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BLUF: How to handle meal etiquette when I probably can't eat anything on the menu.

I've listened to the Meal Etiquette podcasts and read Stephen Booth's follow-up question on meal etiquette with food allergies.  I have a variation of that question: what to do when you can rarely ever eat anything on the menu?  My food allergies & intolerances, which I won't go into for the sake of brevity, prohibit me from dining at most restaurants (there are literally four in my area, I've done extensive research).  Because of the nature of my business, I rarely have control over the meal arrangements and even when I do, the options which are safe for me are inconvenient or impossible to access from the areas where I usually have to do business.

I have no problem sitting down with associates or clients and having only coffee or water but this always seems to bring up questions about why I'm not having a meal.  I play the "I already ate" card when I can but it's not always a possibility.  I've also tried the tact of simple honesty about the fact that I have food intolerances.  This inevitably seems to lead to more questioning, comparison to some family member who can't eat anything either, pity from diners or waitstaff, or, occasionally, mockery.

While all of this is somewhat irritating to me, what concerns me is that it diminishes my effectiveness.  It takes the focus away from my message and puts it on some aspect of my life which has no business being in the public anyways.  More so, I'm not remembered as "the guy who had a pretty good solution to my problem," I'm remembered as "the guy who can't eat anything."

So any suggestions on how to better deflect questioning along this line and guide the conversation away from my (lack of) meal choice and back to business?

mmann's picture

Anything you say is going to draw attention to the issue.  You need to diffuse it.

Depending on where you're dining, consider a discussion with the Executive Chef of the restaurant.  They may be able to work up a dish using ingredients from other dishes on the menu that you could stomach.  Many Chefs see this as a challenge.  If they're smart, they'll also realize that if they accommodate you, your business will go to them.  They probably won't put the dish on the menu, but they will likely be willing to inform the wait staff of your special dish and give you a name to order it by. 

Have this discussion with as many of the restaurants as you can.  Some won't be accommodating, others will.  Keep in mind, you're not striving for a dish that'll win Top Chef... just something that will give the appearance that you're breaking bread with others. 

Keep DISC in mind as you speak with the Chefs. 

  There's my $0.02... good luck!
--Michael

asteriskrntt1's picture

A very difficult situation.  My buddy eventually started bringing his own meals, even to restaurants.  His wife would cook things up, they would contact the restaurant ahead of time.  Some were snippy and kicked up a fuss, some asked him to pay as if he had eaten an entree.  Most were pretty reasonable and the nicer ones would even heat things up for him. 

 

Please note that even when they pre-arranged things, people are people and there were some major fails when the message did not get through the entire chain.  So whomever you speak with, get their name and make sure they are going to be on shift when you are there, or find out who will be on and also talk to them.  Save yourself a lot of hassle.

 

*RNTT

SteveAnderson's picture

"Depending on where you're dining, consider a discussion with the Executive Chef of the restaurant. "

Definitely.  When I know it advance I usually stop by, introduce myself to the manager (or manager on duty) and the chef and explain my needs.  Some have been very accommodating, others have outright asked me not to dine there for fears of liability or just an inability based on the kitchen setup to avoid cross-contamination.  Unfortunately, a lot of what I do regarding meals with clients is ad hoc so asking to see the chef, manager, etc. leads to the same issue of calling attention to my dietary needs.

"My buddy eventually started bringing his own meals, even to restaurants.  His wife would cook things up, they would contact the restaurant ahead of time."

Another great suggestion.  I've done this as well.  This also relies heavily on "pre-wiring" the restaurant staff and, as you mentioned, there are a lot of points of failure here - but it can work.

I guess the best I can hope in terms of actually eating a meal is to build relationships with as many potential dining locations as possible so I can have a few more options in directing the restaurant choice.

Other than that, given the seeming inevitability of the questioning if I choose not to eat, I'd like to develop some tactics to deflect the questioning and redirect to another subject.  Obviously, as I build long-term business relationships, people will come to know that I have dietary issues and I'm not concerned about that (after all, I can't expect to not eat in front of someone five times and chalk it up to "I already ate" or, "oh, I don't eat lunch").  What I'm looking for are verbal tactics to use during the key initial phase of building the relationship.

--Steve

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scm2423's picture

Can you just say you are an a fast or a cleanse? 

SteveAnderson's picture

Good idea.  It works in the short term and avoids too many weird questions that detract from the message.

On a side note, one of the actual benefits of not eating while other people are is that it gives you the opportunity to deliver your message without having to do so between bites or while letting your food get cold.  You're also never caught with a mouthful of food when someone asks you a question!

--Steve

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jhack's picture

I'm wondering if you've ever had a client hold you in low esteem?  

"Diffuse" doesn't seem possible if you can't actually eat most of what's on the menu, and you have to be concerned about cross-contamination. 

Has it ever really been a problem to say, "Unfortunately, I have some severe food allergies.  I hope you understand why I may eat little or nothing while we enjoy our time in the restaurant."  ?  

Maybe I've led a sheltered life, but it's hard to imagine someone being upset about this.  Does being open about it really not work?  

John Hack

asteriskrntt1's picture

Hi Andy

I think John has a realy good point.  I also failed to address your question properly.  How do you know people are thinking of you as the food allergy guy and that it is watering down your message.  Obviously, people keep calling your for meetings so I am guessing it is not to experience your food allergy experiences - it is to build relationships and get value out of your expertise.

I know this is a major hurdle for you as it was/is for my friend Mitch.  However, I wonder if you (and I apologize in advance if I am off base here) have a bit of the prom date zit syndrome, where no matter how good you look and how great your suit is, you think all anyone will see is the zit, which to you is huge to to everyone else, it is barely noticeable?

*RNTT

 

MsSunshine's picture

I have someone I do work with occasionally who has a similar problem I believe.  After a first brief explanation that he has dietary restrictions and not to worry about food for him, we moved on.  I don't think about it anymore and it's a non issue. 

 

If we're with someone new who asks me later, I simply reply that not to worry about it because he has it covered.  End of discussion.

 

From this, I'd say the simpler and more straight forward you are the better.  You don't have to apologize or give excuses.  Just state a fact and move on.  The other people will follow your lead.

SteveAnderson's picture

 First, thank you all for your insight into this matter.  I'm humbled and appreciative of the collective wisdom of this group yet again!

I read through all of the comments a few times and thought about the behaviors I've observed around this issue (isn't that what is this is all about, anyways?).  I think the comment about "prom date syndrome" is partially accurate.  To be quite frank, these dietary issues feel weird to me.  I only found out about them over the course of the past couple of years and making the change from having no dietary restrictions for my entire life to having extremely strict dietary restrictions is still straining.  I don't particularly like it even though the health benefits have been quite tangible!

I think I generalized this in my mind when, in fact, it may be an issue specific to certain persons.  I've had past coworkers who made the restrictions a big deal - whether it was going to an uncomfortable degree trying to accommodate or going to an unpleasant degree making jokes.  I also recently started in a new position which put me in customer relations - a field I'm not entirely experienced in.  One of my first key, high-level contacts found out about my restrictions at a business lunch and has taken to making comments about how I "can only eat cardboard" to other clients and wait staff literally every time we're at a business meal (and his staff members tend to follow suit).  That being said, outside of the behavior at meals we have an excellent relationship.

There have been some other instances of clients pitying my situation or making jokes but none quite like that.  I'm not sure anyone likes to be pitied and it certainly is a blow to my ego.

In essence, given the input here and upon further reflection, I think I am letting my own feelings about the issue get wrapped up with the behaviors of a few people and the fact that I'm a little unsure of myself in this new role.  I appreciate the candor of the community and thank you all for your advice - I've learned a good lesson today.

--Steve

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jhack's picture

Andy,

Few things are harder than grace under mocking.  I suspect many who mock do so out of their own discomfort, and as a (lame) attempt to use "humor" to lighten things up.  

And pity is worse. 

Being forthright and casual may help them all to see that you are simply what you are; and with time they'll find it not worth mentioning. 

Hey, if you ever make it to a Manager-Tools get-together, you can be sure of an audience that won't bat an eyelash!  

John Hack

SteveAnderson's picture

John,

I appreciate your kind words and understanding.  Indeed, keeping my "sales face" on and smiling through deprecation and pity has been a challenge for me!  It's a shame I can't find more true professionals (in the Manager-Tools fashion) out there.  I suppose that's why it's up to me to point my peers here as they enter management!

--Steve

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MsSunshine's picture

If someone persists in making snippy remarks, you might try the following that I read and has worked for me.  The gist is that he is being a bully.  Take control of the situation, call him out effectively and the person will likely quit and find an easier target.

I think the book was "Coping with Difficult People" (but I could be slightly off on this).  It called people who make nasty/snide remarks "snipers".  They say things that are zingers.  The best way to deal with them is to call them out quickly and move on.  They won't like being challenged and being called out for doing that in front of others (even though everyone there probably feels embarrassed by the comments).  So they will find other easier victim.  The advice is to quickly visibly look startled and say something like "ouch - that hurt" or "wow - that's brutal" or some phrasing that works for you.  As I recall they say to say something very short about how you felt and never ask a question to give him an opening.

This has worked GREAT for me and worked well for other people I've told about it.  I had one guy who would say little snips and then laugh or give a big smile.  He did this to everyone and people even commented about it.  What I did was snap my head back and said "OUCH - that hurt" while looking directly at him.  He has never said another comment to me.

I have also done this in situations where I am not the person who is the target of the remark and been effective.  I guess I feel strongly personally about letting someone make fun of someone in my presence.  This mechanism has worked well for me.

SteveAnderson's picture

I actually own that book and it's sitting in my stack of "waiting to be read."  Maybe I should bump it up in the queue.

I also like the tactic - I'm not sure how well it would work with this person (verbiage would be key) but it's worth a try. 

--Steve

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