“Well, there shouldn’t be anything in the salad,” the server said to me without taking my chef card and checking with the kitchen. I then went into an explanation of how serious food allergies are and that I would need him to check with the kitchen, be careful of cross contact, etc. Although it was past the lunch hour, it was busy and I knew it just was not worth the risk. “I can tell you are really busy right now and I think this is probably not the safest time for me to eat here. Thank you anyway though,” I said as I got up to leave.
We all hope that restaurants are willing to accommodate our dietary needs. There are times when it is okay though to say “no thanks” and walk out the door. Food allergies are not something that should be taken lightly at a restaurant and it is important to gauge how you are feeling about it.
There are times that I’ve been told a restaurant would be able to accommodate my multiple food allergies, but in actuality this was not the case. We know that there is always a risk when dining out, but that shouldn’t prevent anyone from finding establishments that are willing to work with you to reduce the risk as much as possible. I believe that restaurants have the best of intentions when they say they can accommodate. This is why it can be confusing for patrons who are told one thing then shown another. There are warning signs or red flags that you should be aware of when dining at a restaurant with food allergies to greater determine your safety.
Warning Sign #1: No Recollection
I’ve called ahead, asked my questions and then were told “no problem” before heading to the restaurant. I arrive, mention my phone conversation but are given a completely blank look. The host has no recollection of my call. She then speaks to the manager who also gives a blank stare, especially when I mention my severe food allergies and being able to accommodate them.
Warning Sign #2: Not Taken Seriously
Although not ideal, sometimes I go to a restaurant and get seated before saying anything about my food allergies. I have already called the restaurant to find out if they can accommodate food allergies but without knowing when I may actually dine there. I’m not always a planner, and life happens sometimes without knowing where I will eat.
At the restaurant, the server then comes over to my table without any prior knowledge. I explain my life-threatening food allergies and that I’ve called to ask if the restaurant could accommodate my needs and was told yes. The server shrugs and asks if I know what I want to order. I choose an entree but mention that if it isn’t safe I am happy to go with the safest option. I also hand over my chef card with all of my food allergies clearly stated. He glances at the card then hands it back to me. The server refuses to take it to the kitchen or to his manager because he says he knows that the meal is safe.
(Note: If the manager does not come to the table, that’s when I will not eat there. Also, if the manager does come to the table but also will not take my chef card and talk to the chef.)
Warning Sign #3: “Got it”
There are some restaurants where the server writes nothing down about my order. He says he’s “got it” and will let the kitchen know about my food allergies. This doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t eat there, but I will ask to talk to the manager or chef to confirm my order. Sometimes the server refuses, feeling like he is being undermined. If that doesn’t happen and I can’t get any confirmation, then I trust my gut which usually says “don’t risk it.”
Warning Sign #4: The Mistake
When food comes out, I always confirm what they are handing me and then I look it over. If I don’t know what something is, I ask. Sometimes my food will come out with a side that I’m allergic to (typically something potato- fries or chips). This is a warning to me that they might not “get it.” However, I’ve also made the mistake of not asking if anything comes on the side and forgetting to request a different option. This is why communication is so important. We have now both potentially made a mistake. What then gets tricky is figuring out if they just changed plates or re-made my dish. It depends on the food and the situation, but if it comes right back out a few minutes later, I am usually pretty certain it is the same food with potential cross contact. Be aware of this, ask all the questions, and trust how you feel about it.
Warning Sign #5: Cross Contact
The previous warning sign leads me into this one. Sometimes I will go to an establishment where I can tell they do not understand cross contact. The risk that an allergen has touched a safe dish without taking the proper precautions does not make the dish safe. Some people understand that while others need more education on the risks and importance of clean utensils, surfaces, etc. to make a dish food allergy safe. I find that this tends to happen in cafes more often than restaurants. This is different than being told the liability statement (that some will say about not being able to guarantee safety, etc. which is probably worth a separate blog post at some point). If I can tell they don’t understand the preparation component, I take that as a sign that it is not worth the risk.
Although there are more than just these red flags, I would say that these are what I come across most often. It is important to remember when dining out that this is not one-sided. I need to make sure to communicate my needs clearly and they need to listen and think through if they can safely accommodate. Everyone has a job to do when dining out. With food allergies, it is a team effort!
What red flags have you noticed that have stopped you in your tracks when dining out with food allergies? Share in the comments to help us all be aware of the signs!
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Great article and wonderful comment from David Sandusky (thank you, Mr. Sandusky for your exceptional service to our community).
You mention some classic dining scenarios in your article and we’ve experienced all of them. We’ve found it’s just easier from the getgo to involve the manager. As you mention, some servers take offense to this. When this happens I apologize and mention the seriousness of the allergies and tell of our near fatal experience in the ER when we weren’t careful enough.
It’s very difficult and even painful to decide to leave a restaurant as it’s our nature to be assertive and avoid defeat, particularly when protecting our children. When we do, there’s lots to lose. Often we’re with other people who might become perturbed, or we have an even hungrier brood to feed, and most importantly our disabled children experience defeat due to their FAs. That sense of defeat and the frustration leading up to it is something we as a community should address. It is defeat..every time we enter a dining establishment we’ve placed ourselves on an obstacle course of sorts, often in unknown territory and with unknown players. It’s maddenimg when people could easily accommodate us but choose to be unhelpful or even mean. It’s heartbreakkmg when our children, who have to live with this disease, experience callous adults unwilling to help.
I agree that the blanket, lazy statement, “We can’t guarantee…” is worthy of a separate article. I don’t buy it…if you’re serving the public then make accommodations to the extent that you can. To this statement my retort is, “actually nowhere can guarantee. I need to feed my child and if you would be kind enough to help us find something safe to eat I’d really appreciate it.” If the person insists they really can’t accommodate and I leave, i take my frustration to Allergy Eats, Google reviews, etc.
Eating out for FA people is a tall order. I recall a FA celebrity in an interview once saying that coping with the disdain of people is a big part of living with the disease. While I don’t wish this disease on anyone it’s comforting to know even celebrities go thorough this and understand.
Thank you for allowing me, as a restaurateur, insight into your red flags. At BEAST Craft BBQ Co. (fast-casual) we’ve addressed several of these. I’m posting so others I’m the business can evaluate their program appropriately.
1. We use our own “Custom Meal Planner” that addresses 24 allergens or restrictions – even down to salt or sugar.
2. We supply our own allergen cards. We will accept yours, but we provide one for every allergen concern.
3. The manager visits with the person with the restriction to understand the order fully, then takes the allergen card to the chef who requires the staff to change their gloves & clean their boards in a detergent from a purple bucket. Sanitizer only kills bacteria and microbes – we’re trying to eliminate proteins, to be clear.
4.The chef watches the whole process, then personally approves the plate.
5. The chef delivers the plate personally, explaining the process of preparation, and forming relationship with the client in order to gain trust, and give the client opportunity to discover any issues.
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