As mentioned in a previous post, the number of people suffering from food allergies is growing at an alarming rate. As a restaurant owner, it is the responsibility of you and your staff to do everything you can to keep your customers safe and to make this health issue a number-one priority. It is not an impossible task, but it is one that requires ongoing diligence and awareness.
Allergy Statistics Reveal the Issue’s Urgency
The top eight allergens are dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, and soy, and the statistics are eye-opening. More than four percent of Americans are allergic to some kind of food; 3.3 million Americans are allergic to peanuts or tree nuts; close to 7 million Americans have seafood allergies; and 1 in 17 kids under the age of 3 has food allergies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that “food allergies account for approximately 300,000 ambulatory care visits in the U.S. each year for children under the age of 18.” In addition, The New York Times recently reported that a new national study suggests that “nearly 52 percent of American adults with a food allergy developed one or more of these allergies after age 18.”
Prepare Your Staff for Food-Allergic Guests
In addition to researching and learning about the subject of food allergies, it’s important to have a plan of action for minimizing the risk of allergic reactions in your restaurant. Take concrete steps to make sure that your entire staff – from waiters and bartenders, to hosts and chefs – understands food allergies and knows how to serve guests who have them. Ensure that your wait staff and kitchen staff communicate clearly to each other when a guest with a food allergy is present.
Training your staff and increasing knowledge of food allergies has to be supplemented with a food allergy protocol so that all your employees know how to address customers who have food allergies. This should be a written policy that is easily accessible to all employees and posted in high-traffic areas. The wait staff should be trained to ask customers about food allergies (yes, even before mentioning the specialties of the day). Your staff cannot assume that a guest with a food allergy will speak up, so it’s important to take the lead on this issue. Ideally, however, you should choose and train a specific person in the restaurant to handle food allergy questions or requests, or send an employee to a workshop for training.
Spread the Word
Once a customer does inform the wait staff of his or her food allergy, everyone on site should become aware of it; the trail of information should reach all the way from the dining table back to the kitchen. During the ordering process, the server at the table should take extra care when describing the menu items, being careful to detail each ingredient. Your restaurant should be able to supply information about the ingredients in every dish. Forget about secret recipes that can never be divulged; transparency is the new black. And, even if the customer orders a “safe” food, the kitchen staff must still be aware of the situation so that precautions are in place to avoid cross-contamination and so on.
Arm Staff with Knowledge about Allergic Reactions
Despite the above protocols, restaurant staff should be trained to recognize the most frequent signs of allergic reactions, such as itching; swelling (of lips, face, tongue and throat, etc.); difficulties breathing; vomiting and other stomach issues; fainting or dizziness. Have a few EpiPens® handy, and don’t neglect to check their expiration dates.
A well-prepared restaurant will conduct periodic drills (which should be taken more seriously than, say, the fire drills we enjoyed as kids in elementary school). Once you have an allergy protocol in place, have occasional mock allergy incidents to test the effectiveness of your program.
Create a Safer Menu
Once you start treating food allergies in your restaurant seriously, you should begin to add dishes that are safe for customers with allergies and sensitivities. Start small: if you want to cater to your gluten-free customers, for instance, begin by offering a small selection of “safe” foods. At first, your wait staff can probably announce these dishes along with the other specials; but if you are conscientious about the matter, you can soon add a free-from section to your menu or – eventually – offer an entirely separate menu for your customers with food allergies.
This may seem like a lot of effort for a segment of the population that could be considered “minor”; however, as word gets out that you are seriously taking the needs of your clients with food allergies into consideration, you may discover the “if you build it they will come” effect taking place, and your restaurant could gain a name as a haven for those “free-from” customers who can’t safely eat elsewhere.
Start With a Treat for the Allergic Customer
You will win over the hearts of children who have allergies to milk, eggs and nuts – and their parents – if you offer a dessert that is safe and tasty. These cookies are not gluten-free, but they look like “real” chocolate chip cookies and they don’t have many of the ingredients that are dangerous for allergic children.
“Free-From” Chocolate Chip Cookies
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- ½ tsp. baking soda
- ¾ tsp. salt
- 1 cup whole wheat flour
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- ½ cup organic whipped butter-like spread, such as Earth Balance brand
- ¾ cup sunflower seed butter, such as SunButter
- ½ cup brown sugar
- ¾ cup powdered (confectioner’s) sugar
- ½ tsp. vanilla extract
- ½ cup dairy-free, nut-free, and soy-free semi-sweet chocolate chips, such as Enjoy Life brand mini-chips
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Mix together baking powder, baking soda, salt and flours. Set aside.
- With a stand mixer, blend buttery spread, sun butter, sugars, and vanilla. Gradually pour the dry mixture into the wet mixture and combine. Stir in chocolate chips.
- Refrigerate dough for 30 minutes. Using a tablespoon or a small scoop, create two dozen dough balls. With the palms of your hands, flatten the balls into disks. Place on parchment-lined cookie sheet.
- Bake cookies for 10-12 minutes. Remove from oven and place cookies on a wire rack to cool.
Take Food Allergies Seriously
It is never too late to implement policies that address food allergies and to promote ways to accommodate your customers with food allergies. Your approach to the matter can be broken down into three major steps: Create a plan/protocol for answering questions from customers with food allergies. Select a specific person in the restaurant to handle food allergy questions and requests. And teach all staff members about the dangers of food allergies. Improving knowledge and creating a positive attitude in your restaurant toward food allergies can ensure that all customers will have a safe dining experience.