Gone are the days when the most annoying diners were the ones sending back a well-done steak after requesting it that way.
Today’s picky eaters are a minefield of food allergies, health problems, weird diets, phobias, hypochondriacs and wannabe chefs. Some conditions are legit and should be taken seriously. But when a diner grabs a hunk of bread after claiming “gluten intolerance,” wanting to call BS on a picky eater is understandable.
As chefs, we can bitch about them, or we can turn the finicky into loyal customers.
First, some of us need to drop our egos and accept that the definition of hospitality means being hospitable. Give customers what they want, but in a way that preserves your dignity. It’s not always easy, especially when you’re in the weeds and Table 17 has sent the fish back because one of the roasted cipollini onions accidentally rolled into the sauce.
Remember: A little flexibility can reap big rewards. Here’s what’s worked for me after clocking 32 years in the business.
1. Create a section
Any chef who isn’t accommodating meatless eaters needs a reality check. When we opened my most recent restaurant, I got a lot of requests for vegetarian and vegan dishes, so I added a section of meatless options the second week called “We Love Local Vegetables.” It’s composed of high profit, easy-to-execute dishes such as roasted cauliflower with Thai three-flavor sauce ($8), Moroccan roasted carrots with Bulgarian yogurt and dill ($8) and kale salad with strawberries, pistachios and white balsamic vinaigrette ($10). The dishes are popular with everyone and have increased sales by 10 percent.
2. If you can’t beat ’em…
Whether the health benefits of avoiding gluten are real or imagined, it makes no difference to me. A third of the customers who order the pulled pork sandwich ask for it without the bun—not with the gluten-free bread. That said, I am still riding the trend by using logical substitutes like rice flour or quinoa flour instead of all-purpose wheat flour.
I wouldn’t think twice about offering a quality gluten-free pasta or pancakes when customers start asking for them. Diners are accustomed to an upcharge for them, so don’t be shy, but be reasonable.
3. Let the diner be the chef
The popularity of the Food Network and food shows like “The Chew” has led to a new version of picky eater: the chef wannabe. These customers look at the menu and want to make their own combinations. Swapping ingredients isn’t hard, but it doesn’t always result in the best flavor and texture combinations, leaving customers saying the dish was “just OK.”
Other than training staff to dissuade customers from playing mix-and-match, there’s not much else you can do. Set expectations, and be sure that servers are correctly conveying the substitutions.
Some of my chef friends have had success with design-your-own entree formats. Diners can choose the protein, side dish, cooking method and seasonings. Everything works because you have predetermined the foundation for each dish.
4. Hit the books
Fad diets create challenges for chefs. Some guests assume you have read all the latest news on paleo and pescatarian diets and think the menu should reflect the information. While I wouldn’t recommend shaping a menu according to the latest fad diets, it’s good practice to keep up on these trends. The information helps you and your staff ensure the guest has the best dining experience.
5. Wear kid gloves
Some diners have food phobias. These are a little extra trouble, but it’s not hard to accommodate them. I have customers who can’t have any foods touching each other, so we serve every component on a separate plate. When a guest wants sauce on the side or has an aversion to a certain ingredient—such as cilantro, blue cheese, organ meats, hot chilies, beets, oysters or clams—it’s just easier to leave it out. Fulfilling these diners’ requests without judgment from the staff can turn them into loyal customers.
6. Card your guests
Always take food allergies seriously because we’re talking life-threatening implications. A lot of people with food allergies will give a card listing allergens for the waiter to give to the kitchen. I’m thrilled to get a card because I don’t need to worry about missing details. Instruct staff to ask diners twice about allergies and repeat it back for verification. You cannot overtrain your staff on this issue. If you feel the waitstaff cannot get it perfect, designate a manager on each shift to review the food allergy with the table. This tells customers you care about the matter, which helps build customer loyalty.
Staff training is the linchpin to handling picky eaters. Daily education on trends, allergies, recipe ingredients and how to effectively communicate special needs to the kitchen should be reviewed regularly, if not daily. Information needs to flow seamlessly between servers and cooks to get special orders right.