The issue for food-allergic individuals and restaurants alike, and how to solve it.

The image above is just one example of how individuals impacted by food allergies find themselves sans compass. I see the names of the different flavors, but how do I know which ones include the allergens my son needs to avoid?

I can make an educated guess that “Gotta Have Nutella” has tree nuts, but in the world of food allergies one never assumes. Since 40 percent of children with food allergies are allergic to more than one of the allergens within the top 9, guests impacted by food allergies are typically looking to rule out not just one allergen from menu items, but potentially two, three, or four different allergens.

The last time I tried treating my food-allergic son to a scoop of gelato, the manager who I asked which flavors didn’t have peanuts, told us in a manner described as nothing less than abrasive, that we should assume that “every single flavor has cross-contamination with peanut.”

Now, I certainly understand, and fully appreciate someone who is trying to be overly cautious when it comes to food allergies, but I also could have gone without the blatant cross-contamination warning because to be honest, it ended up being a total buzzkill to what was supposed to be a fun moment for my son and me.

I know my son, and I am familiar with the severity of his allergies enough to know when we can still have things that otherwise forewarn of cross-contamination. In our case, we need to avoid peanuts that are listed as an intentional ingredient. And here I go explaining myself all over again, when really, I shouldn’t have to!

What would have been ideal is if we didn’t even have to bother the manager about which flavors contained said allergens. It’s not like the ingredients are changing from one day to the next, what would be so hard about just listing which of the top nine allergens are contained in each flavor? They don’t even need to write the word “wheat” they could just use a cute little wheat symbol, or milk, or peanuts, you get the idea. This way, guests can quickly and easily identify which items to avoid, or in the case of a restaurant menu, potentially alter.

Imagine how much time-savings it would mean for a paid employee or manager (especially amid a nationwide staffing shortage), by not having to personally answer questions that can be answered with something as simple as a symbol. And of course, a warning about the potential for cross-contamination can easily be addressed with a sign at the bottom of the menu or case so that individuals impacted by a severe food allergy will be able to make an informed decision as to whether “all those cross-contaminated flavors with peanut” are worth the risk or not.

Dining Out with Food Allergies

Non-definitive answers are not just a problem for guests who are forced to decide whether to take 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.

If you’re a food allergy parent, you know the struggle. Our dining-out experience consists of interviewing the server, manager, or owner and then fact-checking it all until we feel like we have enough assurance that we can make our order with confidence. And let’s face it, by then the appeal of eating out has left us exhausted and bitter about how ridiculous the whole ordeal is.

Fortunately, there are a few restaurants out there who are starting to get it and are trying to tailor to “people like us.”

Whether it’s by offering an allergen menu like this one from Short Stack Eatery (Madison, Wis.) which provides immediate ingredient transparency for menu items containing any of the top 9 allergens; or by employing the use of apps such as OneDine which national chains like bartaco currently use to enable guests to directly inform the kitchen of which specific allergens they need to avoid; or just concepts that are based on the premise of allergy-friendly, like Frío Gelato (Chicago).

As a food allergy parent, I am grateful to see that there are some restaurants out there that are setting an example of inclusion for others to follow. The food allergy community at large can only hope that it is just a matter of time until other restaurants start to follow suit. 

As both a marketer and food allergy parent, Katie Moreno has been navigating her way through the chaos and confusion of food allergies for the past seven years. She believes restaurants have the potential to convert people impacted by food allergies from one-time visitors into some of their most loyal customers, but restaurants need to win them over first. She currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin. Find more stories from Katie on Medium:

Expert Takes, Feature, Menu Innovations