I was thrilled to have the opportunity to recently speak at the 2nd Annual Allergy Eats Conference for Restaurateurs. My topic: The allergic diner’s point of view. Using my own family’s positive and negative restaurant experiences as examples, I was able to inform restaurateurs about a number of important food allergy issues many families face. The main points of my message were:
• Dining out is a stressful and humbling experience for families with food allergic children – I also let them know that we realize that it can be a hassle for restaurants to have to go out of their routine in order to accommodate us, and we’re very thankful when they do.
• Dining out is often unavoidable – For many people, dining out is sometimes not a choice, but the only option – such as for those who have to travel, who need to entertain for business reasons, who are invited to a wedding reception. College students face similar challenges when living in college dorms, where they often do not have options for meals other than eating in the dining hall.
• “Close enough” won’t do – It’s really important to ensure that the order for an allergic diner is correct. Even traces of allergens in a food can cause a reaction in a severely allergic diner. Everyone involved with preparing and serving that dish needs to be aware of the diner’s special dietary needs.
• If food is sent back, prepare something fresh – Traces of allergens can remain if the allergenic food is simply picked off or removed from the dish.
• Be upfront if you cannot accommodate – We appreciate restaurants being honest if they cannot accommodate our food allergy needs. If you can’t cook to order, or if your kitchen is too small to keep foods separate in order to control cross contact with allergens, please say so. We’d rather dine elsewhere than end up in the emergency room.
• Your suppliers can cross-contaminate your ingredients – It’s really important to know the allergen issues associated with food from your suppliers. The reality is that otherwise “safe” food can become contaminated in their facility, such as that made on shared equipment.
I also emphasized how we look for reassurance when we enter a restaurant and speak with staff. It starts with taking the time to listen to our needs, but there are other things restaurants can do to help us feel more confident that restaurant staff and managers will take all necessary precautions to ensure our meals are safe. Here are some of them:
• Place statements on menus indicating that diners who have food allergies should speak with the staff.
• Add “does anyone at the table have a food allergy?” to the standard things that wait staff say before taking an order.
• Provide information about accommodating food allergic diners on the restaurant’s website, and/or provide a special “food allergy menu.”
• Train staff in food allergy awareness, and then place signage within view of diners indicating that this training has taken place. Massachusetts is an excellent role model for this.
• Have helpful staff or managers who answer food allergy-related questions by telephone prior to a visit.
• Have the manager (a) stop by the table to acknowledge the food allergy order, (b) let the diner know that he or she will personally take responsibility for the order in the kitchen and (c) serve the food to the allergic diner.
• Put a system in place so that kitchen staff is visually alerted that an order for a food allergic diner is being prepared. For example, different types or colors of serving dishes can be used for the meal prepared for the allergic diner.
Finally, I wrapped up my presentation by quoting from a KFA volunteer who said, in part, “We just want to have a normal experience and be able to walk away from it without ending up in the ER. We don’t eat out very much, but the times we do I literally end up wiping away tears, because it’s so emotional to sit there and watch my son eat his meal and to be just like any other family.”
This point underscores how those of us managing food allergies value dining out with our families and the restaurateurs who welcome our families at their establishments.
I was thrilled afterwards to speak with restaurateurs who had questions to ask me or better yet, who indicated they are already doing many of these things I indicated would reassure diners with allergic family members.
Lynda Mitchell, M.A., is Founder and Senior Director of Kids With Food Allergies (KFA), a division of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. KFA is dedicated to keeping children with food allergies safe and healthy by educating and supporting their families and the community.