Not (Really) Gluten Free at the OG (Olive Garden)

For many people newly diagnosed with gluten intolerance or Celiac Disease, a gluten free menu offered at a popular chain restaurant may seem like a blessing. Don't let them fool you. Every restaurant offering gluten free options has a disclaimer somewhere, usually on the menu. Before you decide to dine out, I recommend you do your research and look up the menu online if possible.

I'm used to the typical disclaimers about "taking every precaution to prevent cross-contamination," but "not held reliable in the unlikely instance cross-contamination occurs." Those are common and I completely understand why restaurants write them. They don't want to be sued in the event someone becomes sick all because a wheat-noodle ended up in the gluten free soup. (By the way, that's totally happened to me.) Anyway, that being said, I was appalled at the disclaimer placed on Olive Garden's "gluten free" menu. This is what it states:
"Olive Garden created this menu for our gluten intolerant guests. Please be aware that the handcrafted nature of our menu items, variety of procedures in our kitchens, cross-contamination with ingredients containing gluten and our reliance on suppliers may result in variations in the ingredients of these menu items. We therefore make no guarantees regarding the gluten content of these items."
There are A LOT of variables listed. The "handcrafted nature" should have no effect on the "gluten content" of their items. Also, There shouldn't be a whole lot of variety in kitchen procedures. Every restaurant should (notice I said "should") have a set of standard procedures in place to maintain quality, consistency, and safety of their products. Cross-contamination would be less-likely if there were preventative kitchen procedures in place, and ingredients from suppliers should be easy to access and well-understood.

Why would you promote a gluten free menu if you cannot ensure precautions are taken to provide safe meals for your guests? So many questions ran through my head when I read the menu. Do they use a separate pot, colander, and utensils when handling the gluten free pasta? Are hands washed and gloves changed before handling gluten free entrees? If ingredients are substituted due to supplier variations, are the alternative ingredients examined to ensure they contain no gluten? However, the biggest question I had was, "How much do these people actually understand about gluten intolerance?!" Does it make me a fool to actually believe I could trust a company to do their research and be knowledgeable enough to provide me with a safe meal? I know there are risks at every restaurant when dining out on a gluten free diet, but Olive Garden's approach is lazy and clearly meant as a marketing ploy.

This issue with Olive Garden means a lot to me since I not only have a severe gluten intolerance...I also have a career in Quality Assurance. Quality is about providing the best experience and/or product to your consumers in a safe, consistent manner while improving the process/products to meet defined standards. It doesn't appear that this is important to Olive Garden when it comes to their gluten intolerant guests, so I contacted them. Their responses are another story...

I immediately sent them a message through Facebook, but didn't expect much of a response. Their social media/marketing employees are not trained to handle such complaints and I was directed to their "Contact Us" page. This was their response:

Olive Garden Italian Restaurant

Thanks for contacting our Facebook page, Lauren. We do our best to accommodate our guest’s food and dietary requirements whenever possible and we encourage you to share your feedback and suggestions on our website (https://www.olivegarden.com/About-Us/Contact-Us/). Please feel free to also contact us at 1-800-331-2729 for specific details on menu item ingredients and substitutions.
I filled out the standard form and received a very generic email response 24 hours later:

Dear Miss _____:
Thank you for your interest in Olive Garden.
Our guests are an important set of eyes and ears, and we consider your feedback valuable to the success of our business. Comments such as yours keep us in touch with our guests and provide us with the direction needed to better serve you. While we cannot incorporate every idea or suggestion presented to us, we do compile all guest suggestions and recommendations and present the most requested items to our restaurant support teams for consideration.
We appreciate the time you took to contact us.
Sincerely,

Melissa
Olive Garden Guest Relations

If this isn't a "most requested" item, it won't even reach their restaurant support team...not even for consideration. That's what this says. However, I'll continue to try to reach someone with authority so changes can be made. It's important for me to feel safe when I'm dining out so I can enjoy my meal. Presenting a gluten free menu should indicate the restaurant is prepared to accommodate my dietary needs. Therefore, I will never recommend Olive Garden to anyone unless positive changes are implemented.

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Comments

  1. That is really horrible. And insulting to those of us with Celiac Disease and severe gluten intolerance. Unfortunately, I find this attitude to be the case with most restaurants who offer a "gluten-free" menu. For them, it's just another way to make a quick buck. At least Olive Garden is being honest about the fact that they're doing a half-assed job about it. But then, what is the point of having a gluten-free menu if it's just "kinda, maybe, sorta glunten-free"? Sounds like a similar statement that was made by Dominos Pizza recently.

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  2. Jared ObernesserJuly 9, 2013 at 1:47 PM

    I agree with your statements fully. I am currently dealing with the outcome of their supposed "gluten-free" menu as I write this. Unfortunately it is the second time eating there and having issues I know are related to eating something that is not gluten-free. The most recent happened at the Olive Garden in Niagara Falls, NY. I ordered off the gluten-free menu the mixed grill which consisted of grilled chicken, steak, and grilled vegetables. The time prior to this I had ordered the exact same thing but it was in NYC and I was eating from several different places so I couln't pinpoint which one had given me symptoms that time. Now having had two postitive reactions to the same menu choice from two different chains of the same restaruant I am crossing it off my list of places to eat. Unfortunately for my wife and friends that already short list is becoming shorter still. I still think back to the story I saw on a news show about 2 years ago stating that gluten-free was the new dietary fad, nothing more than a way for food companies and restaurants alike to cater to and cash in on. They paid so little attention to the people that truely HAVE to eat this way due to Celiac disease that it made me infuriated to know that we were being lumped together like this disease only affects a tiny portion of the population. What's worse was in the news story they alluded to the fact that the flood of newly "gluten-free" items that have recently hit the market will ultimately disappear once the fad has been replaced or exceeds it's shelf life.

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