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Dealing with diet demands

Operators are ramping up training to meet customers’ current eating preferences.
Illustration by Restaurant Business

A customer walks into a restaurant clutching the Whole30 diet book in her hands. As she looks over the menu, she consults the book to see which items fit the diet’s guidelines. Then she engages the server for help. Is he expected to know enough about the diet to make recommendations?

The answer is yes, according to most full-service operators.

It started with gluten. “We got down and dirty about the ingredients in all our dishes, training servers on the recipes so they would be able to react quickly and pinpoint menu items that were gluten-free,” says Marc Jacobs, executive partner and divisional president of Chicago-based multiconcept operator Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.

When other allergies and sensitivities gained widespread recognition, LEYE created an allergy matrix for every restaurant, highlighting items that met restrictions on soy, shellfish, nuts, etc. and inputting new dishes as they were developed. Fitting menu items into today’s diets is easier than making them gluten-free or nondairy, Jacobs says, but training to meet the different demands is key.

Personalizing the lesson

Jacobs began by trying Whole30, paleo and other current diets himself “to see what guests would need,” he says. This firsthand experience opened up the opportunity to teach the chefs and cooks about the eating plans and work with them on ideas. To get buy-in and have some fun with it, Jacobs has staged competitions among his cooks to create winning diet-friendly dishes.

Preshift meetings proved to be a good venue for front-of-house training. When new dishes are put on the menu, the team gets a list of all the ingredients used—a list they are later tested on. The kitchen also relays how a new or signature item could be tweaked to meet a low-carb or other diet by eliminating an ingredient or substituting something else—an option the FOH staff could pass on to a guest.

A daily drill

Shift meetings are also where the teaching takes place at Truluck’s, a seafood and steakhouse concept with 13 locations. Every day, the chefs take a deep dive into a different menu item with the FOH staff, explaining how it might fit into a high-protein diet, for example, or accommodate certain allergies, says David Tripoli, COO of Truluck’s Restaurant Group.

Truluck’s has developed RAFTT guidelines to analyze a dish; the acronym stands for recipe adherence, flavor, texture and temperature. “The chef will plate a menu item, serve it to the cooks and servers, and everyone will taste it together,” says Tripoli. “We don’t separate the front and back of house. Training on the menu is done as a cohesive team.”

Servers learn which salad dressings contain sugar or which fish dish can be sided with spinach instead of rice. Truluck’s advocates a proactive approach, says Tripoli. Instead of having servers running to the kitchen with guests’ requests, they are trained to guide them to the best choices through teachings and tastings at shift meetings.

Staying ahead of the game

Diet education is also part of onboarding and regular training for Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, a hospitality group with more than 50 full-service locations. “We used to deal with guest demands as they came up,” says Heather Buck, director of training and guest services. “It was more of a reaction to a problem. But training is like flossing your teeth. You have to do it routinely to be effective.”

Buck and her team follow 250 media outlets to get a jump on current diet trends, and that intel is integrated into training, she says. Servers are directed to get the chef involved if they can’t guide a guest to a diet-friendly menu item, and the chef will come out to the table. “That one-to-one connection with a guest helps them create a meal that is appropriate,” says Buck. “If the chef is not in the building, the [general manager] will come to the table for that ‘white coat connection’ that adds another layer of hospitality.”

But before a guest even sits down at the table, the company does some advance prep. “If a diet request is put on OpenTable, we make note of it, but also encourage direct phone calls a day ahead,” says Buck. “Sometimes we don’t see OpenTable requests until it’s too late.” Then after a customer’s first visit, each restaurant keeps a yellow “caution” card as part of a digital file for that diner that lists any allergies or special diet requests. “The server will welcome the guest back and make them aware that we know about these requirements,” she says.

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