celiac disease, the extra time it takes to teach staff best practices for gluten-free food handling is a smart investment.
On-the-job training and mentoring can help short-staffed restaurant operators maximize limited resources while ensuring that new employees get the training they need to safely prepare and serve gluten-free dishes. One simple way to provide effective training is to have new employees shadow more experienced staff members as they prep, cook and serve gluten-free dishes. As they shadow mentors, new employees can also take their own notes and place them in a personal binder for future reference. This process allows new staff members to write down key points, such as the importance of keeping pots and pans used for gluten-free preparations separate and storing them on a top shelf to avoid the potential for cross-contamination.
Having clear, concise written documentation is the critical component of an effective training program. When staff members leave, they take their knowledge with them, and when things get busy, the chef with the encyclopedic knowledge of gluten-free food preparation may not be available to mentor an inexperienced prep cook. Providing written documentation that outlines procedures for preparing dishes and cleaning food prep areas and equipment should be a mandatory training resource to ensure you will keep the trust of patrons on a gluten-free diet.
Written procedures don’t have to be complicated. In many cases, transparency and simplicity are your best bet. Putting rules for cooking and serving gluten-free dishes on restaurant letterhead or even lined notebook paper provides a quick and effective way to communicate proper protocol.
Pursuing a third-party certification is another way to get the support needed to develop and implement a safe gluten-free program. During the assessment process, agency representatives will work with restaurants to identify the unique features of their environments, review best practices for safe restaurant operations, and help management develop written procedures for gluten-free food handling. Certification also helps support front- and back-of-the-house training. An added bonus is that gluten-free certification can be obtained in relatively short order. A competent organization can help restaurants achieve certification in as little as six weeks.
Third-party certification is particularly helpful when it comes to defining and communicating best practices for gluten-free food handling. While local and state regulations and standards such as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) outline the procedures for safe food handling for restaurants and other food service establishments, these standards do not include guidance for producing gluten-free menu items. Enlisting the help of a competent certification organization can ensure that a restaurant’s procedures address the specific requirements of gluten-free food handling. Certification also assures patrons that the restaurant is committed to providing a safe, gluten-free dining experience and will adhere to the same set of practices for every gluten-free dish it prepares.
With food service jobs expanding and turnover at an all-time-high, restaurant operators who adapt their establishments to a challenging job market can still provide delicious gluten-free dishes without fear of contamination. Implementing on-the-job, hands-on training, providing transparent, accessible written procedures, and obtaining professional help from gluten-free experts are the vital ingredients in a successful gluten-free program.
Lindsey Yeakle, Gluten-Free Food Service (GFFS) Program and Quality Control Manager, Food Safety, for the nonprofit Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG), has a culinary history working at 4-star and 4-diamond rated restaurants, and she founded Alligator Pear Personal Chef Service. A celiac disease diagnosis encouraged Yeakle to attend culinary school at Indiana University of Pennsylvania Academy of Culinary Arts to learn how to design dishes that delight diners who have all types of dietary needs and restrictions. In June 2016, Yeakle decided to use her background and education to help the gluten-free community by working with GIG. For more information, visit www.gffoodservice.org.