Allergy Shmallergy

Simplifying life for families with food allergies.

Best (and Worst) Practices of Some of Our Favorite Restaurants June 12, 2017

Restaurants need to pay attention to food allergies.  Aside from the obvious risk of health complications, misunderstanding of such common and serious conditions comes off as uninformed, unsympathetic, and negligent.  Sometimes even the best restaurants aren’t well-informed or trained about handling food allergy requests.  But when a restaurant gets it right, it earns a customer’s loyalty forever.  Below are some of the best and worst practices among our experiences.  I’d love to hear some examples of BEST practices from YOUR dining experiences by commenting below.

 

To understand what’s happening behind the kitchen doors, read Allergic Living’s Special Report, What Restaurants Are Getting Right and Wrong on Food Allergies.  And if you work at a restaurant, please read Simple Strategies for Restaurants to Manage Food Allergies for easy ways to improve food allergy service.

 

 

Hops (Greensboro, NC)

Hops 2015-07-20 19.37.22

The reputation of this burger joint was impossible to ignore.  And, we knew from our first year eating here that it was well-deserved.  In fact, I had been impressed that they offered gluten-free beer and buns, despite the fact that we do not eat gluten-free.

However, one night, arriving 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 for our peanut and tree nut allergic son.  We asked the server 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.  Rather than thinking flexibly, the restaurant has lost our business – not just our family’s business, but that of our entire group.

 

Miyagi (McLean, VA)

This Japanese restaurant is always crowded.  Its sushi is consistently fresh and delicious.

 

When we explained that my son had a sesame seed allergy and could not have any sesame on his order, they seemed to understand.   But it was a different story when the plate arrived with sesame seeds covering the side dish.  And the replacement was sent back on the same plate with the side dish scraped off.

 

Firebirds Wood Fired Grill (Moorsetown, NJ)

Driving down the New Jersey Turnpike, we all grew hungry and needed a break from the car.  We decided to stop at Firebirds off exit 4 on a whim.  And, what a great choice!  The food was great and the servers were extra careful with our food allergy requests.  The chef himself came over to our table to answer each question we had.

“I like to visit each table with food allergies personally,” he said, “so that you know I understand your concerns and we can discuss a plan so you know you’re eating safely.”

The chef watched his best friend deal with celiac disease and food allergies at restaurants and wanted to change that experience for his own customers.  The effort was enormously appreciated!

 

Clare and Don’s Beach Shack (Falls Church, VA)

This local restaurant is an experience unto itself.  In addition to its fun and friendly indoor ambiance, it has generous outdoor seating with a fire pit for the cool months and live music for the warmer ones.  The owners always make everyone feel warm and welcome.  Their quick response to our questions (even when that requires contacting suppliers or figuring out how to make something safe on the fly) is part of their natural, good-natured customer service.  And, it’s something we’re incredibly grateful for.

In fact, they’ve become so accommodating with and accustomed to my son’s orders that when the ticket comes into the kitchen, his meals often return to the table with a greeting from one of the owners herself.

 

Burton’s Grill (Charlottesville, VA and elsewhere)

This restaurant gets kids’ menus right.  Rather than ordering and substituting everything as food allergy families usually do, this menu allows kids (and their parents) to customize each piece.  And for those of us with dietary restrictions, that means more options, less hassle.  We still had a few questions for our server (safety of hamburger buns and fry oil) and were pleased to see the seriousness with which they sought the answers.  Such a great experience, we made a repeat visit within the same weekend.

 

Harvey Cedar’s Shellfish Co (Long Beach Island, NJ)

This is a perennial favorite for our family and friends.  A down-to-earth seafood restaurant with friendly staff is a no-brainer.  But nothing with food allergies is completely straight-forward.  As my son became more and more adventurous and we posed more and more questions about their menu, one server in particular took it upon himself to create an allergen menu with the help of the owner and chefs.  We were hugely impressed with this simple and easy to navigate menu.  It has encouraged my son to try even MORE menu items which has resulted in his love of swordfish, mussels, and lobster!

 

La Tela (Kiawah Island, SC)

We waited for 45 minutes to sit down at this popular wood-fired pizza and Italian restaurant just off Kiawah Island.  By the time we had been seated, it was late and the kids were STARVING.  We had a great time eating here a couple of years prior and were looking forward to a good meal.

When we told the waiter my son was allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds and sensitive to dairy (because of his EOE), a manager returned to discuss the menu with us.  She had thorough knowledge of kitchen preparations and ingredients.  As it turns out, because they use pine nuts in their pesto pizza (which contaminates the oven) only salad and plain pasta were safe for him – a HUGE disappointment.  But they were willing to prepare pasta for my son in a dedicated pot to ensure it was safe.  He was not thrilled, but we appreciated the extra step.

Unfortunately, the pasta arrived covered in sauce – something my son doesn’t like and specifically ordered against.  When we pointed this out to our server, he was clearly put out.  Annoyed and not hiding it, he said that although the kitchen could prepare another batch of pasta, it would take a very long time.  He suggested that my son just eat the meal in front of him.

The last thing you want to do is tell a food allergic child (or anyone with a medical condition) to just suck it up.  We left frustrated with our mixed experience.  While the restaurant itself was great, this visit emphasizes how much of your experience lies with the individual you are working with.  In our case: the server.

 

Sandbox (Long Beach Island, NJ)

Breakfast is tricky for those with dairy allergies.  So much of what kids want to order in the morning (pancakes, waffles, even scrambled eggs) is made with milk.  My son has become used to having fruit and bacon when we’re out at breakfast.  But on this one morning, he really wanted French Toast.  There were a lot of hurdles to overcome before we could safely order this: safety of the bread and preparation surface, can they coat it only in egg…?    Yes on all accounts.  This specially prepared French Toast – made in a separate pan – makes my son SO happy.  Sandbox’s flexible thinking makes him feel great and relaxed.

 

But, when we spoke with the owner, we experienced a funny lack of awareness.  While we complimented her restaurant at being so good at handling food allergies, she made a few insensitive comments.  We told her about my son’s many food allergies. Having been a former teacher, she said, “Oh!  I would have HATED to have you in my class!”  Later, my son asked, “What’s wrong?  Why wouldn’t she have wanted to teach me?”  Not the message you want your customers leaving with.  Also, you wouldn’t say that to someone in a wheelchair or with a serious illness.  Why say that to a child who similarly didn’t choose to have food allergies?

 

Rocco’s Tacos (throughout Florida)

Rocco’s Tacos is our Florida obsession.  My whole family loves eating at this festive and delicious restaurant.  It’s made even easier to love because across locations, Rocco’s takes food allergies seriously.  They seek out ingredients and are creative at work-arounds when necessary.  At our most recent visit in Boca Raton, the server approached us to let me know that his brother had food allergies, conveying that he understood our questions and concerns whole-heartedly.  That kind of information is so helpful when explaining what you (as the food allergy family) are looking for.

And, look!  They flag food allergy orders from the kitchen to table so that mistakes are avoided.  Love that system!

 

Sakura (Vienna, VA)

Japanese hibachi restaurants, as it turns out, can be a fantastic place to eat with food allergies.  Many do not use any dairy.  And their prep surface is diligently cleaned right in front of customers.

 

Sakura’s menu clearly states that they don’t use peanuts or peanut oil in any of its menu items.  They take time to understand the food allergies at our table and craft a careful plan to cook each meal in the proper order to ensure its safety.  When we eat with our extended family, as we often do, we need to avoid my son’s food allergies as well as my in-law’s – that means, no peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, dairy, or shrimp.  They prepare everything with ease (and great skill!) right in front of us.

 

Panzone’s Pizza (Long Beach Island, NJ)

Panzone’s boasts some of the best pizza on the Jersey Shore.  But it was when we began ordering their other menu items that we realized how easy they made things for food allergic families like ours.  The owner pulled out a binder filled with ingredient lists for all menu items, including those from her suppliers.  Stock from suppliers is typically our biggest roadblock for information.  Restaurants often have no idea what is in a supplied item and cannot take the time to call to inquire.

 

Perusing Panzone’s ingredient binder allowed us to partake in items that are usually not safe elsewhere: like (cheeseless) cheesesteaks, amazing breaded wings, and fish tacos.

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Simple Strategies for Restaurants to Manage Food Allergies June 6, 2017

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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.

 

Sonny’s BBQ and the Problem with Menu Allergen Lists February 27, 2014

We recently ate at my father-in-law’s favorite restaurant chain:  Sonny’s BBQ.  It’s a southeastern BBQ chain that reminds my father-in-law of the time he spent at the University of Florida.  So whenever we’re in Florida, we “dine” there.

 

As usual, before we went, I reviewed their allergen menu and identified a few items my FA son could choose from.  And, as usual,  I verified all my information with the manager.

 

Now, let me say, Sonny’s manager couldn’t have been nicer or more responsive.  He researched the ingredients for the hamburger bun and the cornbread from his suppliers and was willing to bend over backwards to accommodate my son as best as he could.  And, as a result, we enjoyed a safe and yummy meal.

 

But I noticed something that was distressing in asking all our usual questions.  While the manager knew his ingredients and was willing to investigate further when he wasn’t sure, Sonny’s BBQ corporate may not understand how food allergies actually work.  For example, Sonny’s Corporate allergen menu shows that their fries are milk, egg, tree nut, peanut, shellfish, and SOY free.  But that’s only if you eat them UNFRIED because their manager confirmed they were fried in vegetable oil.

 

While soy is no longer a concern for my son, I can imagine this mistake would pose a danger.  If I had read their allergen menu and decided to just take it at face value, my son could have wound up with some serious problems.

 

Corporations need to take into broader considerations when publishing food allergen menus.  Their menus must reflect fry oil and cooking methods as well as supplier-driven “manufactured on equipment” issues.  More information of this kind allows diners to make better, clearer choices.  Whenever I can make more sure-footed decisions about meals for my son and other food allergic family members, I feel grateful and relaxed.  And, that’s something that will keep me coming back.

 

 

Lost Dog Cafe April 25, 2011

Filed under: Restaurants,Washington DC Metro — malawer @ 8:00 am
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Most foodies might find it insulting that I have lived in the DC-area for almost 12 years now and never tried Lost Dog Cafe or its sister site the Stray Cat in Arlington.  It was nothing personal – just not on my gastronomical radar.  Thankfully, the Lost Dog opened up a second location in McLean and my radar started blipping.

The first time I ate at Lost dog was at lunch.  The ambiance was lively and fun and the location larger than expected.  Perusing their extensive selection of sandwiches and pizza, I almost got lost myself.  Plus, I noticed that they deliver and tucked away that information for future reference.  The second time we went was for dinner with a large crowd, half children.  The waitstaff was patient, pleasant and helpful and, again, our meal was delicious.
Here’s the skinny:

  • Their menu appears customizable since there are a wide variety of sandwiches made with every variation of cold cuts, breads, and toppings.

 

  • Lost Dog serves both gluten-free pizza and pasta.  Great news for me who just learned I need to try a gluten-free diet (again!) to see if there’s a connection to my migraines.

 

  • Their fries are fried in peanut oil.  And, they sell Route 66 chips up front that are made with peanut oil as well.  But, the helpful staff up front told me that they use different chips in the kitchen (dine-in vs. take out option?)  and we could ask to see if they were safe.   At a very minimum, the tortilla chips were safe for my peanut, tree nut-allergic child.

 

  • Their pizzas come in individual, small and large sizes.  Perfect for any sized crowd.  And, their crust is made without sesame seeds – an odd ingredient that gets added to crust every once and a while.

 

  • The best news of all is not great news if your allergic to dairy:  dessert.  Lost Dog serves milkshakes, malts, creamsicles and floats as well as three different kinds of brownie sundaes and an assortment of cakes, pies and cookies.  None of these options worked for us (as is typical), so we headed home for dessert.

 

Even without the dessert that I was pining for and a few allergy-unfriendly menu issues, we all left very satisfied and excited to return.

 

PF Chang’s Gluten Free Menu March 21, 2011

This post is about PF Chang’s restaurant and the way they handled our gluten-free requests.  As a bit of background,  I’m going gluten-free this week at the suggestion of a few doctors to determine if a gluten intolerance is a trigger for my incessant migraines.  Coping with this change has been interesting and challenging (and it’s only Day 2!).

 

I was relieved to learn that PF Chang’s has a gluten-free menu that could satisfy my week-long hankering for Chinese food.

 

Here’s the skinny:

  • The Gluten-Free Menu offers several dishes from each part of the menu – including dessert – making it easy to find something I liked.

 

  • We ordered our meal take-out.  Speaking to the waiter, I was pleasantly surprised with how attentive they were to my perceived allergy/intolerance.  I began by ordering some gluten-free dishes for myself and continued on to order regular meals and appetizers for my other four dining guests.  He was quick to point out that their meals were NOT gluten-free and asked if I still wanted them or wanted to switch them with gluten-free alternatives.

 

  • Our regular-menu Mu Shu Pork showed up without plum sauce or pancakes (a simple mistake?  Or, did they make it gluten-free without asking?).  Either way, it looked funny and didn’t taste right.

 

  • The gluten-free dishes were so-so.  The Gluten-Free Lettuce Wraps lacked some flavor.  The Gluten-Free Chang’s Spicy Chicken didn’t resemble General Tso’s chicken as described.  And, the sauce from the Gluten-Free Monogolian Beef was less viscous than its regular counterpart.

 

In summary, while the taste left a little to be desired, PF Chang’s handled our requests VERY well.  And, all in all, it satisfied my craving sufficiently.

 

PF Chang’s Menu (check out their Gluten-Free selection)

 

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Sesame March 4, 2011

Sesame seed allergies are a little tricky.  Sesame seeds may be  tiny but they are potent and can cause a serious reaction for those who are allergic.  Additionly, federal law does not require sesame to be highlighted on grocery items (although it will still be included in ingredient lists).  So it’s worth familiarizing yourself not only with foods that typically contain sesame seeds but also the names of ingredients that are sesame seed derivatives.

 

As discussed in an earlier post (https://shmallergy.wordpress.com/2011/02/01/bring-on-the-meatballs/), sesame seeds are often included in bread crumbs, making ordering food with breadcrumbs just a little more complicated.  Sesame seeds are often an ingredient in wheat and multigrain breads (sliced bread, baguettes and rolls).  They also make frequent appearances in crackers and cereals (such as muesli), so read your ingredient list carefully.  Cross-contamination with sesame seed bagels are an issue when ordering bagels from a bagel store.  Again, proceed with caution.

 

Sesame oil is unrefined, meaning sesame seed protein can still be found in the oil — the same protein that will likely cause an allergic reaction.  Ordering Chinese food is likely out for anyone with a sesame seed allergy as much of its restaurant fair is cooked in sesame oil and includes the actual seeds in their dishes.  But, if you’re cooking Chinese meals at home, you should also know that Hoisin sauce lists sesame seeds as an ingredient.

 

Remember when you are ordering sushi to do so without sesame seeds.  Not only are rolls often covered in seeds, but seeds can be sprinkled on a variety of hot dishes as well.

 

 

As for Mediterranean fair, be aware that tahini is sesame paste.  This is important to know as tahini is included as an ingredient in hummus, amongst other dishes.  Ask whether or not your dish is cooked or served with tahini when ordering at Mediterranean restaurants.

 

 

 

Hamburger buns are not just sprinkled with sesame seeds.  Many times, sesame seeds are included as an ingredient.  Veggie burgers sometimes include sesame seeds as do various salad dressings and marinades.  Again, read ingredient labels carefully and ask all appropriate questions when dining out.

There are several ingredients that are derived from sesame seeds.  These are:

■ Benne/benne seed/benniseed
■ Gomasio (sesame salt)
■ Halvah
■ Sesame oil is also known as gingelly or til oil
■ Sesamol/sesamolina
■ Sesamum indicum
■ Sim sim
■ Vegetable oil (read ingredients, most are made with soybean oil)

(Source: Food Allergy Initiative)



Also, be aware of contact with sesame seeds via some beauty products, cosmetics and dog food.  Just pay attention!

 

ICFBD… Read On, And Your Plan for Feb. 5th Will Surely Change January 29, 2011

I hope you’re sitting down, because I just heard of a holiday that I want to scream about!  International Ice Cream for Breakfast Day.  Yup, you read that right.

As the story goes, the parents of Joe and Ruth invented ICFBD to beat the winter doldrums in Upstate New York.  The rules of the holiday are simple and easy to follow:  eat ice cream…at breakfast…on the first Saturday in February. ( http://www.itzahckret.com/icecreamforbreakfast.html)

As simple as that tradition is, this could pose a tricky problem for those of us who are avoiding dairy.  I plan on celebrating this February 5th with sorbet.   Unlike sherbet and ice cream, sorbet does not contain dairy.  It’s not hard to find in a grocery store, but sorbet can be tough to find if you’re out on the town.  Here are a few national and local tips for where to celebrate ICFBD in dairy-free style!

strawberry_ice_cream_cone_by-mindmatrix-flickr

photo taken by TheCulinaryGeek via flickr

Baskin Robbins:

Although they carry 31 flavors, it’s worth calling ahead to your local Baskin Robbins to see if one of those flavors is their sorbet.  It comes in Pink Grapefruit Sorbet and Daiquiri Ice.   Additionally, and I’m not sure if this is sacreligious to ICFBD, but there are a few other dairy-free concoctions that Baskin Robbins serves:  Strawberry Citrus, Peach Passion and Wild Mango Fruit Blasts which are free of all allergens (milk, egg, soy, peanut, tree nut, and wheat) according to their nutrition panel.

Ben & Jerry’s:

I can always count on Ben & Jerry to come through for me in a pinch.  And, they do in four different flavors:  Berry, Mango, Lemonade and Pomegranate.  Again, call ahead to make sure it’s on your local franchise’s menu.

Be aware that although Haagen Dazs and Cold Stone Creamery make sorbet, neither can guarantee they don’t contain trace amounts of dairy (and/or other allergens in Cold Stone’s case).  Bummer!

Locally in and around D.C., Pulcinella’s (McLean, VA) serves orange and lemon sorbet in their shells.  Be aware if you also have a nut allergy: last I had checked these were manufactured in a factory that also handles nut products.  Down the street, Sweet Leaf (also McLean) serves delicious strawberry and mango sorbets.

In Falls Church, both Clare and Don’s Beach Shack and Lazy Sundae serve delicious homemade sorbets in a variety of flavors.  Lazy Sundae regularly carries pear and pineapple sorbet, but I’m not certain sorbet is always available on the dessert menu at Clare and Don’s; so again call ahead if you’re going specifically for that.

If you know of any other local or national places that serve sorbet or dairy-free ice cream, help us celebrate International Ice Cream for Breakfast Day by posting a comment below.  Happy ICFBD!