Dear Gluten Dude: How do I keep 500 guests as safe as possible?

banquet and cross contamination

Early in my celiac days, when I was still in my gluten-free diapers, I was invited to golf-outing charity. I figured with transportation time included, I’d be gone max 6 hours. So I did what most celiacs do: I panicked. Just kidding. I ate right before I left and then brought enough snacks with me to tie me over. When the round was done and I shot my usual 36 under par, I was hungry and ready to go home.

Little did I know, there was a banquet afterwards. Yikes! So I did what most celiacs do: I panicked. This time I’m not quite kidding. I wanted to pass on it, as I knew it would be a long 3 hours for me. But I was an invited guest and thought it would be rude. So I stayed. And it sucked. I went up and down and food line and there was nothing I could have, except maybe the veggies. I asked to speak with the catering manager to see if anything was safe, and he had that glaze in his eyes that said “I don’t know and I don’t really care.” So I sat there and drank my water for 3 hours (which actually seemed like 13 hours.)

This leads me to the latest Dear Gluten Dude. Not how to avoid such a situation but instead if you were in charge of planning the banquet, what questions would you ask and what advice would you give to the catering company to avoid cross-contamination as much as possible. Here is the email:

Hi GD!

First thank you for being a wonderful source for myself and others. I love your honesty and the support you give, and your book was fantastic!

I need a little advice. My office hosts a conference (average attendance is 500 people) every year. I am being pulled in to assist now, and working on planning next years conference. After he witnessed me experience a bad cross contamination situation, my boss asked me to write up something for the hotel/banquet services to verify they understand Celiac, and other food allergies…especially the cross contact issue.

They have always asked in the past and the hotel would assure them they know and they would take care of everything and everyone. He just took their word for it, but now realizes we need to ask more questions or even provide a list of requirements when handling food. Everyone who attends is asked about food allergies and their information is noted. We’ve never had an issue (to our knowledge) of anyone getting sick, but we want to go a step further and ensure things are safe.

Sooo…what is your advice for questions/requirements for the hotel/banquet services? Is there something else I am missing in this situation?

Oh, and they do eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the conference everyday for 4 days.

Dang…that’s a heck of a responsibility. If it were me, I’d panic. Yes, kidding again. But seriously, trying to keep 12 meals as safe as possible for those with celiac disease is not an easy task. Since I know absolutely nothing about the food service side of banquets, I thought I throw this out there to the community.

What questions should she ask and what requirements should she request/demand? Leave a comment below. Thanks.

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13 thoughts on “Dear Gluten Dude: How do I keep 500 guests as safe as possible?”

  1. Do you have a designated allergy prep station? Do you have a way of designating/indicating to catering staff which meals are special meals? Are all of your kitchen and catering staff trained to understand how to keep allergens away from special meals? Do you use a plancha grill for cooking most things? Do you have an alternative cooking surface option (clean pans etc) for special meals? In what order do you process special meals (before the rest? After?)

  2. The answers will be telling on how seriously they take special meals. They don’t have to have all the right answers but if ALL of these answers are “no” or “not really” then they won’t be trustworthy.
    I used to cater small events and also provided special meals for events when other caterers couldn’t be safe. That is another option. If the main caterer doesn’t feel right, see if the event can provide a second smaller specialty order from a restaurant that can.

  3. I agree with Wendy above that asking about 1) designated prep areas, 2) staff training and 3) labeling/marking special meals is essential. I might also ask about providing pre packaged meals if they realistically can’t do those things safely.

    1. Oops I missed that Wendy also suggested to order specialty meals from somewhere else if they caterers can’t do it. Then I contributed nothing new. Haha. I just agree!

  4. Been there on the banquet. For my daughter’s wedding, she hired a baker who had listed itself as gluten free. When I picked up the cake, I asked what their protocols were for baking. Oh, we have this corner of the kitchen where we make the gluten free foods – while the rest of the kitchen is making gluten full baked goods with flour wafting over everything. I did not eat the cake.

    The caterer advertised being gluten free – actually it was a food truck. Again, as I’m in the line I asked if the food was prepared separately. Well, no. There is the possibility of cross-contamination We fry the items in the same oil as the breaded items. We cut on the same boards. etc. etc. But the food is gluten free (if you ignore the prep work.)

    It was a long, long night. Thankfully I had brought sandwiches from a gluten free deli (it was a destination wedding) to cover my needs over the weekend. When I got back to the condo, I was finally able to eat…..

  5. I have trained a few restaurants and it’s not easy. First thing I would do is talk to the head chef (Executive Chef?) to find out how much they do know. That gives you a base to shoot from- as you may have to fill in a lot of info– that entire staff needs to understand how serious it is to make sure there no cross contamination. 2) For 4 days, 12 meals, they need to establish an entire clean area in which to prepare and store these meals – how many are involved? 1 or 2 is easy- more might be a bigger problem. 3) Different shaped plates can be used (oval instead of round, for instance) and they should have some kind of flag to indicate this is a special order/ allergen. 4) The manager generally is the one to follow the meal all the way thru prep and deliver it. 5) The menu should be posted for all to see- and a reminder to change gloves. Only properly- marked cutting boards, utensils should be used. 5) area must be totally clear of all bread, rolls, crumbs. 6) A flat top can be used for a protein as long as an area is set aside as “allergen”. 7) salt & pepper can be used but no spices unless they can be verified as gf. Nothing wrong w plain food. GF bread can be toasted but only using a new pop-up toaster. (or those nylon bags made for toasters. 8) I would suggest offering to check in with the staff to make sure everything they are serving is gf. I know this sounds like a lot of work, and it is, but a good caterer (or hotel staff) should be able manage with notice. Good luck- and how fortunate you are to have a manager who even cares so much about his staff.

  6. Thank you all for the fantastic information (Wendy & Sybil…great info). I truly appreciate GD for sending this out, and those of you taking time to provide the suggestions and experiences. I am keeping all of this and will be meeting with my boss within the next 2 weeks to discuss. We don’t mind the work and time it will take to ensure our attendees can enjoy the conference without worrying about the food or worse actually getting sick! The next “in person” conference is a year away, but we do our best to prepare way in advance.

    I also appreciate you sharing specific experiences. That is just additional proof why we need to stay on top of the hotel staff/caterer!

  7. I have worked in events and coordinated many meals with caterers. There is already a great list of questions here, but I wanted to add that as the client paying (probably a lot) of money for catering services, you are entitled to a fully transparent planning process. I’m sure you already know that ensuring safe meals for allergies and dietary restrictions for this large a group will require extra time and energy but it’s absolutely worth it. Just remember that the host site wants your business, they are professionals, and the staff should be willing to go above and beyond to make you happy with their service – especially if there is a chance for repeat business.

  8. Always ask if they have a designated gluten-free area in the kitchen & if the staff has been well-trained, educated. Ask to speak to the chef directly. I’ve done this every single time I eat somewhere EVEN if I’ve safely eaten there before. NOTE: Chef’s are extremely busy so be sure to call or visit BEFORE the lunch/dinner rush & well ahead of the date.
    I study the menu & make a list of questions about the items I might be able to safely eat & ask the chef if he/she can create a safe, special meal for me and serve separately from the other guests.
    A Morselicious tip if you’ve been taken care of: follow up with a personal thank-you note, call, reviews, note to their supervisor. Paying it forward is two-fold. Hope this helps & feel free to reach out. Good luck!

  9. If your in charge, just make everything gluten free and your coworkers will suffer (just kiding about the suffering part.)

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