On Making Guests Feel Welcome and Making Guests Feel Crappy

Thursday evening I read a post by Gluten Free Girl on Facebook.  She’d linked to an article where Martha Stewart was quoted as saying something like people with food allergies were just being picky and could stand to miss a meal, so she didn’t believe in catering to them.

It doesn’t really surprise me – there’s so much ignorance about food sensitivities and allergies in this world.  I know I didn’t think twice about people with food allergies until my friend’s daughter was diagnosed with allergies to soy, eggs, shellfish, and corn.  Shortly thereafter, her mom was diagnosed with gluten and lactose intolerance.  Suddenly, they had a very small window of things the whole family could eat.  Before I realized gluten was the culprit in my diet, I’d go out to eat with them and just wonder how they could keep everything straight.

Of course, the answer to that is that you learn to, because you have to.

Anyway, I feel like the article itself might have been overblown a bit, and that Martha might be suffering from extreme ignorance (because otherwise? I really want to give her a virtual smack!).  That said, her attitude is not isolated.

Not everyone is interested in making people with food allergies and sensitivities welcome.

In fact, I have a story to tell.

Just one day after I read that article was our department’s final holiday bash.  I’m lucky to work in a place that takes celebration very seriously – we’ve had a total of three holiday get-togethers over the last two weeks.  They also take my sensitivities seriously and I love them for it.

This party, though, has been held at the same place for years.  It’s always a lunch out at Karl Strauss Brewery Gardens.  It’s a beautiful location (in fact I have a friend who is getting married there), and Karl Strauss makes a decent lunch.  Except for someone who is gluten intolerant.

Pretty much everything on their menu is made with beer, dipped in a beer batter, or fried in the oil that just contained beer batter.  Having actually been there once before since I went gluten free, I’ve done a lot of digging around for good gluten free menu options.  But every review I’ve read says the same thing: stay away at all costs, because their kitchen is a bastion of cross-contamination.  Every single gluten intolerant reviewer got sick.

When I couldn’t convince anyone to change the long-standing venue choice for our department lunch, I have to admit that I almost didn’t go.  But instead I decided I’d bring my own lunch and sit and eat with everyone else.  My boss and her boss were sure it wouldn’t be a problem, and even said they’d call ahead to check with the restaurant (they admitted to me on Friday that they’d both forgotten).  I know it’s not standard to bring your own food into a restaurant, but I also know that I’ve been to restaurants recently that have suggested that people with intolerances can and should bring at least their own bread.  And I’ve done it.  More than once.  Without so much as a cross look from the waitress.  I was so nervous about the cross-contamination issue that I didn’t even bother calling ahead or figuring out what I could order there and what a headache it would be – I just brought my own lunch.

When I was asked what I was ordering, I just asked for a plate.  I had my own food, I explained, because I had food allergies, but wanted to eat with my coworkers.  I didn’t actually need the plate – but I figured it would make me feel like less of a second-class citizen.  The waitress looked distressed and said that she’d talk with her manager.  Uh oh.

A few minutes later, the manager approached me.  “I hear that you wanted a plate?” she asked, standoffishly.  When I said yes, that I had my own food because of my food allergies, she snorted.  “Well, we don’t do that.  It’s against health code.”  I pushed back.  Against health code?  I can see if I was serving it to other people that they wouldn’t want to take the risk of one of them getting sick (although restaurants routinely allow outside birthday cakes, so this “health code” must be pretty flimsy), but if I’m the only one eating my own meal, how can that possibly be a big enough issue for them to care about?  I’m allergic and will get sick if I eat cross-contaminated food, I explained.  “I can have the chef come out and talk with you, but I can’t let you eat any outside food,” she added, raising her voice.  “It’s against health code and our policy!”

Ah.

Their policy.

That’s the real kicker.

They can’t run the risk of me eating food I prepared myself because it’ll make them look bad.

I told her I would simply not eat, and turned away, blinking back tears.  If you’ve never experienced the horrific side effects of a food sensitivity, you probably are thinking that I’m crazy right about now.  But the last two weeks were such a roller coaster ride with my health that the last thing I wanted to do was willfully ingest something that had a 98% chance of making me sick.  I knew I could talk to the chef, get a green salad prepared in a separate bowl by people whose hands had just been cleaned, served with oil and vinegar, and be okay.  In theory.  I also knew, based on prior experience at Karl Strauss and the reviews I’d read, that their kitchen is notoriously bad with special orders (case in point: I used to work a block away from the La Jolla location before I went gluten free, and ordered Lemon Chicken once, with no capers because I can’t stand them; I not only got capers but I got extra capers!).  And that because there is so much gluten in their kitchen there is a good chance that no matter how careful the chef said he’d be, I would still get glutenized.  That is, if the chef took the time to understand and care.

To be told that it was against their policy, when I was already going to be eating leftover cold gluten free pizza (definitely not a gourmet treat!) instead of freshly made food…  I felt like I’d been slapped in the face.

I stuck it out through appetizers (which kept getting put down in front of me, of course – full of wontons and soy sauce-laden fish and things fried in shared oil) and managed to convince my boss’ boss (who was very upset) not to make a big deal of the situation.  I knew that all that everyone would remember of the lunch was him getting into a verbal confrontation with the manager, if I let him, so I asked him please not to worry.  Luckily the food took forever, so I had plenty of time to spend with my coworkers, but eventually their food came.

When I was asked by the same waitress who originally had said she had to talk with her manager about my gluten allergy whether I had ordered the pastrami sandwich she was waving in front of my face (I wouldn’t have, even had I been able to eat it, but at least can you not rub it in my face?), I decided enough was enough and took my leave.  I would have gamely eaten my food, given the opportunity, and spent another hour socializing with everyone.  But I was done watching everyone else eat while I sat there shaking from low blood sugar.

I walked out to my car and sat in tears for a few minutes before choking down my lunch and driving away.  I felt so crappy and unwelcome.  Such a small thing – just letting me eat at the table with my coworkers (who were all paying customers, so it’s not like I was taking up a whole table by myself and paying just for an iced tea) – was obviously too much for Karl Strauss Brewery Gardens.  Because of their policy.

Because, you know, I might bring in something to eat for myself and eat it there and get sick, and sue them for letting me bring in my own food.  Or some other such rubbish.

By the way, I’ve been scouring the health code.  I can’t see anywhere that it’s spelled out that I can’t bring my own food in to a restaurant, for my own consumption only, if I want to.  Allergies, sensitivities, or nothing at all but pickiness.  I can’t see it anywhere.   Not one mention of it.

Which means, of course, that the manager was just lying to me.

I have some choice words that I’ll save.  I will only say this – that if a restaurant were focused on the welcome of their guests (like the amazing guys at Kitchen 4140 on Morena, who not only didn’t bat an eyelash at my gluten free bread, but offered to carefully toast it for me, away from all the other bread in their kitchen), the policy would be different.  I will be staying as far away as possible from Karl Strauss, and telling all my friends to do the same.  People with allergies and sensitivities shouldn’t be treated like second-class citizens, and we shouldn’t have to sit around and watch other people eat, because of a b.s. policy.  Period.

Oh, and next year?  We’re going out for sushi.  It’s already been decided by the HR manager and my boss’ boss.  I told you my coworkers are awesome.

*****

Of course, since it’s the holidays that wasn’t my only party of the weekend.  I was lucky enough to be invited to my friend Nicki’s house for a party last night that was the complete opposite of Friday’s lunch.  Not only did she specifically make a dinner that required no extra effort to be gluten free (I only needed to stay away from the bread and croutons), she also made sure I didn’t get any gums in my diet (even making her own salad dressing to toss with the salad).  She checked in with me multiple times to see if I could eat the food she was serving and the gifts she was giving (even calling to check about marshmallows for the cocoa!).  She searched high and low for gluten- and gum-free cookies (finally finding some chocolate-dipped shortbread by Schar that were actually good enough that several of the other – non-gf – guests had more than one!).  She even checked to make sure I could drink the coffee creamer (she got one that has only carrageenan, a gum-like substance made from seaweed – it can cause intestinal issues in some people and I haven’t done thorough testing with it yet, but I also haven’t had a reaction to it yet).

I don’t expect this from most people.  As long as I know in advance what is being served, I can bring my own alternatives (GF bread or pasta, tamari sauce, corn tortillas, half-and-half and sugar, etc.).  It’s not a matter of making a huge effort for me, so much as not excluding me from being able to eat at all.  That’s all that any good host or hostess would want to do, right?  Unlike the Martha Stewart article I mentioned above, most people (and restaurants, actually) just want to make sure their guests are welcome.  Isn’t that the point of having guests?

By the way, being hypoglycemic – having low blood sugar – dictates that I can’t really miss a meal.  I get shaky, sleepy, non-functional.  I get headaches and nausea.  So if I ever get an invitation to Martha’s house for a dinner party I’ll be declining it.  I’d much rather go to Nicki’s for some more rosemary chicken!

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