On a recent visit to a museum, my husband and I stopped at its cafeteria for a snack. The choices were cookies and cupcakes, pretzels and potato chips, and assorted drinks. Clearly, the cafeteria didn’t cater to those of us who are gluten-sensitive, lactose-intolerant, and/or weight watchers.
Much against my will, I bought the only snack I could tolerate although it meant throwing my diet out the window: potato chips. And much against my dislike of being labeled a complainer, I decided to speak up. “Would you consider carrying gluten-free products?” I asked. “I can’t eat most of what you have.”
After agreeing that their selection was poor, the sales clerk said, “We should have something. So many people are having gluten problems, aren’t they?”
I had noticed that the cafeteria didn’t make its own food, that everything was packaged, and nothing required refrigeration. “You could carry Larabar bars,” I suggested. “Some of them are gluten-free and dairy-free.”
She got out a pencil and paper. “Could you spell that?” she asked.
I don’t know if the museum cafeteria ever stocked the bars but, at that moment, I’d taken my first step into gluten-free activism. In speaking out, I’d compelled a food establishment to acknowledge a lack of gluten-free products and think about an alternative.
Since then, I’ve made a point of talking to people in hotels, restaurants, and food markets about food selection at their place of business. Here are some of my strategies for raising awareness and encouraging managers to rethink their food purchases:
Offer solutions. Don’t be shy: if we accept the status quo, it will never change. However, if you’re going to make a complaint, consider having a suggestion that will remedy the problem. It’s all too easy for a food manager to agree and then shrug helplessly. After all, it’s “store policy” or “the home office decides” or…whatever. But you also need to understand a business’s limitations and offer suitable solutions. Larabar bars were the first thing that came to my mind at the museum cafeteria when I realized that nothing was cooked on-site, but I could also have suggested packaged dried fruit and nuts.
Be knowledgeable and specific about product lines. You can’t make suggestions if you don’t have information. Know what’s out there and the names of manufacturers. It’s better to say “Larabar bar” then “fruit and nut bar.” Your expertise saves time for a busy food manager. Instead of having to research fruit and nut bars, plenty of which have wheat and dairy, he/she can go straight to the proper source. In addition, if you know the name of a product and are recommending it, that means you like it and chances are other customers will as well. No food manager wants to stock products that won’t sell.
Praise the good guys. On our recent travels, I carried my breakfast foods with me: a gluten-free cereal, soy milk, and fruit. (You can only eat so many eggs.) At one Marriott Hotel, which offered a continental breakfast, I discovered a small box of soy milk beside the chocolate milk and yogurt. I went on a praise binge. I thanked the waitress; I complimented the hotel clerk; I noted the wonderful event on the evaluation form. Praising not only makes people happy, it does great things for our cause. It connects food intolerances, not with complainers, but with “smilers.” It makes providing the right food products a pleasant experience. And it helps nudge “oddball” products closer to the mainstream.
Build local relationships. Health food stores are a godsend for people like us, but the best way to bring down prices and increase product accessibility is to get gluten-free foods into the large, national/regional food chains. Get to know the managers in your favorite store: the ones in charge of breads, cereals, and dairy products. Complain about products that aren’t there, offer solutions, and praise when praise is due. I’ve discovered that our closest grocery store does have some flexibility to carry specialty items to meet neighborhood demands. After many discussions with Tom, the dairy manager, it now carries goat yogurt. And I make sure that it sells. Although I also make my own yogurt, I always go in on yogurt delivery day and buy some containers. In fact, now if I miss delivery day, I sometimes find that they’re sold out! Here’s a fact: a store won’t know if there will be product sales unless the product is on the shelves.
The gluten-free trend has meant that suitable bread and pasta products are more accessible than ever but, folks, we still have a long way to go. Each of us needs to be a gluten-free activist—in the nicest way possible, of course—so that we can ensure that we’re not just part of a growing problem, but also contributors to helpful, useful, and profitable solutions.
By Claire Harrison: Claire writes The Food Refashionista blog about food and recipes for people who are gluten-sensitive, lactose-intolerant, and watching the weight for health reasons. (www.foodrefashionista.wordpress.com)