Here are ways to train your staff on food allergies

“What should we do for dinner tonight? Asian? Italian? Mexican?” Seems like a simple question, right?

While this is a familiar Friday or Saturday night toss-up for many, it’s not so simple a question for others—especially for those with a mild to severe food allergy.

Stories on customer allergen awareness rarely make front-page news, but the topic is becoming more and more apparent in food news and culture today. Allergen awareness is a focus of agencies, such as Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), food journalists, blogs like AllergyEats, and scholars. Each of these groups keeps an eye on the increasing impact of food allergies on the U.S. and specifically, the restaurant and consumer food packaging industries.

Whether you are a restaurant owner or you manage employees in the food packaging industry, it’s important to invest in the time and strategies to train your staff on this topic. Here on for six easy ways to promote customer allergen awareness with your team:

1. Make orientation fun and useful

Educate your staff on the importance of customer allergen awareness from day one of the employee’s hire. Consider presentations or exercises that incorporate role-playing, like tasking your employees with acting out various scenarios in a controlled environment and allowing them to test how they would manage potential conflict. That way, when the real-life scenarios come around, employees will feel prepared to act.

In one scenario, a customer may have a bad reaction to a menu item served at the restaurant. Challenge the employee to share what their best plan of action would be based on the restaurant’s food allergy protocol.

2. Use storytelling

To keep employees informed of the latest information on customer allergen awareness, use storytelling in internal communications to educate and spread the word.

A recent TV spot from Face Your Risk uses this technique, taking us through a dramatization of a young girl’s severe allergic reaction to inform and engage viewers.

Another way to use storytelling in the workplace is by displaying colorful informative posters and infographics around the building, or allowing employees to share stories on an intranet blog if one is available.

3. Share success stories

Share success stories with your staff of companies like Chipotle and P.F. Chang’s—two restaurant chains that have taken the allergy issue seriously and have reaped the rewards through loyal, allergy-aware customers.

Find a way to bring in—physically or even digitally through a webinar or other methods—leaders from those companies to talk about how they handle allergy awareness at their restaurants.

Also allow employees within your workplace to share their own success stories and provide input. Existing employees likely have more experience with the issue than you think. The more information shared, the more knowledge there is to be gained.

4. Try an internal contest or game

Be sure to keep employees up to date on menus, policies, and practices related to customer allergen awareness frequently. This includes informing them on new and changing menu items, nutritional information, and more, as well as how to access that information through a restaurant website, the POS system, or other alternatives.

During staff meetings, test employees’ knowledge in a fun way, like an internal game of trivia or bingo. Who doesn’t love games?

5. Reward employees

Reward employees when they perform well or go above and beyond in understanding your company’s consumer allergen procedures.

No one loves a pop quiz, but when there are prizes involved, people tend to hate them less. Occasionally use fun pop quizzes at all-staff meetings with topics on allergy awareness procedures. You could include questions like: “What are the menu item ingredients? What are the various hidden names of wheat and gluten—common sources of consumer food allergies? What are the FDA’s most recent rules on X topic? What is the restaurant’s policy on Y scenario?” Reward them with prizes and incentives when they answer correctly.

You know your staff, so you can decide whether you want to give them a bag of candy or other incentives, such as a day off or a holiday bonus.

6. Offer learning opportunities outside the workplace

Think outside of the box to offer employees/chefs/staff additional learning incentives outside the walls of the workplace. These opportunities could include lectures, video screenings, live events, trainings, conferences, program certifications designed to promote allergy-awareness, and more. These give employees a chance to get “out of the office” and be exposed to real-life information that will increase their food allergy knowledge. Employees who are well versed on the topic will inspire other staff.

While it may seem like a costly investment to send employees off-site for these “extra” opportunities, it will cost your business a lot more if something goes wrong in the workplace from a lack of knowledge and understanding on allergen awareness.


A final piece of advice is to understand the market holistically. When it comes to being attentive toward food allergies, know that your restaurant’s approach affects more than just one person with a food allergy—it affects entire families. This, at its core, is a business motivator. If it’s the kid with allergies that gets to pick where the family goes for dinner, you’re actually getting more than one new customer that night—you’re getting the family.

Whether you have a solid plan in place to approach customer allergen awareness with your staff, or you don’t even know where your menu items’ ingredients are posted in the restaurant, there are improvements to be made. Look at your procedures, update them, seal everything properly, and be diligent.

Expert Takes, Feature