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Stand-Up Training: Serving Customers with Dietary Restrictions

Restaurant server talks with woman about dietary restrictions

Empower Employees Through Food Safety Training

Food allergies are not the only dietary restriction you will be asked to accommodate in your establishment. Most Americans have participated in some form of restricted diet in their lifetime. Not all restricted diets have weight loss in mind, either. They can be for religious, medical, or even ethical reasons.

Whatever their motivation, it will be important to accommodate as many special diets as you possibly can. Teach your employees about your menu in depth and what accommodations your kitchen can handle to give them the confidence to assure your customers that their needs will be handled appropriately.

Learning Objectives

You may choose to read these learning objectives with your employees as a part of the stand-up training.

After this training, employees will be able to:

  • Recognize common dietary restrictions
  • Explain menu item ingredients to customers in detail
  • Show confidence when dealing with customers’ diet requests
  • Communicate customers’ dietary restrictions with other employees

The Facts

You may choose to read these facts with your employees as a part of the stand-up training.

  • In 2014, 60 percent of the American population followed some form of restricted diet.
  • Dietary restrictions should be taken just as seriously as allergies. Customers with heart disease or diabetes can be put at risk when they have too much sodium.
  • Regardless of whether a dietary request is for a medical or ethical reason, each request should be treated seriously and respectfully.
  • Not everyone who requests a special diet will know enough about your menu to order correctly every time. Teach your employees to ask follow-up questions to make sure they understand the full extent of the restriction.
  • When necessary, color-code, separate, or mark special order dishes.

Training Activities

Choose the activities that will be most beneficial for your employees. Modify them as needed to fit the training needs of your establishment.

Types of Dietary Restrictions

Display: Show the 8 Common Special Diets poster side by side with your establishment’s menu.

Observe: With your employees, read through the list of special diets. Have employees name other diet requests they’ve encountered that might not have made it on the list. Have them look over the menu.

Discuss: What dishes on our menu would you recommend to a vegan customer? How about a customer on a low sodium diet? Pick a few different diet examples to discuss with your employees. Feel free to stop at any point and discuss menu items and special diets in greater detail.

Explain: If you notice hesitation or lack of investment in this exercise, reiterate why it is so important to take care to respect special requests, even if it feels tedious. For example, low sodium is an essential diet for people with heart disease. It may not seem important to a food worker, but to the customer it’s crucial.

Record: Use the Diet Cheat Sheet template to make a list of menu items and whether they apply to some of the more common/popular special diets. Write down your employees’ ideas and comments. Use this as an opportunity to improve the sheet with your employees’ input.

Customer Interaction

Roleplay: Plan a roleplay with your employees to practice responding to customers with dietary restrictions. Ask one of your employees to act as a customer avoiding sodium (or other common example for your establishment) trying to order a food item. Ask another employee to act as a server who does not listen well or take the customer’s concerns seriously. You many choose to take either of these roles if you wish to call attention to specific issues or concerns in your establishment.

Observe: Observe the server in the roleplay as he or she does a poor job listening to the customer.

Discuss: What would you have done differently as the server?

Involve: Ask for volunteers to act as an attentive server who addresses the customer’s needs. The employee acting as the customer should ask questions and voice their concerns in the same ways that your customers do.

Discuss: How should you address tricky situations or concerns from customers? Are there any special requests that you cannot safely accommodate in your establishment?

Communicating Special Orders

Roleplay: Plan a roleplay with your employees to practice communicating special orders. Ask one employee to act as though they have received a vegetarian order from a customer. Have them plug in the order and do nothing else. Have another employee pretend to be the person preparing the order. You may choose to take either of these roles if you wish to call attention to issues or concerns at your establishment.

Discuss: What would you have done differently as the server? How can we better communicate a special order to the employees preparing food?

Observe: See who employees look to for answers. Who contributes most to the discussion? It could be a good idea to assign them extra tasks or make them the special request expert in your establishment.

Following Up

Accommodating special diets may not be part of the FDA Food Code, but it can be a good way to distinguish your business from your competitors. Customers with special diets often have to be very careful about where they eat out, and if they have a positive experience at your establishment, they’ll likely share it with others.

After you deliver this training, ask your employees to pay extra attention to how they communicate with customers and coworkers about special orders. You should observe their interactions as well. Remind your employees to be honest, thorough, and to take customer concerns seriously.

If you have a system in place to mark special orders, pay attention to how your employees use it. Provide any corrections they may need and offer praise for good practices that you see.

Make sure your shift managers and supervisors can answer questions that other employees may have about handling special diets. Encourage employees to ask questions when they need help instead of guessing at the right answer.

As needed, review this training with your employees.

Resource List

Post the 8 Common Special Diets poster in your establishment so that your servers can reference it as needed.

Fill out the Diet Cheat Sheet template with your employees and hang it in your establishment to remind them what menu items meet the requirements for which diets. Although it’s best if servers talk to a manager about special diet requests before making any promises to a customer, this spreadsheet can help if they can’t find a manager during a rush.

Use the Stand-Up Training: Food Allergies to help reinforce to your employees how serious food allergies can be.

Did you use this stand-up training in your establishment? We’d love to get your feedback! Take a minute to do our feedback survey.

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— Hailey Kate Chatlin

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