Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Stuff Every Restaurant Should Do

Last Saturday, my husband and I devoted about half a day to running errands in and around Albany. Since Saturday is traditionally our grocery shopping day and the last week had been extremely hectic, we didn’t have much food in the house and didn’t really feel like doing grocery shopping just yet. (I hope that other people have been there and we’re not just slackers who sometimes dread the chore of menu planning and grocery shopping). With a couple of unforeseen snowstorms and the warmer weather upon us my pantry has been slowly emptying, to the point where all we really had in the house were yogurt – which I live on and my husband hates – and cottage cheese and cheese curds – which my husband loves dearly but make me gag. Neither was going to make a satisfying lunch, so we decided to just leave in the morning and pick something up while we were running around.

Fast forward a couple hours later, and we’re driving down the Northway debating what to eat. Since my husband was driving, I got iPhone duty. Remembering that Moe’s recently launched a line of gluten free products, I suggested stopping at the Moe’s on Wolf Road. My husband asked me if I knew what was on the gluten free list – I remembered they had rice bowls, but since I can count the number of times I’ve eaten there on one hand I didn’t know what condiments are safe. Enter the iPhone – I Googled “Moe’s allergen” and the first result was a PDF from titled ALLERGEN – it looked like exactly what I needed.

I clicked on the link… and was redirected to Moe’s mobile homepage. What!?!? To add insult to injury, a minute of surfing around on their “mobile” site didn’t give me the information that I wanted – and every time I tried to view their regular site or click a link from Google I went right back to the Moe’s mobile homepage. Ugh! After a couple of frustrating minutes, I gave up and we headed further down the Northway, eating lunch at the Chipotle in Stuyvesant Plaza. (SN: We had a yummy lunch that made up for the so-so grand opening we attended when they first came to the area. I was very impressed that not only did the employee making our tacos change his gloves, but they also brought out a fresh, uncontaminated tub of cheese.)

Now, admittedly I’m a computer geek and technophile, but Come. On. There’s no excuse for that – especially in this day and age when mobile search is the norm and people have come to expect data instantly at their fingertips. And the fact is, companies lose business by not making information accessible to their customers and potential customers. Not only did Moe’s lose our business last weekend, but since we had a favorable experience at Chipotle we’re going to remember that the next time we get a hankering for tacos.

So – here’s my list of stuff that I wish every restaurant would do – I think it would benefit smaller restaurants as well as big chains:

First of all – make sure your site is accessible for everyone! Yes, that includes home computers, tablets, phones, etc. etc. etc. By all means leave the stupid Flash animations off your mobile site. But an allergen list? You’re really going to make that inaccessible on a mobile device? I don’t care if it looks all pretty on the mobile phone, I’d be fine with a PDF or a text list of what I wanted to know.
Always make the following information available on your site:
  • The entire menu. Preferably with prices. Specials of the day would also be great.
  • Calories and nutritional information as long as it’s available... Ingredients are good to know as well!
  • Allergen information. For Every Product. And by the way, if you offer gluten free bread or something else along those lines, please mention it somewhere on your site so I know to ask!
  • Address and directions. It’s very easy to embed Google Maps into your site. Use it or at least link to it.

Bonus points for making the following information available on your site:
  • Company guidelines for processing allergens. Happy to accommodate requests to change gloves? Why, thank you Chipotle for letting me know! Things like that make me more confident in the establishment I’m choosing to patronize.
  • Have a local/sustainable/organic/ethical/green/other policy on the food you provide? Please tell me – yes, sometimes that information will sway me to choose one restaurant over the other.
  • A way to make reservations/order takeout or delivery through the website.

And finally, the stuff that I really don’t care about and would prefer not to see on your website at all:
  • Silly flash animations, music, videos… I want to go there for a meal, I don’t want to experience sensory overload by hitting your homepage.

As for the non-website-related stuff:
  • Please make training mandatory for servers. All servers should know, for example, that gluten free means no bread products. I always get nervous in these cases, because you don’t know if the server goes back into the kitchen, rolls their eyes and just picks croutons off the salad they initially brought out.
  • If you’re going to have gluten free offerings, please do some research. We often eat at Topp’s Diner in Rotterdam – while they have some great options and are generally willing to accommodate gluten free, it makes me nervous to hear a server say “Well, that’s gluten free as long as you can eat rice.” And trust me, I’d rather have a server go into the kitchen and ask a question than give me an answer that I have no confidence in. Similarly, we went to Benevento’s in Scotia offering gluten free sub rolls. When asked what meats and condiments were OK the owner – yes, owner! – said “I don’t know, shouldn’t they all be?” … Needless to say, we left without ordering.
  • If you’re going to offer things like bottled salad dressings, having preprinted allergen lists would help tremendously. “We serve Ken’s salad dressings, and we print their gluten free list every month. This is current as of X” would make me want to hug a server. Then leave a humongous tip.
  • If you’re going to offer a gluten free menu at all, please make sure that the food is good. I know I’ve carped on this in the past, but nothing bugs me more than “Order this yummy dish – but request that it not be breaded, the kitchen holds the tortilla strips, hold the sauce, substitute the mashed potatoes for a plain baked potato, and hold the seasoning on the vegetables.” Once in a while we have to eat at establishments like this – when we’re traveling and there are no other options, or if we have to attend a social event somewhere. But if I have the choice to spend money somewhere, and the restaurant treats every single gluten free menu item like I described above? I figure they must not want my money. And, by the way, we often order booze when we dine out. And, I like to frequent places – and bring friends/tell other people - that I like again and again. Oh yeah, and I waitressed in college so a server really has to try to get less than a 20% tip. But, that’s not a lot of money, now is it?

What other things would you like to see restaurants do, both overall and to cater to restricted diet communities?


Anonymous said...

Wonderful synopsis of the gluten free dining challenges.
I'd like to add, have a bottle of wheat free tamari available for all those steamed veggies. How hard can it be to just stock a simple condiment?

Kat said...

I agree - one or two bottles of gluten free soy sauce seem like one of the smallest things a restaurant can do to accommodate people!