Stephen Jardine: Awkward customers are not always right

Gluten-free food is being mistaken for a healthy option.
Gluten-free food is being mistaken for a healthy option.
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Self-obsession has taken over but there is a big difference between a dietary requirement and a dietary preference, says Stephen Jardine

Most of the time we float back and forth through life doing our best to avoid the pitfalls and obstacles of life. Then something happens to stop us in our tracks.

That happened to me recently at Edinburgh Airport. Queuing for an early morning coffee I was swept aside by a woman with a problem. “I asked for a tea without the bag and you’ve gone and left the teabag in,” she complained to the server. I was dumbstruck. The person in the queue behind me laughed loudly but, to her credit, the barrista smiled, turned around and brewed a fresh cup because the customer is always right. But are they? The incident was over in a minute but it stayed with me. What kind of person feels unable to deal with removing a teabag?

For me this was a rare insight into a specialist world of self-obsession but for anyone involved in serving the public, it will simply seem familiar.

Over the past few years there has been an explosion in increasingly odd and unreasonable consumer demands. Once upon a time, asking for a vegetarian option was viewed as being a bit difficult. Now that looks positively mainstream and predictable in a sweeping landscape of people who can’t eat lemon curd or celery.

Earlier this month, a friend who owns a café catered a birthday dinner for 40 people. Asked in advance, the majority specified catering requirements ranging from ‘no tomatoes’ to a proper full blown peanut allergy. There lies the problem. For less than 1 per cent of the population, ignoring medical advice on diet can lead to anaphylactic shock. The importance of that however gets blurred under an avalanche of vague preferences rather than life or death decisions.

In the UK around 1 per cent of the population actually have coeliac disease but according to research organisation Mintel, around 15 per cent of households have started avoided wheat. Why?

For a start they are doing it because they can.

Not many people relying on food banks are big on their dietary preferences. Those people who can afford to fuss seem to believe gluten free is just generally a healthier option.

According to the British DietieticAssociation, that is a “massive misconception”. “People are wasting their money, when they could spend more wisely on having more fruit and vegetables’, said BDA dietician Sioned Quirke.

Once again, it also denigrates the genuine importance of the correct diet for people with real medical problems. That is the core of this issue. For a very small number of people, eating the wrong things is actively bad for their heath. There is a big difference between a dietary requirement and a dietary preference. I don’t like Brussel Sprouts so I don’t buy, order or eat them. However I wouldn’t dream of writing ‘no Brussel Sprouts’ on a dietary requirement list. It’s my preference so it is also my problem. If they end up on my plate at someone’s dinner table, I’ll probably eat them on the basis that they are not going to send me into anaphylactic shock. I might even discover that, cooked a certain way, thy are not that bad.

In many ways, we are now a less tolerant society and increasingly that spills over into how we approach food and drink, resulting in long no-go lists. We can’t eat bananas or coriander or raisins. Of course we can but objecting to them helps us feel different. Unfortunately it also puts other people out and that ends with us getting people to remove our teabags because we are too special to do it ourselves.