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Apr 7, 2010 08:04 PM

Religious dietary restrictions & outside food in restaurants


Hello Chowhounders,

I come to you with a touchy situation. This evening, my graduate school seminar elected to have the second half of our four hour (ugh, I know) class at a local restaurant and bar. Normally, class runs from 4-8 p.m., and we take a half hour break around 6 so that everyone can get dinner. One of my classmates, an observant Muslim, tends to pick up a vegetarian Subway sandwich and bring it back to the classroom. She has told me that at Subway, she can ask the person preparing her sandwich to change his or her gloves, thereby ensuring her food doesn't touch anything non-halal. (I don't believe Subway itself carries halal meat products, but this is Michigan (huge Arab-American population) so this one might.)

Anyway, this evening, we didn't have our usual break, so my friend grabbed a sandwich and then met the rest of us (16 people, including a professor) at the local restaurant. By the time she'd arrived, most of us has ordered food up at the counter (there is no table service). All together, we probably purchased a good $200-$250 worth of food and drink. A manager came over and very aggressively told my friend that she needed to put away her sandwich, as the restaurant had a no outside food policy. She replied that there was no food on their menu that fit her dietary needs, and asked that she be able to eat her sandwich with her class. The manager stood his ground, and was quite unapologetic about it. (Okay, he was downright rude.) Ultimately, my friend decided to leave, and we were all quite upset about it, but certainly understood.

A few of us, including my professor, approached the manager to express our disappointment, and he kept saying he couldn't discriminate (ha!) and that the policy was the policy. (We were near no other customers, so I doubt her Subway sandwich would have started much of a trend.) My sense is that if my friend had come in with an allergy rather than a headscarf the manager probably would have been more accommodating. I also feel that given the large amount of money we'd dropped (relatively, I mean; this isn't an expensive place) and the fact that my friend was clearly with a class (and this place regularly gets business from university groups), the manager should have been more accommodating. Certainly, he could have told my friend that he would look the other way this time but to respect the rules in the future.

That said, what are the rules on this? I understand that it's generally considered bad etiquette to bring a meal from a different restaurant into a place, but does that apply to quick service restaurants without servers? Is it reasonable for people with religious concerns to bring their own food to the table so that they are not left out of the group?

I understand there may be health issues, too, but the manager never brought those up. I also respect the right of restaurants to ask that customers not bring in outside food, but it seems to be that some exceptions should be made.

Your feedback is much appreciated!

  1. Many restaurants have an absolute rule that no outside food be consumed on their premises. Period. I have no problem with that, as long as the policy is made clear upfront.

    1. I think it's an idiotic situation in which to enforce that policy, especially if it has the inevitable effect of singling someone out for something as touchy as religion. It's not like this was a fine dining establishment. If the place caters to students, it shouldn't alienate a class of them!

      Would it have killed him to do the math and just quietly bring her a plate and offer to remove the wrapper? Then she could have blended in more. He'd have done the classy thing and earned some goodwill.

      1. >but does that apply to quick service restaurants without servers?

        If that's their policy, yes. They're quite entitled to prohibit outside food, regardless of the style of service. Having said that, based on your description of the place and the fact that they get a lot of business from university groups, it doesn't sound a smart move on their part. Thinking of several restaurants near my uni, none of them have a problem with say one person in a group bringing food in, or people eating their own sandwich with their coffee. To me that seems like the more sensible policy. Still, it's up to them.

        >Is it reasonable for people with religious concerns to bring their own food to the table so that they are not left out of the group?

        I don't think it's reasonable to just presume that an exception will or should be made. By all means ask if the restaurant can make an exception to accommodate you (the general you) and give them the opportunity to say yes or no, but respect that decision. It sounds like the manager wasn't exactly demonstrating his best manners or customer service skills, but I'd say it's pretty ill-mannered of your friend to just whip out a fast-food meal in a restaurant where that's not the done thing, without even asking first whether it was ok. Unless I'm missing something, it sounds like she didn't even ask if the restaurant could prepare a suitable meal for her. Obviously I have no idea what their menu is, but you would think they could do a salad and a bread roll (or whatever equivalent fits their kitchen) at the very least... if, of course, she had asked. Or the manager could have offered, once she explained why she had brought in Subway. But I don't think anyone was really exercising their very best judgement in this situation.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Daisy.G

          it sounds like she didn't even ask if the restaurant could prepare a suitable meal for her. Obviously I have no idea what their menu is, but you would think they could do a salad and a bread roll (or whatever equivalent fits their kitchen) at the very least... if, of course, she had asked---

          You missed the point, At Subway, she can watch the employeee change gloves and see them assemble the sandwich, no unobserved contamination in the kitchen.

          The manager was insensitive, BUT not wrong. The professor had an obligation to know the rules before holding class at the restaurant.

          1. re: bagelman01

            How does a fresh pair of gloves at Subway eliminate unobserved contamination? Those pre-cut salad ingredients were prepared some time earlier in an unseen kitchen, and since being set out have been dipped into numerous times by gloved hands that have handled a whole range of ingredients. That tub of lettuce has been scooped into by hands which have handled all sorts of mystery meats, before you even walk in the door.

            Simply because of the way they make the sandwiches, cross-contamination between ingredients is virtually guaranteed. The OP's friend is apparently comfortable with that level of exposure to haraam foods, so the idea that any food at all prepared in the restaurant kitchen would be automatically unacceptable really doesn't follow. If the OP's friend only ate food from kitchens which solely prepared halal foods, that would be a different story, but it still wouldn't make it ok to plonk a fast food meal down on the table of a restaurant where that's not accepted practice -- which is the point.

            1. re: Daisy.G

              I completely agree with Daisy. The Muslim person is just splitting hairs or fooling themselves if they think that the simple change of gloves makes the food halal.

              As a poster pointed out below,if you are picky, vegetarian or have a dietary restriction, you expect not to have anything to eat sometimes. I am currently on a dairy free diet because I am BFing my milk allergic baby and I always have a larabar in my purse in case I'm somewhere where there's nothing for me to eat.

              Policy is policy. If you bend or break it for one person, other people want it bent or broken as well.

        2. If that's the restaurant's policy, then they have every right to enforce it.

          Your friend (or group) was in the wrong.

          3 Replies
          1. re: ipsedixit

            See I disagree, not perhaps with the ahem "letter of this ~law~" but with the scorch the earth nuclear enforcement of it. To single out one person of this sizable group was beyond rude. Remember, this is also a hospitality industry.

            1. re: Quine

              She was not singled out by the restaurant.

              The restaurant has a policy.

              She violated it.

              Being a hospitality industry really has nothing to do with it.

              There are rules that we all have to follow -- whether it is in a restaurant, or a bookstore.

              1. re: ipsedixit

                I wonder what the restaurant managements reaction might have been had the young woman in question ordered something and then quietly sat there and ate her Subway sandwich and left the other food untouched?

          2. I have every sympathy with the situation, but I can't help but wonder why this has been made the restaurant's responsibility, and not that of the class, which decided to hold its session outside the accepted meeting place.

            If you were to hold class in a restaurant, why didn't anyone look for a halal place, or contact the restaurant in advance to ask about arrangements? It seems as if everyone was happy to arrange things to their convenience without a thought to their colleague, enabling an uncomfortable situation designed to single someone out and compromise her access to education.

            I understand that the class just wanted a change of scenery, but perhaps in those cases, the class should take it upon themselves to think of their colleague rather than let her fend for herself.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Lizard

              Well said. I think it was rude and unthoughtful for the class, though mainly just the teacher, to put the student and the restaurant's manager in that situation.

              1. re: Lizard

                I agree completely. This student has paid for the class and deserves to have equal access to the class as every other student. It's unreasonable to expect her to have to eat at 3:30 or 8:30 just so she can ensure she doesn't have to miss any of the portion of the course taught at the restaurant. It sounds like this is an area where there are probably plenty of options for groups that need vegetarian/halal offerings, so how hard was it to choose one of those? Either that or give an hour break for everyone so that those who can't eat at the pub can eat at a leisurely pace without having to miss any of class.