Provisions: How to Handle Special Orders
A well-known bit of fact in Club food and beverage service is that special order requests occur every day, multiple times a day.
Special requests often create friction and stress between service staff and back of house, and can bring unintentional discomfort to members and guests who may feel that their request is seen as an inconvenience.
Since special requests occur with such frequency, preparing for the inevitable would be a good course in managing them. Chefs never want to say "no" to a special request; although the idea of that perfect dish being reconstructed can bring on frustration, it is never cool to lose your cool when asked to make a change to a dish--even if a chef may feel the preparation is just perfect already.
Service staff also don’t want to be caught in the middle of the special request “negotiation” while a member waits for a response and the back of house gives a collective side-eye to the server, who is just acting as the messenger.
Whether it may be Paleo, Ketogenic, gluten-free, vegan, or pescatarian, the reality is that approximately 66% of US adults participate in some form of structured diet*. Some dietary observances are made for ethical or religious reasons and others in response to allergies, intolerances, and potentially dangerous prescription drug interactions.
Part of the current focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle is consideration to diet, and requests for menu modifications are ever increasing. Since a recent PCMA CONVENE survey indicated that dietary requests in restaurant and event venues have undergone an 86% increase within the past five years, it would be safe to conclude that menu item swapping is here to stay.
Some dietary accommodation guidelines are now even the law of the land. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Amendments Act of 2008 cites food allergies as a protected disability under federal law, and venues are required to provide fair and equal accommodation to those affected.**
“Let me check with the Chef...”
Some special orders can be a simple fix: no salt on the fish or extra dressing for a salad. Others may be more complex, making the modifier key the busiest button on the POS system as service staff type in a lengthy list of special orders and substitutions.
Multiple visits to the kitchen to discuss suitable ingredient alternatives are time consuming and disrupt the flow of service. While it isn’t up to the staff to make the determination if a modification is a preference or an imperative, a guideline for efficiently fulfilling requests can help manage the process. Chefs and managers can build systems and processes that empower service staff and culinary teams to make accommodations with timeliness and without creating a “beef” between FOH and BOH.
Here are a few of my suggestions, based on decades of experience in the industry:
Encourage staff to take the perspective that special requests will be the rule, not the exception, and to anticipate them daily.
Chefs and managers must take care to clarify to the service staff and culinary teams that approaching the kitchen to inquire about a special request will not result in an angry confrontation.
Service staff are merely responding to a concern or making a menu modification.
Training service staff to ask specific questions about a request before placing an order can ensure that the kitchen has accurate information to fulfill the order.
Set the expectation for a member with a special request.
A dish that is not typically served during dinner service may be available but will take a few extra moments to prepare, or there may be a cost supplement for a substitution of a protein for a vegetable.
When taking reservations, remember to inquire as to dietary restrictions or anticipated special requests.
A member may be hosting a vegan guest, or one who is sodium sensitive, and these can be noted to the kitchen in advance and communicated during the pre-shift meeting.
Service staff and managers should strive to actively update member profile data as soon as the information is expressed, as a member may have only recently developed a food allergy or changed his or her diet.
This information should also be proactively shared with the staff.
Conduct tutorials for both front-of-house and back-of-house teams on the definitions of specific diets, their functions, and their purposes.
Clarify what terms such as "lactose-intolerant" or "tyramine-intolerant" mean, which foods may fall into that category, and what the consequences are for the diner if a mistake is made.
Keep handy ingredient lists of all processed or pre-made foods that accompany the product.
Desserts and pastries that are not made in house may contain restricted foods and staff should be able to reference these lists to verify all ingredients.
“If we have it in the house we can prepare it” is the usual slogan for addressing special requests.
That does not make the kitchen a magical supermarket where anything goes and shelves are stuffed with every known comestible! However, reasonable inventory should be kept on hand for special requests, such as dry gluten-free pasta or vegan plant-based butter substitutes. As food costs rise in tandem with accommodating multiple preferences, efficiency and cost also need to remain in focus--there's no need to have four different types of gluten-free pasta.
While it is operationally and financially unrealistic to prepare for every conceivable menu tweak, Club members have an expectation of variety and personal attention in both menu options and service. F&B teams that embrace this reality from the start are flexible and naturally responsive to member requests and can make accommodations in harmony.
*Mintel Diet Trends
** NDP Group
Chef Mary Howley is the culinary consultant to the RCS Hospitality Group and a former Executive Chef of her own catering company, several country clubs, and fine dining restaurants. She studied throughout Europe and honed her skills on the East Coast working with a myriad of culinary styles. She had the honor to serve as research and development chef for Food Unlimited, and held the position of Pastry Chef in two James Beard Dinner Events.