Dining out is stressful for those with food allergies. Very stressful. We carefully put our lives in the hands of wait staff, cooks and chefs in order to participate in the social aspects that surround food. A well-educated waiter, manager or chef can create life-long patrons of a food allergic customer. Negligent or ignorant staff could send that same customer to the hospital (or worse) and impugn their business’s reputation.
When dining out goes well, it’s the backdrop of a happy memory (and stomach!). But when restaurants get it wrong, they don’t just lose a food allergic customer; they lose that person’s entire family and friends.
So many pitfalls surrounding food allergies at eating establishments could be easily avoided.
Food Allergy Training
It all starts with thorough training.
Food allergies and food preferences are NOT the same thing. Understanding the consequences of ingestion in both cases is important. Wait and kitchen staff also need to understand what each food allergy means. I can’t tell you how many times we announce my son’s dairy allergy only to have the waiter return and assure us the meal we inquired about is, in fact, “gluten-free” or doesn’t have any eggs in it. This is both unhelpful and makes a customer feel as if the staff doesn’t understand food very well – not to mention food allergies.
In addition to reviewing how to handle a food allergy request in the kitchen, it’s important to relay some of these solutions to the waitstaff. They should be able to help the customer think creatively and to reassure them that your restaurant understands their concerns and can prepare a safe meal for them.
At one restaurant with a large group of friends, we noticed that a vegetarian burger containing nuts was added to the menu. This greatly increased the possibility of cross-contamination. We asked if the restaurant could clean a small portion of the grill before making my son’s hamburger. No. Could they grill his burger in a pan? No. Would they consider grilling his burger on a piece of clean tin foil? No. So, we walked across the street and ate there instead. Instead of thinking flexibly, the restaurant has lost our business – our entire group will not eat there any longer.
Conversely, we’ve found a breakfast place that will make my son’s french toast both without milk and cook it in a separate pan to ensure it’s safe. All done with a smile.
Prep Waitstaff to Handle Common Questions
In addition to giving waitstaff information about what can and cannot be accommodated in your restaurant’s kitchen, arm them with information about your dishes.
If there are only 3 dishes with tree nuts, highlight those items. Perhaps the kitchen stocks (but does not advertise) gluten-free pasta. Sorbet does not contain dairy – be sure to point that out!
Practice Answering the Customer/Understand their Perspective
Give waitstaff, cooks, chefs and managers time to practice responding to customer concerns. Those with food allergies often feel as if they are imposing on others by asking a lot of questions and getting reassurances that they can eat safely. In short, they sometimes feel as if their food allergy is an imposition.
Restaurants can and should respond with patience and kindness – reducing the stress of dining out and increasing a customer’s positive experience. But sometimes, they don’t:
At one Italian restaurant, there was only ONE item on the menu that would up being safe for my son. When we mentioned to the waiter that we had asked for it without sauce, he responded poorly. After making it seem like a huge hassle to redo, he basically suggested my son just suck it up. Wrong message.
You’ll read many more examples in Shmallergy’s upcoming post, Best (and Worst) Practices of Some of Our Favorite Restaurants.
Supplier Lists/Binder of Ingredients
Keep a binder (be in digital or paper form) that contains the ingredients of each item used in the kitchen as well as supplier information. Remember to keep it up-to-date as suppliers and dishes often change. This makes both checking ingredients as well as seeking answers to food safety questions much simpler. We’ve flipped through many a supplier/ingredient book which has added a great amount of reassurance to our dining.
Another option is to create an allergen menu which allows waitstaff and/or diners to easily reference to allergens. One restaurant we eat at regularly created one after my son began asking his own food allergy questions. It doesn’t have to be fancy; just reliable.
These simple strategies to understand and accommodate food allergies will forge lasting relationships with customers and will enhance your restaurant’s reputation for service.