So, quite a task has been put to the food allergy community by Allergy Eats: Define what it means to for a restaurant to be “allergy-friendly”.
You may have seen it in a recent re-posting by me, or on your own. I urge you to form your own response and send it to email@example.com. I figured that I’d use this blog to sort out my thoughts before I sent them on to Paul at Allergy Eats. I don’t exactly how I’ve morphed in to a food allergy advocate of sorts, but I feel that it’s important to help out any way that I can, and encourage others to keep up work that moves us all in the right direction. There are already some great comments on the blog, and I’m sure he’s got an inbox full of suggestions already… but it’s important to keep them coming so this can be looked at from multiple angles.
- The restaurant has to have a policy that reaches to ALL levels. Too many times restaurants claim to have god allergy practices, but it doesn’t trickle down to the wait staff, the cooks, or anyone past management. Having a policy is great, but it needs to be understood and respected through all levels. I feel comfort in a place when the waitress has the manager or even the chef come out to discuss allergy & cross-contamination issues with me. Training, some sort of certification, and re-training annually or semi-annually would be excellent.
- Changing current thinking. This is a good one… Today at Boston Market, I noticed a sign on top of the cash register that read something to the effect of “If you have food allergies, please talk to the manager before placing your order.” It’s great they’re recognizing the fact that there are food allergies out there, but… the cash register is at the end of the counter, and only reached well after you place your order. Also, I’d hope that someone with food allergies would already have a heightened awareness when going anywhere to eat. (If not, please read this.) More thought needs to be put into place, not just “CYA” measures.
- They have to exude reassurance. A poster is great. An “allergy-friendly” menu is great. A sign at the cash register or on your table or on the salad bar is great… but not enough. In with the training on all levels, the sever (or whoever answers the phone) must bee confident with the answers that you want to hear. No “I don’t think” or “not really” or “I’m not sure so you’d just better not order that” will do. Have the right answers. Know why. Understand the severity. Knowledge of the kitchen and where everything is cooked should be a must for servers and managers. Nuts can’t just be “picked off”. There’s no such thing as “oh a little won’t hurt” with butter. The fryer doesn’t “get hot enough to kill anything you’re allergic to”. It’s unsettling fr someone with food allergies to dine out. Making them feel safe is a must for “friendliness”.
- On a related note… especially the person answering your phone. When dining out of town, I try to call ahead (or get my wife to call ahead for me). My favorite response ever was an Amish place in Ohio where I asked if they had shellfish (“like shrimp or crab or oysters” I said)… the girl went on to say “No, we have oysters, but they’re in soup, and there’s shrimp… but it’s not in a shell.” Needless to say, we didn’t go there.
- All allergies are equal. It’s great to see “nut free” options, or “gluten-free” menus, but let’s treat all allergies with the same respect to cross contamination. The top 8 are; Milk, Egg, Peanuts, Tree Nuts, Fish, Shellfish, Soy, & Wheat. But, there are others too! I know of people with severe allergies to peppers, and have heard of corn allergies. These people need to feel safe too! Current government regulations don’t regulate the labeling of any allergens other than the top 8, so that’s all that people seem to pay attention to. Special attention needs to be given to all kinds of allergies, not just one allergen or group of singled-out allergens.
- Know what you’re serving. Are their anchovies in the Italian dressing or Worcester sauce? Is this fried in peanut oil? The server shouldn’t necessarily need to know off hand, but this information should be able to be provided upon request. Having it in written form would be tremendous. (We could go into other special dietary needs here too… not an allergy, but I have an aunt with Diverticulitus who needs to know if there are seeds or nuts that may be ground up and hidden in things like dressing or soups or bread.) Listing all this on a website would be excellent.
- Separate locations & utensils for allergy-free meal preparation. Cross-contamination is huge. I don’t worry about a mutant lobster crawling into my mouth by itself… but I do worry (immensely) that some scallop juice might be on the grill where my steak was cooked… or that someone who just made a shrimp cocktail didn’t wash their hands before making my salad. I’d love to know that the place where I’m dining has a fish or shellfish only fryer, separate grill spaces for different kinds of meat (even a vegetarian/vegan section would be cool), even separate cutting boards, prep areas, knives, and other utensils.
- Keep the nuts off the salad bar… near their own station.
- Hey Subway, don’t put the “seafood” sub stuff right next to the other lunchmeat, and don’t cut those subs with the same knife you use for all the other subs!
- Ability to accommodate the unusual. Say someone has an inhalation allergy to peanuts… Can you seat them somewhere so that the people at the next table are able to order some peanut-encrusted dessert without throwing them into an anaphylactic fit? Can you do this without rolling your eyes, sighing, and making it a big deal?
- Special markers/identifiers. I saw a commenter note this in the comments on the Allergy Eats blog post, and it’s absolutely brilliant. Something ought to be a literal red flag… in the system, on an order ticket, on the check, on even the plate itself. Everyone knows that orange-rimmed coffee pots mean decaf. Why not red for allergies? Or get crazy & assign a color to each of the top 8 & one for “other” allergies? Did I read that Legal Sea Foods does double-plating or something to that effect? It’s genius. I’d like to extend the symbols idea to the menu too… why not have some sort of system with easily recognized food allergy icons?
That’s my take for now, but there are already many other great suggestions in the comments section over at Allergy Eats. Please, take the time to send yours to firstname.lastname@example.org before Feb. 2nd!