Allergy Shmallergy

Simplifying life for families with food allergies.

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.

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TooJay’s Gourmet Deli…Mmm…. December 20, 2011

Searching for comfort food, we found ourselves at Toojays in Palm Beach last night.  And, when you’re in the mood for corned beef, there’s really no better place to go.

 

But again, food allergy-friendly?  Here’s what we learned:

 
  • Toojays keeps a list of vegetarian, nut-free and gluten-free foods.  While not overly helpful for our particular set allergies (since we also deal with sesame seeds, dairy and eggs), this could prove very handy to anyone solely allergic to pork, beef, peanuts, tree nuts and/or wheat.
 
  • When I asked whether the challah bread contained sesame seeds, the waitress immediately checked with the manager.  The answer: no (phew! My son was so looking forward to challah).  But the manager asked whether rye or wheat bread would be safe for my son to eat.  Perplexed, I answered that as long as it didn’t contain his allergens, we’d be fine.  The reason:  they slice the challah on the same slicer as the other two breads and he wanted to ensure there’d be no issue with cross-contamination.  I love people who think a few steps ahead!
 
  • Next, my son wanted meatloaf.  As you already know, finding breadcrumbs without sesame seeds is particularly difficult and I have a hard time trusting commercial brands for that reason.  But the waitress was more than happy to call the manager again to find out whether that might be safe.  Seemed like it might –but “might” doesn’t work for us – so we ordered a super-delicious hot dog.
 
  • The waitress was very flexible with the kids.  Hamburger and hot dog buns can be a tricky issue with my son’s allergens as well, so she was quick to offer to serve the hot dog on much beloved challah bread.
 
  • And, the waitress was nice enough to recommend side dishes that were likely to be safe for my son (like carrots, applesauce, and mandarin oranges).
 

Although I think we gave the server a run for her money- as she admitted she hadn’t had to answer these kinds of questions in ages- she was really wonderful.  And, I was in heaven sitting in a NY-style deli, listening to Motown, while eating such delicious food with my family.

 

McLean Family Restaurant – Here or Anywhere December 20, 2010

If it’s breakfast time and a weekend, you’ll most likely find our family dining at the McLean Family Restaurant (known to locals as MFR) in McLean, VA.  We go there so often that the waitstaff no longer gives us menus and barely even takes our order.  In fact, they just bring my husband his meal without even looking at him… he’s what we call “predictable.”  It’s not just the convenient proximity, nor the friendly staff, nor the delicious food that draws us there.  It’s their flexibility and attention to detail that keeps us coming.

 

In this case, the details are important:  my son, my father-in-law and mother-in-law, who all have food allergies.  Who all, by the way, have DIFFERENT food allergies.  You can imagine ordering sometimes takes quite a while with all the questions and omissions.  The manager and owners are attentive and thorough about understanding our families’ specific needs.  So much so that they have actually brought me packaging from premade or other specialty items to read, approve, or be reassured by them.

 

Family owned restaurants are a great resources to those of us who live with food allergies.  For one,  owners are generally on-hand and managers are very familiar with the menu – often enough to know immediately whether or not an ingredients is used in any given dish.   Secondly, dishes can be altered slightly to accomdate; such as asking for something to be sauteed in oil rather than butter.  And, menus tend to be easy to mix and match.  For example, MFR can easily substitute a sesame seed hamburger bun (allergy alert!) for whole wheat toast or whip up some fruit (only on the breakfast menu) for dessert when my son’s friends all order chocolate cake.