Years ago, while working as a server, I waited on a customer with particularly specific requests. Because of food allergies, she couldn’t eat tomatoes, garlic or onion.
The challenge: We were in an Italian restaurant where those three ingredients were in nearly every dish.
It was difficult, but with some creative suggestions from her and a few conversations with the kitchen staff, we found a suitable meal and she left healthy and happy.
But under other circumstances, things might not have ended so well. Take the story a friend told me lately. One of her family members, a woman with pretty severe food allergies, was so furious with a restaurant’s rude refusal to make her a simple, safe dish—plain pasta with veggies—that she and her husband walked out midmeal and vowed never to return.
Clearly, it doesn’t take much to separate a successful dining experience from a negative one, especially when the sensitive subject of food allergies is involved. Even when a guest isn’t in any physical danger, a poorly handled interaction could have a damaging effect on your business.
On the flip side, people with food allergies, a group estimated to number more than 12 million in the United States, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, can be fiercely loyal to the places that make them feel comfortable.
As consumers become more educated about sensitivities to such things as nuts, soy, shellfish and gluten, restaurants need to be prepared not only to meet the minimum requirements to keep them healthy, but also to create a hospitable environment.
A number of restaurants are already making an effort. Flat Top Grill, a build-your-own stir-fry chain, devotes a large portion of its menu board and in-store signage to allergy dos and don’ts. Uno Chicago Grill lists both gluten-free and allergy-friendly dishes on its website. Chef Ming Tsai, who has a child with food allergies, has carefully cataloged the recipes and ingredients in every dish at his fine-dining concept Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Mass., to help people with allergies make wise choices.
But it doesn’t always take such dramatic measures to cater to the growing number of allergy-aware diners. In fact, one of the most powerful tools is basic staff education. Do your servers know which cuts of meat are marinated and which are not? Do they know what type of oil is used in the fryers? Could they confidently suggest a dish for someone with a peanut allergy? A reaction to shellfish? Celiac disease?
Educating servers and empowering them to make creative tweaks and offer appropriate alternatives is an easy, cost-effective way to assure your guests’ well-being—not to mention the health of your business.— [email protected]