Food Allergies and Restaurants: It’s All About Communication

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Roughly 15 million Americans have food allergies, with the top eight being: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat.

Most all of these items are used in restaurants on a daily basis and food allergies have become more prevalent; many restaurants have adapted to ensure the safety of customers.  But there are still restaurants that have no experience with food allergies.  According to Sloane Miller, MSW, LMSW, author and advocate (AllergicGirl.com), it’s all about communication.

All About Communication

Image from Sloane Miller, Copyright David Handshuh

When a person has a food allergy, it isn’t up to the individual to assume the kitchen staff knows how to handle it.  On the reverse, the kitchen staff must work together to ensure everyone understands what the customer’s needs are.  Miller makes a great yet obvious point:  A restaurant’s goal is never to hurt anyone; it just takes some negotiation and conversation to get on the same page.

“As a diner with food allergies, I want what every diner wants—to fall in love with a restaurant.  I want to taste a chef’s special dishes,” she said.

“My relationship with a chef or restaurant or chain can last for years.  I’ve created many relationships and have many restaurants I visit a few times a week.  I’m a regular with just a few special food allergy needs.”

 

Is Your Restaurant Capable?

Not every restaurant can accommodate a person with a food allergy—and that’s okay.  Miller mentioned there are some restaurants that put customers first, and then there are others where a chef and their creation is the focus.

Now, for those restaurants with little to no experience with food allergies but who want to become an accommodating establishment, there are ways to become educated and set procedures.  Many resources are available, such as “Welcoming Guests with Food Allergies” by the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network.

To Dos for Those with Allergies

While dining at a restaurant requires work from both the diner and the restaurant, the diner has to be prepared beforehand.

“It starts with the patient understanding their food allergy, what they can and can’t have, carrying their emergency medications and having their own emergency plan of action,” Miller said. “Then they can engage a restaurant, group or chain in the process of dialogue. ‘These are my needs; does the chef feel comfortable with my needs?’ Ask via phone or email before stepping into a restaurant. It gives everyone, the diner and the restaurant, the chance to make an informed decision.”

Miller added that upon dining out, she makes the dining experience pleasant for the restaurant, smiles a lot and develops many new relationships.

“I love dining out, I love chefs, I love food and I love tipping well.  These are things I recommend to my clients. If a restaurant is able to meet your needs, please tip well (like 20 percent on the bill) and return so staff get to know you, your needs.”

To Dos for Restaurants

“Accommodating. Communication.”

These are words Miller used frequently when she described her relationships with restaurants.  After all, despite having special food needs, she brings in money—whether it’s bringing in a group for a business meeting or a birthday party.  Developing a relationship with a diner can really become profitable, whether they have a food allergy or not.

“We are their best undiscovered asset,” she described about being a diner.

However, if a person with food allergies comes to your restaurant and you don’t feel your kitchen can fully meet their needs—it’s okay to say no.  It’s important for the person’s well-being.

Working with the customer is important and must be taken seriously.  If they ask for a manager or have their order sent back, it’s not because they don’t like it and is nothing to be offended by.  A tiny part of a peanut or something that has been cross-contaminated can be a life or death situation.

Common Misconceptions and Breakdown of Communication

Miller finds the most common misconception about food allergies is “a little bit won’t hurt.”  With a food allergy, “a little bit” can be fatal.  (Read about symptoms and reactions in our blog: The New Bully in our Schools—Food Allergies).

As a person with food allergies, Miller said if there has ever been an issue dining out, it’s when there has been a breakdown of communication.  This breakdown happens between the back of the house and the front of the house, back to the table.

“About every tenth time I dine out, someone in the back of the house doesn’t get the message and misses,” she explained.  “Even when I triple check, communication can still break down and end up in a food allergy error, which is why I advocate that everyone always have their emergency mediation on them at all times and have an emergency action plan as well.”

Restaurant In Action

One of Indiana’s most beloved restaurants is Scotty’s Brewhouse, with five (soon to be six) locations around the state.  They are a prime example of an establishment well-educated in handling food for those with food allergies.

“First off, we start with training employees how to handle allergies when an order comes back,” said Luke Duncan, director of kitchen operations for Scotty’s Brewhouse Inc.  “The cooks related to the items take off their gloves and wash their hands.  We have separate utensils, cooking pans and cutting boards we use for all allergy items.  Also, especially for gluten-free items, we take ingredients out of the back from fresh batches and not what we have on our cook line to avoid cross-contamination.”

Also, each location has a guide of products readily available for managers to reference to if they are uncertain about hidden allergies, such as an item that doesn’t include peanuts, but was processed at a plant that processes nuts.

“We make every effort for an allergen plate to be handled by the cook (who cooked it from beginning to end without interruption whenever possible) and the manager on duty only, this way we do not introduce contamination from a third party not thinking about what they’re doing,” Duncan added.  “The manager finishes the plate with two American flag toothpicks (one on each end of the plate) to ensure any food runners to not grab the plate by mistake.  We have managers run the food whenever possible or a specific delegate if they are tied up elsewhere.”

Duncan said a diner who comes in with a food allergy is a challenging scenario when they are busy.  However, Scotty’s instructs servers to inform guests it may take a few extra minutes to ensure their order is properly handled.  And for a safe and enjoyable meal, that customer sure won’t mind.

Recap for Diners

  • Fully understand your allergy/allergies
  • Carry emergency medications
  • Have a personal emergency plan of action
  • Engage with a restaurant by calling or emailing ahead of time and discussing needs
  • Be pleasant, tip well and return upon having a good experience so the staff get to know you

Recap for Restaurants

  • Set procedures in place for food allergies and train all employees
  • Talk with the customer to ensure your kitchen can meet their needs
  • Don’t be afraid to say no if you don’t think your restaurant is capable
  • Ensure full communication with all staff members, both front and back of the house
  • Don’t be offended when asked to speak to a manager or have a dish sent back
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