It's an ironic twist that something seemingly so healthy-nutty such as "the gluten-free" diet, is actually usually best accommodated at chain restaurants. Many charming restaurants in San Francisco are still clueless about gluten-free issues, especially cross contamination issues for those of us with Celiac disease. The fact that chain restaurants are more adequately meeting the needs of the gluten-free crowd than are the mom-n-pop places is probably a matter of numbers - more customers means more people who are demanding gluten-free.
I knew In-N-Out had a "protein-style" burger, which is basically their burger wrapped in lettuce instead of between a bun. Their menu is simple, so fries are the only thing in their fryers - no onion rings adding gluten crumbs to the oil. After researching online forums, I read in-depth details about how many In-N-Out customers had tried to figure out the level of gluten-free-ness of the chain.
The scoop, thanks to one women's hard detective work, is that In-N-Out's only gluten containing item is the bun. The issue of cross contamination comes into play in three places: the surface on which the meals are prepared, the utensils which flip the burger and place it onto the bun, thereby possibly transferring crumbs onto future burgers, and the knife used to spread the special sauce onto the buns. This sauce has relish in it, and cannot be put into squeeze bottles like the ketchup and mustard. The recommendation was to go at a non-peak hour, request clean surfaces and utensils and/or ask for the special sauce in a packet.
I visited the Daly City In-N-Out at 10:30am on a Thursday. I felt confident that was not a peak hour, however, they only had one line, which was long and the cashier was rushed. I prepared my speech in my head, and as soon as the waitress heard no-gluten she told me very knowingly that she would mark my order for gluten-allergy. While this is technically incorrect as I have Celiac disease which is an auto-immune disorder, I was just glad they had a system in place to deal with people who need gluten-free food. I asked her if they could use clean utensils and she kept punching things into her screen and while she vaguely responded, did not give me the reassurance I wanted. She did turn and tell the cook that the order had a gluten-allergy, but she did not tell me what exactly the cook would do differently. I got my sauce on the side.
It was an absolute delight, biting into that charbroiled flavor. Although, I did bite into some paper that got between some lettuce. Not tasty. I never loved their fries, but now that I am gluten-free, fries are such a novelty since most fryers are contaminated. While In-N-Out's system is not perfect, they are doing far better than most places. I probably won't go there a lot, based on this experience, but, it is one of my best options when in a pinch. I hope they will continue to improve the dining experience for those of us with Celiac disease! They may just need more customer service training on the importance of reassuring customers that every measure is taken to avoid contamination.