A Guide to Accommodating Guests With Food Allergies

Beata Grace Beatty

Beata Grace Beatty

Beata is a Florida-based freelance writer. When she’s not researching and pitching story ideas, she’s reading, walking on the beach, fiddling with home projects, and keeping up with her two daughters.

Service, building trust with your customers, and great food are a recipe for a restaurant’s success. One of the most significant obstacles to this simple recipe can be a guest’s food allergies.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report the number of people with food allergies increased by 50 percent between 1997 and 2011. Thirty-two million Americans have a food allergy – one in 13 children. But theres one even more alarming statistic: Nearly half of food-allergy-related deaths occur in restaurants.

When you’re opening a new restaurant, the last thing you want to consider is killing a patron. But it’s something every owner must keep in mind when developing best practices and training staff.

Avoiding food allergies

Build guest trust by putting the best practices in place

It’s no longer an option to rely on customers to manage this epidemic individually. Restaurant owners should build trust and invest in preemptive plans to accommodate guests with allergies. Managers must train employees, have clear and open communication with guests and staff, and strongly consider having crisis management plans when guests have allergic reactions.

When customers trust that restaurant owners, managers and staff will take care of their needs, they will return and recommend new customers. Strategies to attract, retain, and serve patrons may be simple — however, they are useless if not consistently executed. Empathetic and diligent practices will build trust and build your business.

Recognize food allergy myths versus reality.

Myth: Food allergies are not serious.

Wrong. Allergies range from mild discomfort at anaphylaxis, and staff should take all mentions of allergies or sensitivities seriously. Shockingly, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency room every three minutes.

Myth: Eating a tiny bit of the offending food is okay.

Even cross-contamination can lead to an extreme allergic reaction. It’s not about eating a whole bite of an ingredient. Sometimes, offending ingredients cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted.

Myth: Food labels list all allergy-inducing ingredients.

Actually, federal law only requires the top eight (milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish) offending foods to be clearly marked on labels. Customers and restaurant staff should be aware of the ingredients that packaging “may contain.”

Train staff to open communication with guests with food allergies

Studies show that most restaurant owners, managers, and staff can do more to reduce allergic reactions. An Environmental Health Specialists Network (EHS-Net) study found that less than half of surveyed restaurant staff had proper training about food-borne allergies, and most restaurants did not have dedicated areas or equipment for preparing allergy-free foods.

Owners, managers, and customers all benefit when they embrace an attitude of accommodating guests with allergies. Prep kitchen, train staff, and communicate with customers. In general, research shows that employee attitudes are positive and staff can identify when customers are having allergic reactions, but a clear communication and action plan is always valuable.

Develop a risk management plan

One comprehensive Food Allergy and Education (FARE) guide suggests owners and managers consider the following when creating a risk management plan:

  • Who will answer diner questions regarding the menu?
  • Who will be in charge of knowing ingredients in menu items?
  • What steps should the kitchen staff follow to avoid contamination?
  • How does staff handle an allergic reaction?

Training is essential for all staff

Servers must keep in mind that food allergies are allergic disorders, not food preferences. Food allergies are severe in some people. Servers should be understanding, listen carefully, and answer questions with care. They should show care but not be intrusive — because many diners do not want to bring attention to their allergy.

A manager or designated employee should handle questions and special requests from diners with food allergies. Other staff members should be aware of the individual but direct questions to the point person. These point people should know the ingredients menu items contain and be vigilant that staff throughout the restaurant is implementing all risk plans. Sometimes, when employees have done all they can to accommodate guests, they may still have to let them know that they cannot guarantee a safe meal.

Perhaps the most critical staff equipped to prevent allergic reactions are the back-of-the-house staff (anyone who works in the kitchen). Guests, waitstaff, and managers depend on the chef for information about ingredients, cooking methods, and food-preparation safety (avoiding cross-contamination).

Be prepared for the worst-case scenario

Even when all has been done to mitigate a customer’s allergic reaction situations, there will be emergencies. If this happens, call emergency medical services and get medical help immediately. Make sure you have a designated staff member who knows how to use an Epi-Pen and knows that they are responsible for calling 911.

State laws regarding Epi-Pens vary, but many states, including California, allow restaurants to keep these life-saving medical devices on hand in the rare case of a life-threatening allergic reaction.  If your state permits it, having an auto-injector is worth the investment.

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