If restaurants truly want to provide a safe and enjoyable experience for all their guests, we need fundamental change.
Restaurants have the potential to convert families impacted by food allergies from one-time visitors into some of their most loyal customers. This unique community has the potential to be a word-of-mouth marketing powerhouse, but restaurants need to win them over first.
Me: “Hi, I’m interested in the turkey club sandwich, but could you tell me if the bread has egg in it? My son is allergic to eggs.”
Server: “OK sure let me just check. (8 minutes later … ) So, my manager said he was pretty sure it didn’t have egg in it.”
There you have it, an all-too-familiar scenario for the food allergic community in restaurants today. Non-definitive answers are not just a problem for guests who are forced to decide on taking a gamble with their health and safety however, it’s also a problem for the restaurant who faces the risk of accidental allergen exposure, or potentially even an ADA violation if information or accommodations fail to be made. It’s a simple question when you pare it down: “What is in the menu item you serve here?” Yet between the vague menu descriptions, lack of information that servers, and even managers have access to, questions often go unanswered.
A two-year consumer study from Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), the world’s largest private funder of allergy research, notes that “Nearly two-thirds [64 percent] of consumers repeatedly purchase the same foods every time they shop to save time and know they are buying safe products.” Is it possible that these same consumer behaviors would be repeated if they found equivalently safe restaurants where they could spend their money?
Although Faith Lee (Middleton, Wisconsin) has a hard time finding restaurants to eat with three out of four family members having food allergies and/or sensitivities, if you’re Beef Butter BBQ (Madison, Wisconsin) you can count on their business every time:
“The only restaurant that all four of us as a family have dined at without any problems is Beef Butter BBQ in Madison, Wisconsin, because they have told us exactly how their brisket was cooked; and that is the only menu item that Calvin has ever eaten at a restaurant.”
The Lee’s have also found that their local Culver’s is a safe choice because it offers a gluten-free bun for its burgers. Restaurants that win are the ones that are accommodating the food allergy community—the reward is the significantly higher frequency of repeat visits from this unique community.
Changing How You’ve Always Done It
If restaurants truly want to provide a safe and enjoyable experience for all their guests, we need fundamental change, starting with the way servers greet tables: “Hi, I’m Katie and I’ll be your server today. Are there any food allergies I should be aware of?” Notice how I didn’t ask if “I could get anyone started with a drink right away?” I’ve heard that the former is the way Disney World trains its servers; not surprising for a company that seems to be doing more than a few things right. By assuming a role of responsibility from the very beginning, food allergic guests can at least breathe a sigh of relief in feeling like things are off to a good start.
We all know there are a lot of nuances to consider when it comes to placing orders—sub fries for the garden salad, Thousand Island dressing; only melon (no grapes) with kids meal … the list goes on. Jotting down notes ad hoc may have worked 20 years ago when food allergies were a rarity, but they are too prevalent now to rely on the ways of the past. What scares me even more are those upscale restaurants where it feels like servers are showing off by memorizing your entire order. “Honestly, I’m not impressed, and I’d feel much better if you just wrote it down,” I think to myself. So, arm your serving staff with a perpetual cheat sheet.
Servers list the name and description of the guest (in case someone else delivers their food), and only must check which of the top nine allergens that the guest indicates they need to avoid. List their order at the bottom and any substitutions to make based on the allergens to avoid. By having all this detail in one place, a system of checks and balances is created, so a manager or cook can catch anything that the server potentially misses. To take this philosophy a step further, consider user-driven ordering technology, which further eliminates the margin for error.
For many restaurants, the food allergy community represents a liability threat and a very deep fear of the unknown. But are we getting in our own way with all the constant disclaimers, or for lack of a better term CYA statements? In my family’s situation, we want to know the intentional ingredients in specific menu items. Unfortunately, we find ourselves in a situation where everyone is trying to be so careful that we’re not able to get definitive answers to questions that seem straight-forward like, “does the meatloaf have egg in it?” We are hearing yes when the real answer may be no.