It was just a few months back that I learned that The Cheesecake Factory was in the process of debuting a new gluten-free menu. The new and improved menu is impressive in size, offering upwards of 70 different items. While some may rejoice at having so many choices, it raises some concern for others. The first question that comes to mind is how well the staff is trained in gluten-free safety procedures and truly understanding what “gluten-free” means.
There is a small blurb right inside this menu that mentions the risk of cross-contamination and the testing that has been done on the gluten-free menu items, which may contain up to 20ppm gluten. Unless the restaurant is 100% gluten-free, this is always a risk when dining out, so I expected to see a statement like this. I glanced through the menu and made a list of questions in my head that I wanted to ask before I placed my order. The server wasn’t sure of the answers, so I asked to speak with the manager on duty.
One of the questions I asked was about the gluten-free buns. Were they brought in or prepared in house? I was informed they are brought in and individually wrapped to limit cross-contamination risk. The fries are fried in a dedicated fryer, so they are safe, and last, but not least, the gluten-free pasta dishes are prepared to order, using separate pasta water. Impressive!
I went on to ask some other questions which included the preparation of the tortilla chips used for the nachos and guacamole appetizers and the preparation of the desserts, specifically the Godiva Chocolate Cheesecake.
This is where things started to get tricky. The tortilla chips aren’t prepared in a dedicated fryer. They are prepared first thing in the morning, but in the same fryer that is used to prepare chicken fingers, fried shrimp, etc. My confidence level started to drop as I went on to ask about the Godiva Chocolate Cheesecake. The manager was unsure of the preparation, saying that it tested “gluten-free”, so it was. When Jon, my son, really wanted to order it, I asked the server if the pan was dusted with flour, as this was a problem a few years back with a similar dessert on the menu. He said, “Yes, I am pretty sure it is.” He went to the kitchen to check and came back confirming that the pan was indeed dusted with flour. WHAT?! There is a big difference in a gluten-free food containing up to 20ppm due to cross-contamination and a “gluten-free” food being prepared with flour. Additionally, while the menu items may have tested “gluten-free” when the menu was developed, I am sure they aren’t tested each and every time they are prepared in all of The Cheesecake Factory restaurants across the US.
In my opinion, offering a gluten-free menu like this is careless. Consumer requests for gluten-free menu options are higher than ever, but offering one that isn’t executed properly is worse than not offering one at all. It offers nothing more than a false sense of security and devastates the credibility of The Cheesecake Factory.