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joelmw

Tamolly's Texarkana (And Chilada's In Plano)

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Using the Find Me Gluten Free iPhone app, we discovered a regional chain called TaMolly's as we were travelling through Arkansas into Texas to our residence (my wife refuses to consider Texas "home" rolleyes.gif) in the DFW metroplex. They have a fairly new gluten-free menu and their staff has supposedly been "GREAT Kitchens trained."

Our experience was horrible. The hostess was surly. The server assured us that the chips were gluten-free. But we had some questions and asked for a manager. When he arrived he made it clear that sometimes foods containing flour are fried in the same fryers as gluten-free foods.

But that's not the end. After we went across the street and ate at an Outback, I sent an email to the NFCA and CC'ed TaMolly's. The response I got was excellent. Two great emails and a phone call from the NFCA. A couple of emails from Bob Strate at TaMolly's. We won't know until we return (and it's hard to know when that will be just because we're not often in that area), but I'm convinced they are trying and we will return if we get the chance.

I asked Bob if I could share the text of his email and he agreed. Here it is:

Joel -I appreciate your comments and please accept my apology for your inconvenience in our Texarkana TaMolly's restaurant. We have had great response from our gluten-free offerings and have been extremely cautious in the handling of our ingredients and procedures. One thing you bring up is the strong need for "continued education". I have taken your comments to all our units and will use this to strengthen our gluten-free processes.

This has been a long road to achieve and we will use this to strengthen our program. It has taken literally years to accomplish this in restructuring our menu and recipes, exhaustive research in the hundreds of ingredients, and working with suppliers and manufacturers to even look at altering their offerings to make this easier for all as we move forward. We do have gluten in our kitchens and go to great extremes to eliminate cross contamination. We dedicate two of our fryers (which are physically located 20 feet away) out of the five used, for "gluten-free ONLY".

Having a Celiac in my family was my initial motivation and has made this process worth the effort. Knowing that the greatest obstacle is "Consumer Confidence" we will move forward, using your experience, to further educate our managers across our company to better convey our gluten-free message. When a guest orders from our gluten-free menu, it is completely separated. Even the servers guest check is marked by gluten-free tags on the order and then hand prepared by the manager on duty and served by the manager to assure the purity of what we are offering. The plate itself is even identified by a gluten-free marker to eliminate any confusion in the serving process.

The gluten-free process and offerings may someday prove financially a benefit but this is not the reason for the efforts. The reason we will continue to improve this program is for our guest, like yourself, that are so limited in dining opportunities and express their appreciation for our efforts. Our restaurants are often located in an under-served, secondary market, that is away from the mass markets, like the DFW area, and those with special dietary needs are really disadvantaged in "dine-out" options.

We will learn and grow from your, unfortunate, experience and make our "front-of-house" team more aware of the gluten-free offerings. Thanks for your trouble in reaching out as this is the only way we can correct such situations.

Sincerely

Bob Strate

As part of my response to the above email I suggested the idea of a 100% gluten-free Tex-Mex restaurant (which seems completely doable to me). His reply included the following:

In response to your last request for future expansion with less Gluten in the concept. We are a step ahead. We will be opening our new Fast Casual Concept in just a few weeks in North Plano on Windhaven and the North Dallas Tollway called Chiladas Fresh Mex Grill. We are very excited about this new concept for many reasons including the fact that out of the 34 menu offerings - only about 8 have gluten. This means we are closing the gap and with 75% Gluten Free in this new concept - we are getting closer to your request. We have been working on this for a long time and it is built around Fresh & Healthy choices while offering great flavors. Not another "Burrito" place but built around our hand rolled enchiladas, salads, and quesadillas. With our new in-house made dressings and sauces we are looking for good things in the Dallas market!

Time will tell, but I'm hopeful.

Part of my takeaway is Always let them know how they did! Good or bad. If it was good, they need the encouragement. If it was bad, they will either confirm that they don't care or they will have the resources (your critique) they need to make changes.

I would be happy to add my initial email to them, but it's long so I decided to leave it out of the primary post.

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So here was the big ol' email I sent to them in the first place:

I'm not sure if you're the person I should be contacting, but I need to make sure that your organization knows of our recent experience with TaMolly's, a "GREAT Kitchens" restaurant.

First, some context: I was diagnosed with celiac disease just under a year ago. We do a fair amount of eating out, but tend to restrict ourselves to a handful of chains and a few local restaurants (we live in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex) that have gluten-free menus and established, strict procedures for preparing gluten-free food. Being gluten-free has made a tremendous impact on my health (overall, not just digestive), energy levels and even on my moods and clarity of thought. Before my diagnosis I was perpetually tired and increasingly unmotivated and despairing, among other things.

My wife and I were traveling through Arkansas and used the "Find Me Gluten Free" iPhone app to look for a safe place to eat gluten-free along our route. We'd had a bad experience with On the Border so we were excited to see another Tex-Mex option, TaMolly's. The entry indicated that they have a gluten-free menu. Even better, there was a big friendly icon bragging that they are "GREAT Kitchens trained!" Frankly, I hadn't heard of GREAT Kitchens but I figured it must be something good and it gave us an added sense of assurance that I'd be able to eat with confidence.

For the record, the particular restaurant we stopped at is located at 3310 Saint Michael Drive, Texarkana, TX 75503. Part of what happened is, I hope, particular to that restaurant. But some of it is clearly not. We were there around 5 PM on Monday, September 3, 2012.

The first thing is that the hostess was a little surly and seemed put out when we asked for two regular menus in addition to the gluten-free menu. In our experience, even at the most gluten-free-friendly establishments, there are details absent in the gluten-free menu, so we routinely make this request. At many of the better places, staff understand without our even having to explain it; others have been quizzical; most eventually get it. This hostess made us feel like we were a bother even after our brief explanation.

We noticed that even the regular menu marked certain items as gluten-free and encouraged us to ask for a gluten-free menu. This made us hopeful.

The gluten-free menu had a big green text box proclaiming "Bottomless Gluten-Free Chips and Salsa!" When chips and salsa were brought to the table, we made sure that they were the gluten-free chips and salsa announced on the menu. The server who brought them assured us, not once but twice that the chips were indeed gluten-free. I foolishly ate some of those chips.

I studied the gluten-free menu (which, by the way, was lacking in details, as we had guessed). We started to be deeply concerned when I read the disclaimer and it mentioned the likelihood that gluten-free items would be fried in the same oil as floury items. As far as we are concerned, if a "gluten-free" food is fried in oil that has (or even may have) been used to fry products that contain gluten, that so-called "gluten-free" food is most definitely not. That's pretty close to Gluten-Free 101, as far as we are concerned. For instance, the vast majority of restaurants with gluten-free menus that offer french fries will explicitly indicate either that the fries are not gluten-free or that they are fried separately (in dedicated oil) from gluten-containing foods; I can't recall any restaurant (certainly none with GiG certification or that offers a gluten-free menu) saying that its fries are gluten-free but in the same breath saying that they are fried in the same oil as breaded products.

As I recall, we didn't even bother talking to our waiter about our concerns but asked immediately for the manager. Our waiter was very friendly and said that he would go get the manager. It actually took a while for the manager to show up. This only after the waiter came by what at least felt like several minutes later and asked us if the manager had come to speak with us.

From the manager we learned that even the chips are fried in oil that might have been used to fry foods that contain flour. I had hoped that the chips weren't even fried in the restaurant. From what we could discern, the gist of their training was to "keep flour in a separate container." The manager did not seem unintelligent and he seemed to have some knowledge of cross-contamination issues but not a lot and was generally not very helpful (regarding the gluten at least), except to convince us--I assume inadvertently--that I shouldn't risk eating there.

The overall impression I got from the menu and from the staff was that they didn't know much about gluten. I think it was the manager who said (in fairness, very nicely and politely, perhaps apologetically but not defensively) that they aren't experts in celiac disease. Honestly I was impressed that he knew what celiac disease is.

Also, I can't remember who it was but the manager or one of the other staff or the disclaimer (probably a combination) gave us the strong impression that the wait staff didn't have any meaningful gluten training.

Needless to say, we left without ordering. We went across the highway to Outback, where even our waiter understood my gluten-free needs.

We understand that there are limits to what staff at any restaurant will know about allergens in general and about gluten in particular. Even where we think that some of those limits could be overcome, we recognize that much of the problem is industry-wide and that some of the problems even exist at restaurants that are relatively gluten-free-friendly. I won't berate the NFCA or TaMolly's for things that are a problem everywhere. But some of what we experienced was uniquely egregious and inexcusable.

1) If you're going to offer a label (and apparent, if not actual, certification), it should mean something. Those of us who are gluten-intolerant, especially folks like myself who have celiac disease, are looking for some assurance and, when we see "GREAT Kitchens Trained," we assume that the restaurant is going to be safer and better for us than a restaurant that lacks that training. Any sense of security or hope that I derived from "GREAT Kitchens" has proven itself to have been false. If anything, I am now suspicious of the label and what it represents and am more likely to avoid a restaurant because it has been "GREAT Kitchens Trained."

2) "Gluten-Free" itself should mean something. It should not merely represent a halfhearted attempt at avoiding flour. If you're not going to make the effort, call yourself "gluten light" or "more-or-less gluten-free." Seriously. When we buy products in the grocery store, we don't buy products that indicate that they have no gluten ingredients but have been processed on potentially-contaminated equipment. There are certain standards for what can pass as gluten-free in groceries. I expect restaurants to adhere to at least similar standards. And I don't mind making it my mission to call attention to those restaurants that pretend to offer gluten-free options but do not.

3) Any restaurant certification or training program must include management and at least nominal education for all levels of public-facing staff. Certainly I expect the kitchen staff to thoroughly understand how to prepare gluten-free foods and avoid cross-contamination, but I won't believe that they are doing so if the manager doesn't demonstrate a thorough understanding as well. There are also ways that wait staff can introduce cross-contamination. At the very least, they need to understand the gravity of the situation so that they know the importance of properly communicating to kitchen workers. They should also be informed enough to knowledgeably assist customers in making the right choices.

4) Disclaimers are understandable. In any case, they're typical. But a disclaimer doesn't excuse passing off foods that may have been fried with gluten-contaminated oil as gluten-free.

5) At the very least, foods that have been subject to fryer cross-contamination should be clearly identified on the menu. But, really, if an item might be fried in common oil with floured or otherwise-gluten-containing foods, it should not be listed on the gluten-free menu or with a gluten-free symbol. If you want to call a fried food gluten-free, it needs to be fried in oil that is only used to fry gluten-free foods.

I'm seriously puzzled by this and wondering what is included in the training if fryer oil isn't addressed. I would hope that "GREAT" training wouldn't imply that it's okay to drop a gluten-free item on a preparation surface covered in flour. That fryer oil is no different; it's perhaps worse, since the oil is liquid and permeates more readily.

As you may have guessed, I'm a little upset and frustrated. Truly I hope you understand that. And I hope you recognize that misinformation can be more dangerous than no information. I believe that the NFCA and TaMolly's are responsible for disseminating misinformation. And that misinformation may have affected my health.

But I also hope that neither the NFCA nor TaMolly's gives up.

As things stand, I am unlikely to lend much credence to the label "GREAT Kitchens trained." Sadly, you've also further eroded my confidence in the term "gluten-free" (though maybe I should thank you for that). As things stand, we are unlikely to ever return to TaMolly's.

That's "as things stand." I hope that our experience yesterday was an anomaly. I hope that the NFCA is truly committed to the cause of celiac awareness and, indeed, to the health and well-being of those who suffer from celiac disease and other gluten-related disorders. I hope that TaMolly's is truly committed to the health and well-being of its customers. I hope that as a result of those commitments one or both of your organizations will take corrective action. I want to believe that those who offer and endorse "gluten free" aren't just being exploitive, taking advantage of a fad and taking advantage of folks with a life-threatening condition.

I applaud the NFCA for making an effort to improve awareness and provide and encourage gluten-related training. I applaud TaMolly's for making an effort to provide gluten-free dining options. With the greatest sincerity I assure you that I want you to continue and I don't mean to discourage either organization. But I also don't mind saying that if you don't do things differently, I believe you need to find a different name for whatever it is you're doing.

I look forward to your responses.

Sincerely,

Joel Wasinger

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I live in the Plano area also and the only restaurant that I will eat at is Jason's Deli. It is really the only place in this area, where I know there is a gluten-free procedure in place and is strictly being followed. I know that because I watch my sandwich being made. I have never had an issue with getting gluten symptoms afterwards. Admittedly, I don't eat out very often, but that is the place we meet friends or go out for a special meal. The deli meat and Udi bread, spicy mustard and house chips are gluten free and dairy free... meets all our requirements.

Thanks for the info on the new restaurant opening... I will watch for the opening.

That was a cute remark about your wife not considering Texas her home. I come from Toronto Canada and have lived here for almost 17 years, but still don't think of it as home!

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