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Cover story: Custom made

These days, it seems everyone's on a special diet, or suffering from some food allergy, and they expect restaurants to cater to their every dietary whim. How well are the restaurants responding?

My doctor's got me on this pretty strict diet, so tell the chef to hold the butter," the guest says. "And I'm on heart meds, so cut back on the salt."

The server nods.

"And, by the way, I'm allergic to milk. And eggs. And wheat. And nuts."

The server smiles.

"This won't be a problem, will it?"

Sound familiar? More and more, it seems, restaurants are asked to jump through ever-narrowing hoops to meet their guests' dietary needs. Lactose-Intolerant Guy. Stomach Staples Gal. The dude sumo-wrestling with obesity…Can he please have that blue cheese dressing on the side?

Just how prepared is the industry for these high-maintenance customers, and their customization onslaught? We decided to find out in the Undercover Service Report, our annual mystery-shopping excursion where we put restaurants in all segments to the test on a variety of current issues. In many cases, staffers proved to be the guardian angels guests expected them to be. But in others, guests had a devil of a time getting their meal exactly how they wanted it.

Microsize Me!

Friendly, maybe, but not all that accommodating.

A family enters a Friendly's on Long Island, NY, and the father informs the server of a diet his doctor's got him on—one that requires him to seriously curtail the number of calories he takes in each day. To this guest, a regular-sized portion represents, at best, a doggie bag that occupies fridge space until it's thrown out a week later. At worst, it'll tempt him to blow his diet.

So he asks to order off the kids' menu.

Sound simple enough? It wasn't. The server froze up and looked away. Faced with an awkward silence, the guest further explained his doctor's orders.

Still, no luck with the kids' menu. The server suggested he take a gander at the family chain's low-carb menu insert, which she hustled off to locate. Upon returning, she took the family's order. When it was Dad's turn, he asked, "So I can't order from the kids' menu?"

"Well, not really," the waitress replied. "I mean, you could, as long as you don't tell anybody. But maybe the low-carb menu would have something?"

Pressured, the man gave in and ordered off the low-carb menu. "It was clear she didn't want me to order from the kids' menu, so I relented," says the man, who happened to be a scout for Restaurant Business' Undercover Service Report. (A Friendly's spokesperson said she was glad to hear the server did, at least in theory, make the kids' meals available to the man, and said servers are "probably trained" to suggest low-carb options and lighter entrees instead.)

Mind you, the server was only following the letter of the law; the menu clearly stated that the juniors' offerings were for "Kids 12 and Under." If a restaurant were to allow any adult to order the $4.99 Chicken Fingers, check averages would sink, taking servers' tips with them. Kids' menus are just what they claim to be: menus for kids, not big people.

But with so many Americans facing health problems, or simply looking to drop a few pounds by summer, many find that the outsized portions served up in their favorite restaurants are way more than they desire. Looking to both enjoy a restaurant meal and stay within a certain calorie limit, some adults have found their middle ground in the kids' menu. Wrote one guest who'd undergone gastric bypass (stomach stapling) surgery to a restaurant operator [Letters, April 15]: "An ordinary adult portion could easily account for up to three meals. When dining at your restaurant, I am continually prevented from ordering from the children's menu."

To find out how restaurants feel about selling a meal that's intended for the tykes, so their parents will be enticed to buy full-freight versions, we sent a dozen scouts to restaurants in all segments. We instructed them to inform the server of a medically mandated diet in which their calorie intake is restricted, and to ask if they could order off the children's menu. Not a reduced portion of an entree, but something specifically off the kids' menu. While all the scouts were eventually permitted to do just that, several ran into serious resistance, and some, reportedly, even derision.
In several cases, the servers made it clear they weren't wild about the guest's request. An employee at Chevys Fresh Mex in Ellisville, MO, replied, "Ummmm, as a practice, we try to discourage adults from ordering off the children's menu," though she said it'd be OK if it was something the guest "needed to do." At a Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in New York City, the server first stated that the kids' menu was only for those 11 and under, but checked with the manager—who said it would be fine.

At an Elkton, MD Ruby Tuesday—a chain that has positioned itself as dieter-friendly—one scout was made to feel kid-sized after asking to order off the junior bill of fare. "She looked around the two-person booth we were sitting in for any children we might be hiding," the scout said. While she eventually complied with the request, it got worse for the guest when the server appeared to share what she presumably thought was a laughable request with the rest of the waitstaff.

"After I ordered, members of the staff were looking at me oddly," said the scout, who nonetheless loved her mac and cheese.

The majority of the restaurants mystery-shopped for this study scored high marks. Scouts visiting McDonald's, Boston Market, Bugaboo Creek, T.G.I. Friday's, Outback Steakhouse, and Legal Sea Foods, as well as Madison, WI indie Zach's Avenue Bar, all got kids' meals without so much as a funny look.

"The waiter said, 'that's no problem,'" said a scout who dined at casual steakhouse Bugaboo Creek in South Portland, ME. "I felt very at ease with my request."

"He didn't even flinch," commented a Legal scout in Baltimore.

One at a Friday's in Oklahoma City appreciated how relaxed the server made him feel. "She had a comforting manner that really put me at ease," he reported.

Unfortunately, not all the scouts were so at ease. In fact, the diet-conscious Friendly's mole suspected the meal he ordered off the low-carb menu—a bunless "Colossal" burger with Swiss cheese, mushrooms, and bacon—had more calories than many regular menu items, thus defeating his aim to curtail calories (though he did hold off on the bacon). "She seemed to believe that a low-carb option would meet my needs," he said.

And as the Colossal burger totals 940 calories, she was wrong.

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