Substitution Hell

No one wants to mess with a food allergy. Restaurant proprietors would like their guests to leave their establishments fat and happy, not covered in hives or gasping for breath in an ambulance.

In the restaurants I’ve worked, even a hint of an allergy issue from a patron–“It’s not an allergy, but could you leave the lettuce off the sandwich? It upsets my stomach.”–constitutes a red alert conveyed from the host stand to the server to the chef.

Other times, when the allergy list goes on and on–“I am vegan AND I can’t eat corn or soy or wheat or oats or strawberries …”–I have been known to interrupt the patron and ask, “Why don’t you just tell me what you can eat, and I’ll work it out with the chef.”

Honestly, sometimes I wonder how people get through life when all they seem to be able to eat are carrots and potatoes.

So, be they vegan, vegetarian, gluten sensitive, lactose intolerant, allergic to nuts and shellfish, or if they just detest a specific food–how does a restaurant charge such patrons for the special orders that may ensue?

Nicholle wrote Ask the Gal to share a recent experience:

“The other night, we went out to eat at a hamburger joint. I am a vegetarian. I know it’s a pain to modify the menu, but there were not very many items on the menu that I could have. I ordered a BLTT and asked for cheese instead of the bacon and turkey. When I got the bill, I had been charged for the piece of cheese. I accept that I have to pay for a sandwich even when the most expensive item is removed, but I thought it was a little ridiculous to have to pay for a substitution of cheese. I didn’t fight it or talk to the manager, but do you think that’s fair?”

Nicholle, I hear you, and frankly, I think the charge was unnecessary. Maybe someone had the attitude, “If she’s a freakin’ vegetarian, then why did she come to a burger joint?” Voila, $1.50 for a slice of cheese. On the other hand, plenty of restaurants charge extra for cheese and other sides on a sandwich, so maybe that’s what happened. On the other hand of that, you didn’t have the meat that usually comes in that sandwich, so, yeah, kind of crazy.

If I ever own a restaurant (which I will NOT), I would make sure to have at least a couple of veggie items on the menu, or allow for obvious substitutions at no extra charge. If I had to make up a special dish to accommodate dietary needs or restrictions, I would tell the patron the price of the item beforehand. And if I charged extra for cheese, I’d say so up front, too, in person or spelled out on the menu.

Of course, there are also those pesky guests who want to rewrite the menu and substitute half the items in one entree for something else entirely. How do you draw the line on that? And if you don’t draw that line, how do you charge for it?

Chefs? Owners? Managers? Chime in, please.

Meanwhile, could I have that salad with chicken instead of steak, with just a sprinkle of cheese–it’s goat cheese not feta, right? Oh, and extra sunflower seeds, no onions–unless they are red onions, which is fine, I like those. And just a few croutons–not too many. Can I also have it with the dressing you serve for the salad listed above this one, but only use half what you normally use and then can you pre-toss it really well so the dressing doesn’t sit in the bottom of the bowl? Thanks!






32 responses to “Substitution Hell”

  1. Wade Avatar

    I have some annoying food allergies, and I realize how horribly inconvenient it is for everyone involved — both me and the restaurants I go to. Honestly, the first step is to assert myself with my friends so that we go to places where I can eat. Since I don’t want to be a continual no-fun bummer, this means I need to know a lot of restaurants around town. Generally, if a friend wants some kind of food then I can recommend a place where there are options for me. In Nicholle’s place, if I had a lot of friends who liked their burgers, I’d make sure to find a good sandwich place where there were veggie options and great burgers.

    Now, if I ever own a restaurant, like you I’ll make sure there’s a veggie option; I’ll also make sure there’s a plain option. A nice grilled chicken or steak frites or something simple like that is something almost everyone can eat. I hate asking for substitutions but if I see something that is 90% what I can eat then I’ll ask to have one small thing changed — say, roasted potatoes rather than mashed, when there’s already roasted on the menu. If you make it easy for a customer to make a small change and have their needs met, then it’s easy on the server to keep track, easy on the kitchen to make the switch, and a painless experience for everyone.

  2. T-bone Avatar

    I advise you to never,ever wait tables in the Los Angeles area.”Modifications” are 90% of the job. 9 out of 10 people completely change the menu to suit their tastes. It sucks!

  3. Mary Avatar

    RE: but only use half what you normally use and then can you pre-toss it really well so the dressing doesn’t sit in the bottom of the bowl? Thanks!

    I *like* the dressing in the bottom of the bowl so I can really swirl my lettuce, tomato, etc. in it and get the full advantage.

    I admit to being a substitution person, but I’ve toned it down — after being teased about asking for substitutions — but I still get angel hair oil and garlic pasta in place of penne with marinara when it’s a side dish 🙂

  4. briliantdonkey Avatar

    I used to be roomates with a friend of mine and his girlfriend(now wife). She was allergic to TONS of stuff. I can’t imagine going through life with that many allergies. From a restaurant point of view I can see both sides of it. Sure it is inconvenient to have to make changes but as long as they are within reason they should be allowed. As far as being charged for cheese when you left off something more expensive, that sounds like you got screwed to me. Some places get WAY to carried away with substitution charges without a doubt. Likewise, some people get WAY too carried away with the substitution requests. If you really feel like you are getting a raw deal turn the tables on them. If you get charged .49 cents for a piece of cheese, ask why you are NOT getting 1.00 OFF for the bacon you chose not to have.


  5. Julie Avatar

    My husband and I have a bunch of food allergies. There are no legumes (peas, beans, peanuts) in the house. No poultry — not even chicken noodle soup. No shellfish. The worst problem is when we go out for dinner and there’s a soup that sounds vegetarian, but isn’t because it has chicken stock. Thankfully, I’m not the one with the poultry allergy; I can’t imagine what Thanksgiving is like without that big, roasted bird.

  6. mags86 Avatar

    When I was the GM of a high end restaurant….at the bottom of our menu was printed “chef will accommodate special dietary needs”. I was called to a table one night because a customer was DEMANDING Bouillabaisse. After I explained that it takes over 2 hours to make ‘proper’ Bouillabaisse, and we didn’t have all the ingredients – he was still bitching. I finally said “you might want a burger and fries, I’m sorry but we can’t make that either”. His friends at the table were mortified with him – but he finally calmed down. We always modified our entrees for anyone with allergies – and we always had a veggie dish on the menu (makes things easy). But if a customer was just being a pain with substitutions – we would say no – the chef says it “compromises the integrity of the dish”. The wait staff, and I, always loved that line……

  7. jennifer Avatar

    I’m one of those people who, when going to a restaurant, finds a dish they love and always ALWAYS orders it. (That way, you know for sure you’ll like it, and you have something to look forward to. This actually runs in my family.) The thing is, where I live (Israel), it’s a rare restaurant that serves the same dish exactly the same. No such thing as quality control in the food industry here. So I end up making very specific requests.
    I’m actually embarrassed that I’m so picky (but really, if they would just serve everything the same way every time!!), but it tends to amuse people around me, including the servers.

  8. John Avatar

    And this is exactly why I’m no longer in the food industry.
    “I know this is an Italian restaurant, but WHY can’t I have Fois Gras? Can’t you get it from the other place?”
    “I have lots of “allergies”, please can you accomodate me by designing several new dishes for me and my friends? And while you’re at it, don’t charge me extra for the extra work!”
    “I want my food cooked the way they do it in THAT restaurant, in Tel Aviv. I know we’re in Jerusalem, but there is only ONE right way to do it, isn’t there? After all, I’m no different than my 3-year-old who won’t eat if things touch. God forbid I whould learn to like something new.”
    I’m not surprised it runs in the family.

    Oh forget it. You people ruin my meals. Have you ever sat next to a table of these over-wrought, entitled people? These are the same ones who convinced entire schools sytems and airlines to remove peanuts. so that they won’t be inconvenienced. Food allergies, my fat a$$. If the number of people who have real allergies (i.e. histo reflex, not “my tummy doesn’t like chicken.”) was as large as the number of complainers, the entire restaurant industry would have shut down long ago.

  9. rach Avatar

    I waitress for a chain Italian place in the UK, and although the easy substitutions are fine and all built into the computer system (no chicken, sub eggs, or whatever) the slightly more unusual ones are not. This would be fine, but none of the chefs are English, or speak English very well. Trying to explain to a manically busy Polish guy what your customers want using hand signals in the middle of an evening shift is not ideal. It can also be embarrassing, as you can see into the kitchen from the floor; i get flustered and the chefs get more confused.

    I’m not allergic to anything, and I rarely ask for substitutions; usually only after finishing a shift and grabbing a free meal, when I always sub the artichokes on my salad. They are pricey enough that I think the kitchen would want to keep them rather than have me chuck them out!

  10. Katie Avatar

    It’s one thing to ask for a different kind of cheese on a sandwich, but come on, when your order is so riddled with substitutions and the ticket is longer than one that prints out for my 10 top. That’s a little much. Plus the worry of having it prepared incorrectly. Then you have unhappy guests. It’s a vicious cycle.

  11. Meg Avatar

    I used to have to find food for my entire NCAA fencing team during tournaments; for between bout snacking, I finally figured out that honey graham crackers and peanut butter or honey covered spelt (think sugar smacks but less sweet) were just about the only foods that could be consumed by everyone on the team. As for going out to restruants as a team, we discovered that greek diners were virtually the only sorts of places that could handle the various dietary requirements; from fruit allergies (the kind that cause breathing to cease) lactose intolerant, lactose intolerant vegetarians, and outright vegans to folks who felt that meat should be a large and valued part of their diet. The vegan, to her credit, never expected to be able to eat anything and always brought something she could consume while the rest of us ate, or just got water and ate at the hotel. Needless to say, since we also showed up exhausted, smelly, sweaty, and in groups of between 11 and 18, we tipped outrageously…

  12. Nicole Avatar

    I worked in restaurants for quite a while…one reason there may have been the extra charge for the cheese could be that the computer system they have automatically adds the charge for that modifier and they would have to go to a manager to have the charge removed. They may honestly have forgotten and wouldn’t be offended by a POLITE question about the charge.

  13. The Super Bongo Avatar

    I’m so glad you bring up the issue. Recently, we were out to eat at literally the best restaurant in our little town with friends. One of our party ordered a meal that I’ve seen ordered twice before. When it arrived, the chef had added several shrimp to the top of the ordered food. Our friend is terrribly allergic to shellfish – she was quite distressed because she had specifically picked her meal because the menu description didn’t include shrimp. Both times I’ve seen this particular meal ordered, never a shrimp.

    Our friend explained to the server that she was quite allergic to shrimp. The server took her plate, and seconds later brought it back explaining that she’d just taken them off. Our friend was concerned that the sauce that covered the dish was tainted with the shrimp — and only when the owner of the place noticed the fuss, did she remove the plate and offer to get another dish altogether.

    I was upset that server was so casual about an issue that could potientially kill. A friend of mine who is in the food industry claims that most restaurant folks don’t know about allergies and don’t much care. I’m pretty horrified about that too.

    I’m glad to see you bring up the issue — and act as if this is a major concern for food establishments. thanks for restoring my faith in foodies.

  14. David Avatar

    I’m a chef and owner of a restaurant, and used to work in a health-food/organic/mostly vegetarian place, so I am well aware of allergens and dietary concerns. The big ones (there are 8 “dangerous” allergens, the ones that cause 99.9 % of allergen-related deaths) are one thing – I understand those and will absolutely accommodate any customer who really can’t have them, although I can’t imagine how they get through a day without encountering them. (For the record, the 8 are Milk, Eggs, Nuts, Tree Nuts, Shellfish, Fish, Soy, Wheat). But the other day I was handed a list from a patron who was allergic to a large list of things – including stuff like Celery. I cannot imagine that celery, which is 80 percent water, is something that can make somebody sick. I looked up celery allergies on a medical site and found nothing. But it’s one of those things – I don’t want to kill anybody, obviously. It’s tough – with a menu like mine, which has a lot of stocks used for sauces/cooking liquid, avoiding celery is almost impossible.
    I think what it boils down to is that it’s good to spell out your policies in advance, and have the whole staff on board with them, and then stick to them. It saves the whole awkward, “ummm, let me see if the chef can accomodate you” conversation at the table. I err on the side of caution with allergens, but if it’s something like the scenario described at the end of your post, RG, or somebody’s dietary preference, like the absurd story from the Vegetarian at the burger joint, I have little sympathy or flexibility. If I’m slow, I’ll work with them. If a vegetarian comes in at 8:30 on a Saturday and wants me to do a veg tasting menu on the fly, I’ll say no every time. If your dietary restrictions are by choice, then, in my opinion, you should have done some research before coming to my restaurant. I always have 2 veg entrees available, and one of them is usually vegan, or can be prepared as such. I think that’s reasonable. And, like I said, I can be nice if you are also nice,patient and understanding. Otherwise, I’m sure somebody wants to make you a macrobiotic plate during a busy dinner rush. And I’m sure those people are easy to find.

  15. George Avatar

    This chopping and changing of restaurant menu items is a phenomenon I’ve discovered through reading blogs – specifically blogs from US writers. I’m fortunate that I have no special dietary requirements. Neither does my wife. We also live in Australia. We went to a restaurant last weekend to celebrate selling our house and had the 8 course degustation. No menu. We just got 8 courses brought out to us over 4 and a half hours. It was bliss. We were asked if we had any special dietary requirements but when the answer was ‘no’, that was that. We knew we were going to eat new and wonderful things; we knew we were likely to be challenged from a culinary point of view – and so it turned out. Isn’t that the point of eating out? Why you would bastardize a dish that a chef has taken considerable trouble to put together is beyond me – unless it is for dietary or health reasons. The trend I’ve seen on reading blogs like this is that US diners just want to eat their favourite dishes when they go out and effectively demand that kitchens cook them. That just wouldn’t be tolerated here in Australia. Nope, not at all.

    — George

  16. restaurant Gal Avatar

    I actually have a story to share, too. I hate it that I cannot eat wheat products. It won’t kill me if I eat it, but when I do, I break out in hives and feel like a knife is spinning around in my stomach for days afterward. Thus, I am careful what I order. I am also reluctant to ask too much, however, because I am loathe to be “one of those guests.” Recent experience has changed that: At a Tex-Mex spot I love, I ordered a dish I always get, described on the menu as being made with corn tortillas. It came, somethered in cheese and salsa, as always, and tasted great. But about three-quarters of the way through, I realized the tortilla looked more like a flour tortilla than a white corn tortilla. I asked the server to check with the kitchen. Sure enough, he’d simply decided to use flour tortillas in the dish, for no apparent reason. Ugh. I talked to the manager about it (who almost panicked and asked if I needed an ambulance, which I assured him I didn’t!). Sure, the meal was comped, the manager felt terrible about it, and I assured him I would be okay in a few days, not to dwell. However, now I always ask the server to confirm the prep with the kitchen when I am ordering something that appears wheat-free. So I guess that does make me “one of those guests.” What I wouldn’t give to enjoy a big fat donut or a slice of pizza!

  17. this waitress Avatar

    It definitely seems like gluten-free is on the rise. We’ve started indicating our gluten-free items on our menu. It’s funny though, when someone comes across the word and asks “What’s a ‘gluten’?”

  18. T-bone Avatar

    In America we have this false notion that the customer is always right. For me..the reason I go to a restaurant is to try out what they are doing. If I want my food I’ll cook it at home.

  19. LB Avatar

    People who do not have food allergies (whether they are the type that are legitimately life-threatening or the type that will upset your stomach and put stress on your immune system) often dismiss or disbelieve what people say they are allergic to. I think it’s like men who aren’t sure that PMS really exists – it can be hard to give it credit when you’ve no experience with it yourself.

    On the other hand, food allergies are far more the responsibility of the sufferer than they are of those who are food-service professionals.

    I have a slew of food allergies myself; some are easy to avoid and some are less so. I have never behaved like it was the responsibility of anyone else to keep me from ingesting something that I’m not supposed to eat. But I also don’t believe that checking for menu clarifications or asking for the removal or substitution of one item in a dish is being high-maintenance.

    What it really all comes down to is what everything in life comes down to in the end: manners. Be polite. Be reasonable. And be informed about where you’re eating – you’ll make everyone’s life a lot easier.

  20. David Avatar

    Agreed – removing an item from a dish is one thing. But in my example above, with the woman allergic to celery – how am I supposed to remove the celery from a stock that was made days ago? How am I going to remove the meat (she was allergic to beef, but not chicken or pork) – from a stock that was, again, made days earlier? With a dining room full of 64 customers, with 12 saute pans going at once, how do I determine, in a high-pressure, super-busy situation and on the fly, whether or not one of the 12 pans has had nuts or celery or maybe had a bit of stock splashed into it at any point during, say, the previous 10 minutes, when I was churning out 8 or 10 entrees at once? And people argue about having to pay more for substitutions – look at it from my perspective. I have to completely get out of my rhythm, perhaps run all my saute pans through the dish machine (which costs me nearly a dollar a cycle in water and electricity to run), drag on other customers’ entrees, put the rest of my line out of order – and somebody’s going to complain about being charged an extra buck or two? I would never endanger a customer’s health, but I also can’t allow demanding customers to define my business. I’ll lose every time.

  21. m Avatar

    I hope, John, that no one in your family ever has to deal with a peanut allergy. It’s nothing to thumb your nose at. Unfortunately, peanuts along with the whole list that someone else provided can cause anaphylactic reactions. People die from this. And while of course a lot of people claim allergies when it means “don’t like” the number of people affected by food allergies is on the rise.

  22. T-bone Avatar

    Yeah… but why do they seem to be immune in other countries? Or do they just DEAL with it? American’s are whiny complainer peoples. Anywhere’re S.O.L. Thats why we have shitty food.

  23. T-bone Avatar

    As an example…I lived in China for 4 years. Not once in 4 years did any of the people (and they dine in groups of …many with many. many courses….) complain that they were allergic or couldn’t eat something. Not once! I would assume that some of them “suffered” in silence. Why? Because of respect for cuisine. Food actually matters to some people.

  24. Julie Avatar

    John, By your post, I’m assuming you’ve never witnessed anyone have an allergic reaction. My husband is allergic to some proteins and suffers from anaphylactic shock whenever he eats something tainted by it. (I’m an expert label reader now.) My allergies are less life-threatening — my body just expels the offending food whichever way possible.

    I’ve been to a Chinese wedding reception (a/k/a feast). Nine of the ten courses contained something I was allergic to — and that platter was split between ten people. Needless to say, I picked up dinner afterwards.

  25. tnt Avatar

    I am an owner of a sports bar/restaurant. With our POS system, if our servers modified “NO MEAT” and “ADD CHEESE” on a BLT, it would automatically add the extra charge for cheese. It’s programmed so that “ADD CHEESE” adds a fee. Unfortunately, it cannot be programmed to deduct for “NO MEAT”.

    A good server would have went to the MOD and asked how to ring it properly. I’d bet if the customer had brought it up then the MOD would’ve fixed the problem for her. Give us owners & MODs a chance to make you happy. Don’t leave unhappy. Sometimes it seems that the only customers who seem to complain are ones who just like to complain, not the people who have worthy complaints.

  26. Nicole Avatar

    David, Restuarant Gal, and others,

    I am a 15 year restaurant employee veteran, and yes, I have HORRIBLE food allergies as well. Celery is one of them, although it is a very mild allergy. Some of my allergies are so severe that I cannot even have the item in my mouth, let alone swallow it, or I will be bent over praying to the porcelain god for hours, or worse in anaphalxic shock (throat swelling up). Let me tell you, for a self obessed foodie, this sucks!!!! I am severely allergic to all nuts, and fish, (but not shellfish), raspberries, kiwi fruit, and pineapple, and then also mild allergies to peppers, carrots and celery. I can honestly say, it is not because I don’t LIKE any of these foods! I once ordered a lobster quesadilla on a date as an appetizer, and discovered that the dish that was presented had substituted salmon because they were out of lobster AFTER I had eaten three pieces……at the same meal, I was also presented a salad with a raspberry vinaigrette because my date was a friend of the chef’s…..needless to say, it was a miserable evening. I also LOVE sushi (shellfish sushi obviously) but I have to be SUPER careful about any roe or fish sauce being in anything I order. So anyway, to make my point, although I realize there are many people out there who are just being difficult, there are some of us who have legitimate concerns for our own well-being. I have spent one too many nights with stomach cramps, cold sweats and the like to not ask for something special, but I am also conscious of a restuarant’s busiest time and would never go overboard. If a simple request was denied, then truthfully, I would not return to that establishment, even if it was the “best around”.

  27. David Avatar

    I am curious about the celery allergy, mostly – can you never eat a soup? Do you never eat a dish with a sauce? Do you ask about mirepoix at every restaurant you go to? I’m seriously curious. The celery thing is what concerns me the most – shellfish, I understand. Easily avoidable. At any serious restaurant, celery – not so much.

  28. T-bone Avatar

    So..I guess celery and peanut butter would be out of the question also. Bummer.

  29. lauren Avatar

    as a restaurant owner in the usa but originally from the UK, I have never ever in my life heard so much whining and pickiness from people at my restaurant. Allergies to garlic, salad, tomatoes, wheat, nuts etc. Don’t like this, don’t like that, substitute this and that, the list goes on.

    When my kitchen is serving 150 to 200 in season they go into robot mode. They don’t read the tickets with sub this, no that, so we don’t do it. The customers moan that I am not accomodating them but how can I? It would mean not accomodating the rest of the diners who arent as fussy.

    Why come to a restaurant when all you want is plain pasta and then moan if I charge $15 for it? I don’t want to serve plain pasta to a grown up. cook it yourself at home.

    They think a menu is a list of ingredients and then they can make up their own meals.

  30. Jadetaia Avatar

    I live in Northern California, so most restaurants are used to catering to vegetarians/vegans/customers with special dietary needs. I understand that some people have horrible allergies, and most of the ones that I have served in the past are very polite and upfront about their allergies. A good deal of those with allergies do their research before dining out and take the time to read the menus themselves or ask about the food before ordering. I don’t mind if I’m told upfront that someone has a wheat allergy or is allergic to dairy, and what sort of items might I recommend that they would enjoy? I don’t mind if someone tells me that s/he is a vegan and if s/he could modify the dish a little to leave out the eggs or the cream. Keep it reasonable and maintain a positive, patient attitude. I’m more willing to respect your wishes then.

    I do agree, however, that there can be very picky eaters. There are times when I find myself wanting to tell them to make the meals themselves if they are so insistent on how a dish is prepared. I understand that when dining out, everyone wants the best experience possible. But dining out also, like mentioned above, means exposing yourself to new foods, new atmospheres, new tastes, new experiences. So it is very frustrating to have people change the menu around entirely until it has few or none of the original ingredients left. I used to work at a Mexican restaurant and had many people come up to me and tell me that they were not allergic to but simply disliked onions, cilantro, guacamole, salsa, rice, fish, shrimp, spicy foods, etc. I do my best to accomodate all tastes, but in situations like these, where they go to a restaurant where they are almost guaranteed to dislike all their choices and complain, what is a server to do?

    Also, has anyone else noticed this? More and more parents have simply given up trying to make their kids eat vegetables. “Oh, she won’t eat it if there’s anything green on the plate.” “They can’t have lettuce. They hate it.” “My children don’t eat vegetables.” What ever happened to parental control/guidance? Are small children capable of making every single decision now? No wonder we have such a high obesity rate in the nation.

  31. lauren Avatar

    I too have no problem accomodating a customer who says before ordering that they are seriously allergic to wheat or dairy and could I help choose something for them. They are usually no trouble at all and are grateful that you take the time to help them.

    What is a pain is when you serve up what they ordered and then you get called over, and they say they didnt realise the dish has mushrooms/onions/fish/cream or whatever and they can’t eat it. They don’t read the menu properly or don’t listen to the specials carefully enough and then expect the restaurant to change their meal for something else.

  32. Bettye Avatar

    It’s going to be ending of mine day, but before ending I am reading this enormous piece of writing to improve my know-how.