By Vic Dolcourt
When I walked into The Counter’s newest location in Mountain View, I felt that the restaurant wanted my business. There was a logo on the wall saying “Gluten Free – So Can We,” and a similar statement on the chalkboard. But even better was the separately-printed, easily found, gluten-free menu that offers a large number of entrée choices and starters/sides, not just one or two items. From the looks of the menu, The Counter has embraced gluten-free in a big way. And it has offerings that my vegetarian wife enjoys, like salad and grilled vegetables. Because this is one of the more extensive gluten-free menus I’ve seen, I decided to dig deeper to see if gluten-free is in the corporate culture or just talk.
“It’s all about guest choice,” said Mike Costello, director of marketing, when I spoke to him by phone from his office in Culver City. “The guest knows what he or she wants, and we deliver that. Gluten-free and allergy aware are within our core belief that everyone should be free to get what they want, how they want it, and without limitation.” The proof of his statement is evident in the gluten-free menu. In addition to the suggested combinations on the left-hand side of the menu, the right-hand side offers the ability to customize a burger with three kinds of meat, 10 kinds of cheese, 29 kinds of topping, and 14 kinds of sauce. Oh, yes, the Udi’s gluten free-bun is optional, and you can get the burger in a bowl instead.
Mike made arrangements for me to visit the Mountain View restaurant, and Kenny, the manager on duty, described and demonstrated how The Counter takes care of its gluten-free (and allergy aware) customers. Kenny demonstrated that when a customer identifies his or her need for a gluten-free meal or orders from the gluten-free menu, the server takes the order and enters it into the restaurant’s electronic ordering system. There is a button to notify the kitchen that this is an “Allergy Order” and it prints the alert in red on the kitchen slip. The server also notifies the manager on duty if the diner has not done that already. Kenny took me through the restaurant’s general preparation area which included a fryer dedicated to gluten (onion rings and fried pickles) and the other dedicated to all of the other deep fried items, including white potato and sweet potato fries. Kenny said that in addition to segregation of gluten and non-gluten items, the restaurant changes its fry oil twice a day to maximize freshness and savor. Kenny also showed the individually wrapped Udi’s hamburger buns, and the kitchen manager showed gluten-free (also allergy) preparation area which is off in the back and well away from the main action of the kitchen.
I asked Kenny how the restaurant makes sure that gluten-free orders don’t get mixed up with the regular orders. “That is easy,” Kenny said. “The kitchen manager assigns one of the cooks to make up the gluten-free order from start to finish, or sometimes the kitchen manager does it himself. We don’t make mistakes, and I know. I’ve worked for the Counter for six years.” “And here’s something else,” and Kenny brought out a bottle of Dogfish Head Tweason Ale. “It’s gluten free.” The Counter restaurants that don’t have Tweason Ale have Redbridge instead.
I asked Mike why The Counter created an extensive menu for what must be a small gluten-free community. “We do a lot of outreach, and we listen to our customers. Our customers wanted gluten-free, and we wanted to go far beyond merely accommodating them with one or two meager choices. You can see that in our extensive menu.” Kenny answered the question a little differently, “We do regular emails with corporate and tell them what our customers tell us. I’ve seen growing requests for gluten-free and allergy aware.” Mike also said that he would like the internet-based gluten-free menu to be more easily seen, but right now there are a few technical limitations that need to be cleared first, so until then we’ll have to click on the link below. Note that the online and paper menu advise the diner to talk to the restaurant manager about needing gluten-free food.
The Counter began life in Santa Monica in 2003 and has grown to 38 locations, 25 in California, with five in Northern California: Mountain View, San Mateo, San Jose, Palo Alto and Walnut Creek. The online gluten-free menu can be found at http://www.thecounterburger.com/gluten-free/. It has the same content as the paper menu in the restaurant.