Get Rid of Tipping? Those with food allergies will suffer

When restaurant waitstaff answer my myriad questions and do everything in their power to ensure my food is allergy free and gluten safe, I always reward them with a handsome tip. The better the service, the higher the gratuity. So this morning’s Today Show’s discussion about whether restaurants should start paying waiters a living wage and stop the practice of tipping alarms me. Evidently, some high-end restaurants are already including service fees in menu prices and paying their staff higher wages.


My concern is this: Will waitstaff provide quality service to an allergic foodie like me if they aren’t relying on tips?

Based on my experience of dining in gratuity-free Italy, I don’t think they will. While I certainly had some superb meals in Italy and met some gregarious waiters, the service wasn’t all that great. In fact, more often than not, the service was bad.

Take my dinner in a small hotel in beautiful Positano for example.

Here we are on the beach of Positano

Here we are on the beach of Positano

Sitting down at the bistro table, I handed over my laminated translation card with highlighted food allergies (dairy, gluten, soy, corn, asparagus, capers, etc.). The gray-haired waiter with a pleasant smile barely glanced at it–yet he insisted he understood my special needs. Concerned, my husband reiterated my litany of allergies and went over every ingredient in the dish I ordered—a simple plate of vegetables and a plain piece of meat (at least that’s what I thought I was ordering).

Halfway through the meal, while the waiter filled our wine glasses, I gushed over the delicious food.

“It’s the cream that makes–” Stopping midsentence, the waiter turned as red as the tomato on my fork. He obviously knew cream was dairy and I couldn’t eat dairy–yet he served it to me!

This pretty dish made me sick!

This pretty dish made me sick!

We spent the next day walking up and down the steep cobblestone streets looking for the Italian version of Imodium. (By the way, anti-diarrhea medicine isn’t sold over-the-counter in Italy. You have to ask the pharmacist for it. How embarrassing.)

Of course, the system of tipping in America does not guarantee good service. We’ve all experienced difficult waitstaff. Still, I can’t help but think if I generously tip a waiter who took my allergies seriously, he or she will give me–and the next allergic foodie after me–good service again. Tipping is a reward system. Without a reward, there is little incentive for waitstaff to make sure my food won’t make me sick tomorrow.

A side note: My husband and I couldn’t get used to not tipping in Italy and we often added an extra 20 percent. We suspect that’s why waitstaff kept refilling our after-dinner Lemoncellos!

It’s Not Always About the Food

Too often my food allergies become the focus of dinners with friends. Yes, this allergic foodie does appreciate a good meal–and preferably one that won’t cause an allergic reaction–but sometimes dinner isn’t about what’s being served.

It’s about sharing time with people you care about.

Take last Friday night, my girl friend’s birthday celebration. We were dining at the Garden of the Gods Club in Colorado Springs.

The sun was setting on the magnificent rock formations, and deer played outside the picture window.  Yes, deer actually frolicked in the grass! A perfect evening.

Deer in Colorado Springs

The waiter arrived, and I stated my well-rehearsed litany of dietary needs.  He assured me the chef would prepare a spinach salad for a first course and gluten-free scallops with plain rice and a vegetable (sans butter or soy oil) for the main meal.

While my companions enjoyed warm rolls and butter, I sipped my tonic water with lime.  Nothing I haven’t done before.  (Well, I usually have a cosmo followed by wine, but I’ve been cutting back.)

“I’m so sorry you can’t eat these rolls,” my friend apologized.  “I won’t tell you how good they are.”

I chuckled.  “No problem,” I assured her.  “I’ll be hungrier for the salad.”

Then my salad arrived looking rather plain without the cheese and croutons.

“That’s it?  Don’t you want something else?” asked my concerned friend.

I assured her the salad was fine.  Sure, I admit it was underwhelming, but I wasn’t going to get sick and that was the important thing.  Being a part of my friend’s special occasion was what the evening was about.

When the main course arrived,  I immediately knew something was wrong with mine.  The rice and scallops were sitting on a pool of yellowish liquid. I didn’t even bother picking up my fork.

“This looks like a butter sauce,” I quietly told the waiter, not wanting to cause a scene.

“I’m sure it’s fine.  I told the chef no dairy–”  He stopped midsentence as I tilted the plate so he could get a closer look at the creamy liquid.

This is the part I always hate. You know the drill. As the waiter quickly takes my food away, everyone else politely sets their forks down.

“Please don’t wait. Eat while your food is hot,” I say. But that’s improper etiquette, and everyone feels uncomfortable eating in front of me. A few more convincing prompts from me and they finally dig in.

Unfortunately, while I wait, my well-intentioned and kind friends keep trying to give me tastes of their steaks. My husband knows better, of course.

“No thank you . . . no really, I can’t .  . . I can’t eat off your plate . . . mine will be here soon.”

They are halfway through their meals when the scallops sans the sauce arrives. No apology from the waiter.  But no big deal; the tasty scallops make up for the waiter’s lack of concern for my gastrointestinal health.

Even with my meal here, my friends keep trying to feed me. Getting a tad annoyed, I say a little too loudly, “I have my own food!”   Then I laugh, a bit embarrassed.

For dessert, I am thrilled the restaurant serves homemade sorbet. I can have dessert while the birthday girl and the husbands enjoy cake.

The thing is my girl friend still wants me to taste the cake.  When I resist, she insists I at least eat the strawberries.

It is my husband who speaks up. “She can’t eat the strawberries because they are contaminated with the flour from the cake and whatever’s in that sauce.”

Once again, my eating challenges have become central stage.

Of course, those of us with celiac disease and food allergies must be vigilant about what we put into our mouths, but sometimes don’t you want a night off?

Don’t you just want your food issues to take the backseat?  Order your allergy-free food quietly, discreetly take care of any issues that arise, and focus on your dinner companions and the conversation.

Afterall, it’s not always about the food.