Simple Steps to Encourage and Ensure Food Allergy Safety and Awareness in Your Restaurant
Often, being a restaurant owner or chef does not ensure complete awareness about the ever-changing dynamics of food allergies today. As I know from first-hand experience, bringing food allergy sensitivity into the kitchen can be challenging when mediating between a set menu, a customer with food allergies, wait staff, kitchen staff, and management. It is important, first of all, to understand that, currently, dining out is a very scary experience for people with food allergies. However, by making some changes in our kitchens, we can help alleviate this fear and can bring many of these people, who have abandoned dining out, back into the joy of restaurant culture simply by being responsible and empathetic hosts to customers with food allergies.
Empathy Means Loyalty
Empathy towards people with food allergies entails making questions and conversations about allergies as important to the dining experience as taking an order. Imagine trying to navigate a menu with an “invisible” food allergy, such as whey or citrus or eggs; it must be like jumping into black water, not knowing if there is dangerous creature below the calm surface. All restaurant staff must be made aware of this experience that many of their customers deal with on a daily basis; let them know that food allergies can cause pain, sickness, and even death. Management and wait staff should be educated about the seriousness of allergies and should be made aware that simply asking if there are any allergies at the table can save both the staff and customers a lot of worry and stress. Many wait staff, as I have noticed, think “allergy” only means gluten-intolerant and that the only solution is for the customer to order a salad. I have overheard my wait staff say such things out of ignorance about food allergies, and have noticed the anxiety it causes in customers, to the point that some customers have, understandably, left the restaurant before ordering. After witnessing such experiences, I have realized the importance of educating staff about the diversity of allergies and the diversity of solutions possible across the menu. As with anything, education allows empathy and empathy encourages loyalty on both ends. By knowing that the staff is loyal to food allergy awareness and safety, customers can feel more assured that their health and dining experience is a priority. And as I have seen many times before, empathy wins the heart of any food-allergic customer and their dining companions and is sure to gain their loyalty.
Utilize Available Technologies such as Interactive Allergy Menus
While empathy is an important first step, your wait staff must be supported with actual knowledge and security. An uneducated and unsupported staff can make dangerous mistakes. Empower management and wait staff by making allergy information readily available. To ensure that there is no miscommunication in the “telephone game” between customer, waiter, and the kitchen staff, use available searchable database technologies that make ingredient and preparation information standardized and available to customer and staff alike. Especially for customers with multiple food allergies, such as peanuts, soy and legumes, standardized databases can easily inform customers of their options and can assure staff that the meal ordered will be safely served.
Take a moment to consider how customers are currently receiving ingredient information. Many restaurants use large binders that are tedious for customers and staff to look through, let alone assess. A customer often has to look up each item on the plate: the bun, the patty, the fries, the sauce, etc. from a large and disorganized bulk of ingredient information. Additionally, instead of exploring new options, the customer will go to items that typically work for them because they are overwhelmed with the idea of assessment, and are thus not able to experience all the possibilities the menu may have to offer nor the full pleasure of dining out. In other instances, many restaurants that use allergy charts rather than ingredient lists are only accounting for the 8 major allergens when there are an infinite number of possible allergies—from proteins to vegetables. Finally, in the worst of circumstances, the ingredient list is a general account from the chef, who cannot be expected to memorize the particulars of each entity in each dish (for who can remember the list of ingredients in a particular dressing or cheese, for example). In such scenarios, the chef or kitchen staff has to refer to the packaging, which can be difficult to access and tedious to assess.
By using technologies that analyze data in each menu item, customers can search safe menu options on their own. These technologies provide a list of all possible menu options that sync with the customer’s selection of allergens. Customers can access such ‘safe’ options via their smart phones while in the restaurant or, at home on their desktops. With such technologies, restaurants can eliminate risk and customers can feel confident in their decisions and experience restaurant culture, a luxury that is off-limits to many people with food allergies.
Currently, these technologies are being used by restaurants such as Red Robin, Quiznos, Saladworks, and more. These restaurants are each helping to pioneer allergy awareness and food-safety. Their websites provide ‘Interactive allergen menus‘, which make it easy for diners to see all the possibilities available to them at these restaurants. These technologies are not only revolutionizing the restaurant industry, but are changing the way our culture responds to food allergies
Necessary Staff Training and Procedures
Beyond technologies, staff must be educated about how to prevent contamination between ingredients. Staff should be trained to wash preparation utensils between their uses on different ingredients. For example, a spatula used to saute ingredients with butter should not then be used to flip the burger or saute the onions of a customer who has an allergy to dairy products; a ladle used to pour peanut sauce onto a salad should not be used in the preparation of a salad for a customer who has a peanut allergy. Cross-contamination can happen in many ways, even the failure to change gloves after touching coconut flakes, for example, can result in contamination, and it is therefore extremely important to manage the kitchen and food preparation procedures.
Understanding how easily cross-contamination can happen should be made a significant point of awareness to kitchen staff and management should, when possible, observe any potential cross contamination errors and find solutions to prevent future occurrences.
With the ever-increasing population of diners with food allergies, it is important for restaurants to find ways to adapt their kitchens and staff to be more aware, empathetic, and to take action to prevent harmful mistakes. It is important to me, as a restaurant owner and lover of dining out, that we preserve restaurant culture and make it accessible to everyone. Beyond the basic steps above, it is also time for restaurants and chefs to creatively alter their menus to become allergy friendly. Until menus become more diverse in this way, empathy, awareness, food preparation consciousness, and the use of available food allergy technologies is an intelligent and responsible way to ensure safety and to gain the loyalty of food-sensitive clientele.