Eating out should be a relaxing experience where guests sit back, order freely and enjoy their meal. For those with food allergies, though, it is rarely quite that carefree. For the estimated 15 million U.S. consumers with a food allergy, a restaurant can prove to be a very challenging environment. A survey conducted at the 2007 Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network conference found that 34% of the 294 respondents had experienced at least one food allergic reaction in a restaurant. A different study revealed that nearly half of fatal food allergic reactions over a 13-year period were caused by food from a restaurant or other food service establishment.
And the stakes are high for the restaurant. If you mishandle the situation, your best case is a ruined evening out and a lost customer, but your worst case could be dire. With food allergic reactions accounting for as many as 30,000 ER visits each year and as many as 200 deaths, it's important to get your allergy preparations right.
So far, only four states (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Michigan, Virginia) and a handful of cities have enacted legislation concerning allergen safety in restaurants. So how can a restaurant proactively serve this segment? In a word: transparency.
Anything you can do to shed light on your prep process and ingredient lists will be helpful. This consumer segment is intensely scrutinous and inquisitive, and they have to be. So have the information as readily available as possible. That may be as simple as ensuring waitstaff are familiar with company-approved answers to questions, or you may choose to go further.
For instance, are you able to provide a list of each ingredient for each of your dishes, and are you able to confirm the source and preparation methods for each of your ingredients? Some restaurants are able to provide the actual labels with clear allergen statements to their patrons upon request. Consider whether you are able to do this at the time of ordering or ahead of time when the guest is researching dining options.
Consider also how food is prepared in your kitchen. Do you maintain a separate location to prepare allergy-free dishes? Be sure you can answer questions around cleaning and cross-contamination, as well. What other dishes are prepared there? How often is it cleaned? Ready access to this information will help put allergen-aware guests at ease.
Perhaps most important is staff training. Staff should be regularly trained for food allergen safety and allergen awareness, and consistently reminded of safe food handling procedures. No amount of process will keep guests safe if it does not become a way of doing business. This is also a good time mention that you should research your state's regulations in terms of staff training, supplemental allergen awareness training, and any signage required to maintain compliance.
With an estimated 10% of the population directly affected by a food allergy, it’s important that the restaurateur does everything possible to properly and safely serve this segment. Often, that means empowering your staff and your customer. Empower your staff with adequate training and awareness so they can assist the guest appropriately and empower your allergy-aware guests with whatever information that they may need to sit back order freely and enjoy their meal.
Everyone will be better for it.