Monthly Archives: April 2014

Overlooking the Obvious

When we recently spent a long “Spring Break” weekend in Dallas, I wasn’t really concerned about Cam finding something to eat once we got there. If you’ve never been to the “North Texas” area, you can literally stand in a city intersection, throw a rock and hit one of four restaurants. There are that many choices. Given these numbers, plus the fact that several of the places had the Texas menu staple of steak and potatoes, I felt confident that if we needed to we could find our son a safe meal. All of these assumptions were confirmed when we visited Fort Worth that Friday.

Fort Worth is the Texas that I wanted to show my kids. Historic Fort Worth still has brick roads, cheesy souvenir general stores and a cattle drive that goes through the heart of the area twice a day. You can sit on a long-horned steer, buy anything leather and visit the world’s largest honky-tonk. It is touristy and it is old school Texas. In stark contrast, downtown Fort Worth is located a short, five minute drive away and is a vibrant and eclectic environment. On this Friday afternoon, SportsCenter was set up in the Sundance Square area and numerous workers were taking their lunch breaks and enjoying the atmosphere and the weather. Downtown Fort Worth, much like downtown Dallas, has a wide array of hip lunch locales, each putting a spin on the traditional lunch to try to catch the eye of the hungry professional. Our family was with my friend and his wife and we all decided to go to a place right on the Square that is fairly new and associated with a famous steakhouse. The hostess was very friendly and was helpful in letting me know that even though they did not have a gluten-free menu, their food was prepared to order and specific food allergy requests were easily accommodated. We decided to give it a shot.

As we were freshening up after our trip to the stockyards and settling in at our table, I made our server aware that Cam was a Celiac and that precaution would need to be taken with his meal. I was pleased that she understood our situation and acknowledged our needs without a blank stare that we get often when saying the word “celiac”. On the menu was a lunch-sized filet with a side of mashed potatoes that caught the eye of both Cam and my buddy. I went with the proclaimed “World’s Best” cheeseburger while my wife and daughter ordered a chicken schnitzel to split. When the food came out, the results were a mixed bag. My cheeseburger was decent (though I would like to have a lengthy debate with the person who crowned it the World’s Best) and Cam’s food was fine (no celiac-related issues to anything that he was served). Where the meal fell short was with the rest of our table. My friend’s filet was nothing like what you picture when you think of the word “filet”. The cut of meat was stringy and it wasn’t cooked to his specification (too raw). To note, Cam’s filet was the same type of cut but since he’s 12 and didn’t really know any better, we didn’t raise a fuss. What was problematic was that my wife’s chicken schnitzel also came out raw. As a food microbiology major, I can tell you that uncooked chicken, salmonella and the human digestive system do not play nice with each other. So, of the five meals ordered, more than half of these needed to be returned to the kitchen. The restaurant was understanding, providing us several opportunities to speak with multiple managers, replacing the meals, apologizing to us with an abundance of desserts and knocking off half of our bill. The whole experience made me wonder if the emphasis that the chefs placed on Cam’s dietary concerns made them overlook the obvious steps needed to properly prepare everyone else’s meals. Undercooked chicken is dangerous and should be a basic step in culinary training. Heck, I even know from my time cooking on a grill when a chicken is done or not. And knowing the quality of a filet, especially in a town like Fort Worth, should be commonplace. How were these seemingly basic components and techniques passed over?

And then it hit me. While thinking about this experience, I found that I have been guilty of a similar oversight. Something that should have been obvious to me (like cooking chicken to a chef) but something that has been egregiously overlooked. Looking back through my previous posts, I have highlighted and praised the actions of those who are understanding of my son’s needs and given us experiences that we will never forget. But in reviewing the events of last weekend, I realize that I have overlooked thanking those most important to us. Our friends and our family. When we finally got to our friends’ home after hours of delayed travel last weekend, we were greeted with an entire shelf of gluten-free products. Just for Cam. Just to make him feel welcome in their home. Our friends also bought us a cookbook of the 100 greatest gluten free recipes, knowing that my wife loves to cook and knowing that she would use this over and over for the benefit of our son. It’s generous actions such as these that we encounter every day within our social circles and probably don’t take enough time to recognize and provide our gratitude for. Our journey into this lifestyle change has been challenging but many people in our lives have made it easier than what it could be. And while their actions may or may not become a story of compassion that goes semi-viral within the gluten-free community, they are actions that should not be overlooked. They are actions for which we can not say thank you enough.

 

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A Loss For Words

I have never been accused of being a shy person. My friends would say that I’m outspoken and the word “wallflower” isn’t one that I would use if someone were to ask me to describe my personality. I think that the ability to communicate effectively is a characteristic that provides you with the self-confidence needed to succeed both professionally and socially. It is a trait that I am teaching my children to help prepare them and provide them with the confidence that they will need as they grow older. So, when a situation comes up where an action leaves me at a loss for words, it’s truly a moment to remember. And when that moment occurs as it did during this past weekend, a weekend that was already full of life memories, it is truly special.

If you’ve read my blog, you know that we’re basketball fans. This past weekend, the Final Four for college basketball took place in North Texas (i.e. Dallas). One of my good friends has lived in Dallas for about 20 years so when I found out that the tournament would end there, I made arrangements to visit him and take part in the festivities. I decided to make this trip a big part of Cam’s Christmas gift from us last year, promising him that he would get to go to his first Final Four. As most 12 year old boys would be, he was beyond excited.

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As March got closer on the calendar, our anticipation levels kept growing. When the tournament started a couple of weeks back, the thought that we would be in Dallas for the last weekend of games made me absolutely giddy. But I also had a nagging thought in the back of my mind that wouldn’t go away. It’s a thought that was not even on the radar when we started planning this trip a year ago. Logistically, how was I going feed Cam during that long Saturday of back to back games? Given all of the fan experience activities, commute to and from the stadium, back to back sixty minute games and inevitable traffic, we were looking at over ten hours of basketball excitement. Again, exciting but daunting.

As we have learned over these past seven months, pre-planning makes our lives so much easier when it comes to taking care of our Celiac teen. About a month ago, It was with these past experiences in mind that I pulled up the web site for AT&T Stadium, home to the Dallas Cowboys and this year’s Final Four. I wanted to start looking for gluten-free concessions. I planned on packing some safe snacks but I still wanted to find Cam something substantial to eat during our long day. If you are unfamiliar with AT&T Stadium, it is a monstrous place. (Note: The stadium really is phenomenal. I highly recommend visiting and taking a tour of it if you are in the Dallas area.) The games that we went to had a record 77,144 people in attendance. With it’s size and state-of-the-art facilities, I was sure that they would have some gluten-free options available. Looking on the site map, I was able to pull up the concession locations inside the stadium but didn’t find any that listed gluten-free offerings. As I continued to search, I found a way to contact the stadium food services provider and made a decision that changed this experience from being great to being mind-boggling. I made the decision to send an e-mail.

It was a simple message. Basically, all I did was ask in my e-mail if any of the concession areas in the stadium had gluten-free options. Since it was a general e-mail address, I didn’t have high expectations for a response but I was hoping to hear something before our scheduled trip (again, this was four weeks before we even set foot in Dallas). Boy, was I ever wrong. Within an hour, I received a return e-mail from the Director of Food Services for the stadium. He let me know that there were healthy stations positioned in various locations on the main concourse area that had gluten free sandwiches and several “farmer’s market” type stands that carried fruits and vegetables. I immediately thanked him for his quick response and asked him whether or not these sandwiches were prepared in a dedicated area to avoid cross-contamination (the ultimate evil). Again, a quick response was received that assured me that the sandwiches were prepared in a separate location. Sensing that I was a concerned parent, the director said that he would pass my information along to his assistant, Tina Griffith, and have her reach out to me to discuss any other concerns that I may have. I was extremely moved by his gesture and thanked him, figuring that the concession information that he provided to me was the extent of what they could offer and Tina’s e-mail address could be used as a reference with any other questions. Again, I misjudged.

Thirty minutes after this last e-mail, I received a call from a number that I didn’t recognize. My phone told me that the number was based out of Ft. Worth, Texas. Answering the call, I had the honor of speaking with Tina Griffith for the first time. Tina didn’t have to call me. An e-mail to introduce herself would have been above and beyond in my mind given the information that I had already received. But she did so much more. We discussed Cam’s condition and what challenges we are faced with when attending events such as the Final Four. Tina revealed that her daughter also has an auto-immune condition and, as a parent, she understood that all that I wanted to do was care for my son. Tina asked about Cam’s taste preferences and said that they could make him up a ham sandwich and have it waiting for us for when we arrived at the stadium. She even asked me where our seats were going to be located so she could have his meal delivered directly to us. This was the first time that I couldn’t find anything to say. Stumbling to find a response, I finally was able to thank Tina and let her know that this wouldn’t be necessary. She wouldn’t accept my refusal. She provided me her e-mail and work number to contact her once I found out where our seats would be located and we agreed that I could come and find her once we arrived in the stadium.

Tina’s actions could have stopped there and I would have been forever grateful. But what happened when Final Four weekend finally arrived will be forever remembered. I sent Tina an e-mail on the Friday before the games, letting her know our seat location and asking where would be the best place that I could meet her. I did not hear back from her but remembered that she did provide me with her phone number and that she had asked that I call her with any questions. On Saturday morning, I did just that. Tina answered my call, welcomed me to Dallas and asked what our plans were for the game. I told her our estimated arrival time and our tentative itinerary once we were there. She provided me with her cell phone number and asked that I call her when we were in the stadium and she would find us. I thanked her again (not knowing that when the day was over I would never be able to thank her enough). When my friend, Cam and I arrived at the stadium, we needed to pick up our tickets at will call. On our walk from the car to the will call booth, my phone rang. It was Tina. She was worried that she had given me a wrong cell phone number and called to provide me with the correct one to use. About an hour later, when we started our entry into the stadium, I received a text. It was Tina. She wanted to make sure that we were able to pick up our will call tickets and that our pre-game was going smoothly. Again, I was at a loss for words. Who does this? This is a lady that I had never met before. I had spoken with her once prior to this weekend and here she was, giving us the VIP treatment on a day that she had to be extremely busy with other things. I was in awe of her generosity. Generosity that was just beginning.

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We arrived in our seats about an hour before the first game. Knowing that Tina was busy, I gave her a call and asked her where we could meet. She let me know that she would grab Cam’s “bag” and be in our section in ten minutes. Bag? This was only supposed to be a sandwich. How big did they make ham sandwiches in Texas? She called again when she arrived and we met in the concourse area behind our seats. Tina’s smile was bigger than the stadium itself. She greeted my friend and I and, most importantly, welcomed Cam. She opened an orange drawstring bag that contained Cam’s sandwich, doubly wrapped with a note written on the container saying “Do Not Touch. Gluten Free”. My concerns about cross-contamination were gone. But that wasn’t all. The bag also contained gluten-free sunflower seeds, two bananas, three oranges, a nectarine and a bag of cut carrots. All safe for Cam to snack on during the games. I think all I was able to muster was “wow”. We spoke for about three minutes (we could have spoken much more but again, she was a little busy). Reaching for my wallet, I asked her what I could provide her for this awesome amount of food and snacks. Tina flashed her Texas-sized smile again and said, “This one is on us”.  I don’t remember what I said. I think that I rehashed the thank you to her that I had provided a multitude of times already but, honestly, I was just trying to say something to hold back my tears. Out of 77,00 people, Tina Griffith took the time and made sure that the game was special for one, single person. My 12 year old boy.

In the world that we live in today, we don’t take enough time to stop and be grateful for what we have. Blessings present themselves to us daily and, sadly, we often take them for granted. The ideas of customer service and providing the best customer experience is lost in the instant gratifications provided to us by the distractions of technology. The world needs more people like Tina Griffith. Someone who shows that giving is better than receiving. Someone who puts others concerns above her own. Someone who leaves you at a loss for words.

 

 

Cleared For Departure?

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When our family takes a vacation, our preferred method of getting to our destination is by driving. I was trained in the fine art of car travel by my parents. There were only four of us (myself, my sister and my parents) so piling into the car for a quick day trip or long weekend was something we had down to a science. A couple of times that I remember (I may have blocked others out of my mind) we took the term “road trip” to the extreme. One such venture was up and around the extreme northern sections of the Midwest; visiting the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and returning through Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. That trip wasn’t too bad as it was only a week and we countered our painful visit to the Mall of America by spending a day in Chicago. The doozy was the cross-country journey that took a total of three weeks to complete…in a Pontiac Grand Prix. From the Midwest to California and back. Out to the Pacific through the Dakotas and Yellowstone. Back home seeing the Grand Canyon, Texas and Graceland. I turned 16 on that trip, spending a teenager’s monumental birthday at Mount Rushmore knowing that there was still two more weeks of road to travel…in the back of a Grand Prix. (I’m currently seeking the support of others who may have shared a similar experience. Anyone? Didn’t think so.)

I joke but, in reality, the trip was something that I will always remember (along with every word of the Randy Travis album that my sister played in the car twice a day for three straight weeks). It took numerous days/months of planning on my parent’s behalf and I can say that I have visited many of the United States beautiful landmarks. The time we had as a family, in the close confines of a four door sedan, was priceless. My wife and I are trying to make the same memories with our children. We haven’t ventured West but we have achieved numerous car trips to the beach and places such as Washington DC, Chicago and Florida. Some of these trips have taken up to 15 hours and we generally make the journey in one or two days. The kids are great travelers and aside from some isolated bouts of motion sickness when they were younger, we have had minimal issues. So, when the situation presents itself that we fly to our destination, it takes us out of our comfort zone.

I have no issues with plane travel. I view it as a necessary means of getting where you need to go in a more efficient manner. The kids haven’t flown enough to feel anything other than indifference when it comes to flying. My wife is admittedly not that strong of a flyer as she often feels anxious when not able to have more control of the environment around her. Until Cam was diagnosed with Celiac, I did not fully understand where she was coming from but, as with many things in every day life that my eyes have been opened to, recent events have shown me the reasons for her feelings.

You see, I’m writing this blog entry in the midst of a three hour flight delay. This doesn’t bother me as I understand that these things can happen but it definitely affects Cam. Much as my parents did with our trips, we meticulously prepare when we travel. This preparation has only increased with his special diet. Car rides are easier as we can pack however much food he needs based on how far we are going. Airline regulations make it difficult for us to do the same. This flight was scheduled to leave right around dinner time so we had him eat a light meal prior to going to the airport and packed some snacks for the flight. We had a plan but then we lost control of the situation. He’s 12 and a sleeve of gluten free crackers and cheese ain’t going to hold him for six hours. Restaurants at our airport have zero gluten free options so sitting down over a meal to kill the time isn’t happening. He’s not going to starve but other than a bag of kettle chips at a walk up kiosk (that coincidentally just closed at 7:00), he has no other choices. It’s another example of a place that wants to provide exemplary customer service to attract return travelers but doesn’t have the knowledge or the means. For now, he’s ok but should the bad weather continue and we get more delayed, maybe I can find a Grand Prix and take a drive.