Food Allergens: Ignore Them at Your Own Risk

Food Allergens: Ignore Them at Your Own Risk

By Andy Cook

“I have an allergy to…”

For the dining room server, hearing this ranks in frequency with “What kinds of hot teas do you have?” For cooks, it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of the “SEE SERVER” modifier.

Granted, there are the few who’ll claim a severe allergy to carbs… as they drink their previously ordered Hefeweizen. But the fact of the matter is that, according to the Center for Disease Control, 15 million Americans are at risk for fatal foodborne allergic reactions. That’s fatal, not hives, not swelling – a person’s life could end.

The most vulnerable dining demographic are young adults, particularly tweens and teenagers as many food-related allergies emerge at this stage in life. Studies show that one in 13 children are afflicted with possibly fatal allergies, up 50 percent since 2000. Still, no one gets a lifetime pass, as allergies can onset at any age.

In terms that directly connect this growing concern to your food service operation, the CDC offers an alarming statistic: There are some 300,000 allergy-related ambulance calls annually in the U.S., half of which are calls to restaurants.  In most cases, restaurant staff were not informed of the allergy by the guest.

This leaves us, the hospitality professionals, in a difficult position.

Let’s start with the obvious. Even when guests know they have serious allergies, they sometimes fail to mention it. Maybe they’re too socially awkward and can’t bring themselves to speak out for themselves. They may read the menu like a spec sheet; it’s not. It’s a menu, a marketing sheet. To us, it’s obvious, but to many of our guests, it’s not. We can’t control a guest’s failure to disclose, but we can minimize other risks by educating ourselves and our staff.

Many restaurants have menus with innocuous icons alerting guests to the presence of top line allergies, such as peanuts or shell fish. This practice does double duty by reminding diners with more obscure allergies that they should follow up with their server.

The savvy server will read social cues fed to them while recording the guest’s order. If the diner is adamant about excluding an ingredient, train your newer wait staff to mirror the practices of the pros, and follow up with the question, “Are you allergic?”

For your back-of-house warriors, instill a culture of cooperation on this topic. It’s vital to your operations that they prioritize open communication with the wait staff when this topic is introduced to an order. The same diners who are socially awkward enough to not mention an allergy they suffer from have a counterpart on your wait staff who’s too socially awkward (or intimidated) to advocate on their behalf to the line cooks.

It’s also important to note that gel sanitizers are not effective in removing food allergens. The CDC recommends hand washing with soap and water to remove allergens from hands.

It’s also smart to provide staff with allergen training. While there are precious few resources for that, the best we’ve seen, and the one we endorse, is the little known ServSafe Allergens. This online course costs only $22 per student and covers such topics as identifying allergens, communication with the guest and preventing cross-contact.

Whatever you do, don’t be the British restaurateur who was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years for the peanut-induced death of his regular guest. He and his staff were aware of the man’s allergy to peanuts and had experience modifying menu items for him. The restaurateur, in an attempt to save money, switched out a few products, including one that contained peanuts.

Be smart. Be safe.

Smart Allergy-Friendly Practices

Accommodating customers with food allergies is no small task. More than 250 food allergens have been identified, and 15 million Americans diagnosed with food allergies look to dine where they feel safe. This large market needs to feel confident in your restaurant’s food safety protocol. When you go the extra mile to meet guests’ needs, strong customer loyalty and repeat business result. Here are a few key takeaways from experts who spoke on food allergens at last year’s National Restaurant Association Hotel-Motel Show:

Train your staff how to handle food allergens. A reputable program such as ServSafe Allergens drives home critical information you need to keep your restaurant safe for guests. “Incorporate your employees into your process. They start buying into it and feel more confident in what they’re doing,” says William Weichelt, ServSafe director.

Involve a certified manager for the entire duration of your guest’s visit. He or she acts as a knowledge center on behalf of your restaurant and creates an open, honest dialogue with customers. A trained manager should be present during every shift. Training other front-of-house and back-of-house employees is also recommended.

Create a back-of-house system for allergen-specific equipment. Consider using color-coded, allergen-specific plateware, prepware and other equipment. If a guest is concerned about cross-contamination, you can offer to show him or her your allergen-specific tools.

Make ingredient lists available to guests. They know their allergy better than you do, and thus will likely know the names of ingredients or sub-ingredients that may be red flags for them.

Sub-out widely used allergens. If possible, isolate ingredients or recipes that could trigger a common allergy. For example, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro now uses wheat-free soy in lieu of regular soy in all of its marinades.

Never guess. If employees are asked a food allergy question that they can’t answer, they should reach out to a manager who can. If your restaurant cannot confidently satisfy a guest’s request, expressly communicate this.  As Patrick Yearout, panel moderator and director of training at the Seattle-based Ivar’s Restaurants said, “You’re not going to be the right place for everyone, but try to make your restaurant the right place to go for as many people as possible.”

Invest in allergy-specific technology.  POS systems are now available with an allergen key. When pressed by a front-of-house staffer, the back of the house knows of the allergy, and a manager then becomes involved. According to P.F. Chang’s China Bistro chef Jim McCurley, P.F. Chang’s utilizes an allergen matrix that can scrub the menu for allergens, so staff can present allergen-affected guests with a menu tailored to their needs.

For additional information regarding food allergens, go to www.foodallergy.org and www.chart.org, the Council of Hotel and Restaurant Trainers’ website.  You can also access ServSafe Allergens information at www.wraef.org/training/allergy.

(Source: Washington Restaurant Magazine, September 2016 & National Restaurant Association)