Food Allergy Awareness Week: Dining Out - Advice for Restaurants, Tips for Diners

15 million Americans have food allergies, and these numbers continue to rise. Restaurants ignore this issue at their own peril and that of their customers. In my experience, the vast majority of people in the hospitality industry do care about helping their guests have an enjoyable experience. Landing a guest in the hospital is not their goal. But without a specific protocols and training to handle food-allergic diners, restaurants run the risk of doing just that. Front of the house, kitchen staff, servers, food runners, bar staff -- all must understand the nature of food allergies and intolerances, where hidden dangers lie, and how to avoid sickening a guest or worse. I advise restaurants on avoidance of these risks, share resources and offer techniques specifically to prevent sickening a guest or sending them into anaphylactic shock.

  • Did you know: there's now a Yelp like site specificially for Food Allergies? Allergy Eats will catalog diners' experience eating out. 

A Recent Example

Just this past weekend, I dined out at a prominent Boston restaurant. After informing the server of my food allergies, I enlisted her help in choosing from among three dishes that I thought could most easily accommodate my allergies. We selected the tuna salad Niçoise. As she indicated the deviled egg contained dairy, I asked if a simple boiled egg could be substituted. "No problem."

When the dish was delivered to the table, it was by a food runner, not the server. The food runner had no idea of my allergy. When I asked that he take it back and tried to explain that the dish must be replaced, not simply remove the egg due to cross contact on the plate, he was confused.

She came over and said "I put it on the ticket." So possibly she forgot. Possibly no one noticed. Obviously, no one was tracking that order was free of noted allergens. This leads me to believe any number of cross-contact issues are probably occuring and no one has trained the staff in protocol to safely serve FA (food allergic) diners.

Did I have confidence that the egg was not simply switched out? Not really. At least three things could have been done to ensure this did not end badly. This restaurant is clearly in need of FA training. Had this been a more hidden error, say an ingredient in a dressing, we could have had a serious crisis on hand.

In other restaurants, I've also had:

  • "dairy-free" tacos come out drizzled with sour cream;
  • a "dairy-free" dessert that contained dairy  (even after much discussion, prior notice and last minute confirmation by the chef, AT THE TABLE)-- the chef saying "oh you might want to avoid that, it has a little dairy".
  • I've been told fries are okay, until I ask if anything that's buttermilk battered gets fried in the same oil;
  • I've had a server clarify with the chef that the rolls contain no dairy then add "the chef says just go easy on the butter."  etc., etc.

Advice for Restaurants

Lose one guest, lose a group of sales. Get it right and reap the benefits of customer loyalty and increased sales. Conversely, consider the cost of killing a guest.

In one study:

  • 25% of restaurant staff polled said that food allergic diners could safely eat a small amount of the trigger food.
  • 33% thought frying would destroy the allergens.

These are potentially lethal mistakes.

Is your restaurant prepared?

I offer a one hour training designed to fit into a normal pre-meal staff meeting.

In it we cover:

  • hidden allergens,
  • allergies versus intolerance,
  • myths about food allergies,
  • basics of cross-contact,
  • best practices.

Learn how to:

  • minimize risks in serving an increasingly allergic dining public,
  • get a valuable resource guide, and
  • discover simple steps you can take to address this growing issue.

As a food writer, consultant and trainer who developed food allergies late in life, I’m dedicated to educating restaurant staff on the basics of food allergies and how to avoid serious and potentially lethal mistakes.

  • Contact Me today to receive your Risk Assessment Checklist and to talk about scheduling a training for your staff.

Tips for FA Diners

To learn more about dining out with food allergies including tips for diners, and to read a list of hidden allergens, see my Washington Post article: Food Allergy Sufferers Negotiate Minefields.

  • When possible, phone ahead to alert the restaurant.
  • Go off hours.
  • Check the menu online first to familiarize yourself with ingredients.

Here are more tips for diners.

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This is Food Allergy Awareness Week - drop a comment to share your experiences dining out with food allergies, or write to me if you'd like help training your staff.