By Jennifer Iscol
Last fall the Cheesecake Factory hit the pause button on a full national rollout of its gluten-free menu to consider the impact of the FDA’s new gluten-free labeling rule. The company has kept a low profile on its gluten-free endeavor for the past year, but has continued to work on it. The gluten-free menu became available in all Cheesecake Factory restaurants by September 5th, 2014, according to Alethea Rowe, the company’s senior director of public relations and brand management.
Menus subject to gluten-free labeling rule
The FDA’s gluten-free labeling regulation is primarily aimed at packaged foods, but in guidance published in the Federal Register on August 5, 2013, the agency unexpectedly suggested that restaurants and food service comply with the federal definition of the term “gluten-free” and indicated that they would be subject to enforcement. In the ongoing absence of further guidance from the agency, what this means in practical terms is still a bit hazy. For now, this seems to leave restaurants and food service some latitude in interpreting how to comply with the rule if they choose to label menu items “gluten-free.”
A chain with global ambitions
The Cheesecake Factory opened its first namesake restaurant in 1978 in Beverly Hills and has grown since then into a publicly traded company with over 170 locations and $1.87 billion in annual sales. In 2011 it expanded into the Middle East, where it meets the challenge of complying with Islamic dietary laws; opened its first Latin American location in Mexico in July; and has plans to enter the Asian market.
With a clear commitment to serving gluten-free diners, this popular and ambitious chain would appear to have an excellent chance of success with its gluten-free menu. It also has the advantage of studying the ‘do’s and don’ts’ one might draw up from other major restaurant chains launching gluten-free menus with varying success over the last half dozen years.
Large menu presents challenges
The Cheesecake Factory appears to be taking the responsibility for serving this population seriously, but its path has not been an easy one. The chain’s signature eclectic menu features over 200 items, over 70 of which are on the gluten-free menu, creating a challenging level of complexity for sourcing, storing and handling gluten-free ingredients and preventing cross-contamination. Fine-tuning procedures, and training management and staff, could not have been a cakewalk.
Strong effort with somewhat uneven results
With little in the way of substantive communication from the company until recently, I gathered information by randomly choosing eight Cheesecake Factory locations in different states to call as a prospective diner and ask a few questions. The responses were generally quite well informed and consistent, with a few curve balls thrown in.
All eight locations confirmed that they offer a gluten-free menu and that procedures are in place to prevent cross contact; for example, they use dedicated gluten-free fryers and separate pasta water and equipment. However, one said that they don’t recommend items made in the gluten-free fryer for people with celiac disease because it is right next to a bin of flour, and another said the fryers are right next to each other and a gluten-containing item could easily fall in. A third erroneously explained “It’s OK if there is some contact,” and added, “It’s not the same as a nut allergy.”
I also solicited feedback from gluten-free diners by posting an inquiry to members of the Celiac Listserv about their experiences at Cheesecake Factory locations around the country. A little over half of the responses were positive, with praise for the extensive gluten-free menu, good food, and attentive and knowledgeable staff, while others reported negative experiences with poorly informed staff or an errant wheat crouton or noodle in their meals.
Christopher Gulli of Oakland, California, had a generally positive experience, but expressed puzzlement over this menu disclaimer: “As prepared, all items contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten (or no gluten) and some items may be made with ingredients that are a gluten-containing grain.” As Christopher observed, “This makes almost no sense. ‘Our food doesn’t contain gluten, but we use gluten-containing ingredients’?”
In response to an inquiry about what the confusing disclaimer might mean, the Cheesecake Factory provided an updated disclaimer: “The ‘GF Upon Request’ symbol indicates that the menu item can be prepared for guests with sensitivity to gluten, upon request. Please be aware that The Cheesecake Factory is not a gluten-free environment. Our menu items are handcrafted in our kitchens, often times using shared equipment (including common fryers) and variations in vendor-supplied ingredients may occur. For these reasons, we cannot assure you that any menu item will be entirely gluten free.”
The fryer issue persists
Wait a second – did they say common fryers? The revised disclaimer introduces a new source of confusion. A number of Cheesecake Factory employees had told me that the French fries on the gluten-free menu were made in dedicated gluten-free fryers. In fact, every location I had called confirmed having a separate dedicated fryer for gluten-free items.
Given this discrepancy, I double-checked with the Cheesecake Factory to clarify whether fried items on the gluten-free menu may be made in a shared fryer at some locations, and the representative confirmed that this is indeed the case. If so, one could hazard a guess that the French fries at those locations may contain more than 20 ppm of gluten. It’s not clear why they would be allowed on the gluten-free menu.
May we have the cheesecake, please?
When I visited the Cheesecake Factory in Corte Madera, California, a year ago, I detailed my experience in an article and noted some problems with how the sole gluten-free cheesecake, the Godiva Chocolate, is handled. On a recent visit, all the same problems were still present. The Godiva Chocolate Cheesecake was unprotected and sharing a shelf with cheesecakes with wheat crusts. Before ordering the cheesecake from the table, I paid a visit to the cheesecake display case to see how they were handling the gluten-free orders. Once again, the employee there was perplexed by my question about whether the serving utensil is shared with the other cheesecakes (yes, it still is).
In response to our request for an explanation of how that could be a safe practice, a manager came to our table to offer to personally use a piece of bakery tissue paper to pick up a slice and set it aside for us, explaining that it wasn’t usually an issue because most of their gluten-free customers are just casually gluten free and unconcerned about cross contact.
That’s not a viable system. In fact, it’s not a system at all. This is the one aspect of the company’s gluten-free effort that seems poorly conceived and without serious thought. If they are labeling the cheesecake gluten free, it cannot have a few sticky wheat crumbs on it here and there, which would be a recipe for misery in the celiac world.
A number of gluten-free observers have also expressed concern about the fact that Godiva chocolate is used in the gluten-free cheesecake despite the fact that Godiva has this emphatic warning on its website: “ALL of our products including solid chocolate pieces may contain gluten. Any person with a gluten allergy should NOT consume ANY of our products.” According to Alethea Rowe of the Cheesecake Factory, “The chocolate that we use in our Godiva Chocolate Cheesecake is sourced from Godiva and is gluten free. However, Godiva produces many other products and as a brand does not confirm that all their products are gluten free.”
We’re not sure how they managed to get into such an awkward chocolate situation, but the explanation is satisfying enough. Once they work out the storage and handling of the Godiva Chocolate Cheesecake, we will be pleased to order it.
When will the gluten-free menu be posted online and advertised?
As of this writing, the gluten-free menu was still not available on the Cheesecake Factory website, even though many locations have been offering the menu for a year or longer. The company has made no apparent effort to market it yet. If a diner does not know to ask for the gluten-free menu in the restaurant, its existence could easily be missed.
The noticeable absence of the gluten-free menu in the company’s marketing sends an ambiguous message about its level of commitment. Caution is good, but complete silence from the corporation is a bit unnerving for gluten-free diners, who tend to be perceptive observers of a company’s commitment because it generally translates to safety.
Having safe and delicious gluten-free options at a popular national restaurant chain makes life easier. In fact, it’s wonderful. But for this community, communications and public relations are more than niceties; they are essential elements for having a relaxing and pleasant experience. The burden should not be on the diner to divine the meaning of a restaurant’s disclaimer or interpret ambiguous or conflicting staff communications. Eating out should not require the persistence of a marathoner, a talent for psychology, expertise in federal regulation and a dose of luck. It should be about good food, good service and good company.
With all of the investment the Cheesecake Factory has put into its gluten-free menu to date, there is an excellent chance that it will work out the kinks, successfully convey its commitment to the public and post the menu online. If the company continues to follow through, we will be pleased to see any early missteps fade quickly into the background.
For me, a review of a restaurant’s gluten-free efforts always comes down to the personal: Would I take our teenage son, who has celiac disease, to eat there? There’s never a good time to be horribly sick for three days and recovering for a week or two. So we are very cautious, but try to balance that with the desire to socialize, dine out and explore the culinary world.
With everything I’ve learned about the Cheesecake Factory’s gluten-free endeavor, yes, I would take my son there now. However, I would still approach it with caution by calling ahead, asking to speak with a manager upon arrival, and running down my list of questions as necessary. And, ironically, we might have to take a pass on the Godiva Chocolate Cheesecake for now. Ouch.