How to Handle Customer Requests for Difficult Menu Substitutions

Menu planning is a tricky task. Chefs want to present their culinary vision without modifications, but even the most careful menu planning can result in customer requests for substitutions due to food allergies, pregnancy or simple preference. Some requests, like removing onion from a burger or substituting salad for french fries, are easy to accommodate. Others, like requests to remove an ingredient that would significantly alter the dish (for example, removing all dairy), are more difficult. The alteration might result in a dish that's not up to the chef's standards, which is why an important part of restaurant management training is setting up best practices to handle these requests. Here are some guidelines for tackling difficult customer requests and ensuring the restaurant serves food up to its standards.

Set Expectations
Some restaurants choose to head off requests by printing the substitution policy on the menu and not wavering. Los Angeles-based restaurant Café Gratitude identifies dishes where substitutions are "graciously declined" with a subtle "D" icon on their menu. Other restaurants apply a phrase such as "modifications politely declined" to the entire menu. It's good business practice to accommodate all food allergies by removing offending ingredients whenever possible, but ultimately, it's up to each individual restaurant to determine how accommodating to be. A good rule of thumb is if the request alters more than half of the plate, it can be denied. A simple explanation from waitstaff stating that the kitchen unfortunately can't make the change will suffice. The sooner customers know the policy, the less likely they are to get agitated.

Anticipate and Create
Some diners have legitimate allergies, while others make requests for modifications based on self-imposed health and wellness restrictions, such as a gluten-free, dairy-free or paleo diet. One way to address these customer requests is to already have options available for substitution suggestions. It may not be possible for the entire menu, but by taking note of frequently requested changes, the culinary team will be equipped to deal before the customer even sits down. If several customers inquire about similar ingredient swaps, it may be worth printing the available options for substitutions on the menu itself. You can also develop new dishes based on customer feedback so diners won't request modifications to existing menu items. Chefs can get clever with dishes to address the dietary issues or allergies, like creating a new dairy-free sauce.

Train Staff
No matter how strict or lenient any given restaurant is, it's important for restaurant management to train and teach the serving staff which substitutions the kitchen can accommodate without compromising the integrity of the dish and which requests are a no-go. This will allow servers to confidently communicate with customers without having to confirm with the kitchen. Some customers might not like hearing "no," but it's better than hearing it after "maybe." Servers should also be able to instantly name a substitute dish that meets the dietary need a customer possesses. When the staff is equipped with the proper menu knowledge, the customer doesn't have time to get frustrated by a perceived lack of options.

Dealing with unexpected customer requests can be difficult, but with the right communication strategy, it doesn't have to be a battle. Restaurants should stick to clear communication with staff and patrons — including determining what is and is not acceptable and what the chef will consider modifying. The open communication and creative possibilities involved can actually be a positive thing for a restaurant.

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