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Can Your Restaurant Expertly Accommodate Food-Allergic Guests?

publication date: Mar 12, 2017
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author/source: Francine Shaw

salmon dish

A hot trend in the restaurant/food service industry is accommodating food-allergic guests. There's no denying that food allergies are becoming increasingly prevalent in our society. According to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), it's estimated that, today, an estimated 15 million Americans have food allergies. The "Big 8" foods - responsible for 90% of all allergic responses - are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish. Sesame is another common allergen, and manufacturers may soon label for the presence of this ingredient, as well. While these allergens are most common, people can also have severe - even life-threatening - allergic reactions to a wide variety of foods and even spices.

As a result, food allergy training is slowly being mandated across the US, which is a positive thing for food-allergic customers, as well as the restaurants that serve them. Everyone in your restaurant - including the owner, chefs, kitchen staff, servers and hosts - should take food allergies seriously! All staff members should be aware of your food allergy protocols, and be properly trained around accommodating guests with special dietary restrictions. Emphasize to your staff that if a food-allergic guest ingests even a trace amount of their food allergen, it can trigger a reaction - and in severe cases, even death.

One of the most important components of a proper food safety protocol is avoiding cross-contact. The main difference between cross-contact and cross-contamination is that anyone can become ill from cross-contamination if they eat foods that have touched raw meats or poultry. Cross-contact is dangerous only for food-allergic guests, who may inadvertently ingest their allergens if proper care wasn't taken during food prep.

Be certain that your staff understands the difference between cross-contact and cross-contamination:

  • Cross-contact occurs when an allergen is inadvertently transferred from a food containing an allergen to a food that does not contain the allergen - such as chopping peanuts on a board and then chopping vegetables on that same board. The vegetables have come into contact with the peanuts, which could trigger an allergic reaction in a guest with peanut allergies. Cooking does not reduce or eliminate the risk of cross-contact.
  • Cross-contamination is a common factor in the cause of foodborne illness. If you place raw chicken on a board, and then chop vegetables on that same board, you risk cross-contamination, spreading bacteria from the raw poultry onto the vegetables. Proper cooking of the contaminated food in most cases will reduce or eliminate the chances of a foodborne illness.

Here are a few tips to make your restaurant more allergy-friendly:

  • Communicate with your guests and staff. Communication is critical - from the moment the guest walks into the door until they receive their meal. Hosts and servers should always ask if there are any food allergies in the party and, if so, should clearly communicate that to the manager and chef. The kitchen staff should be in constant communication through the entire process of cooking, plating and serving the meal.
  • Create a separate workspace in your kitchen to prepare allergen-free/gluten-free meals. Make certain you clean and sanitize all work surfaces and equipment.
  • Store common food allergens in a separate area of the kitchen.
  • Utilize color coded allergy tools in your kitchens to reduce the risk of cross-contact. Purple is the universal color for allergen-free kitchen utensils. Keep these tools clean, covered and stored away from flours, nuts and other common allergens.
  • Don't use the same fryer or oil for French fries that you use for breaded products, fish or foods containing nuts.
  • NEVER guess or try to be nice by offering assurance when you are not certain if an item contains an allergen. Better to say "I don't know," and then double check when you are unsure. Offer to look at labels for the diner. If needed, bring the package to the diner to read.
  • Be aware of multiple and complex allergies. Your team may have mastered cooking and serving a dairy-free or gluten-free meal, but they should also be able to expertly handle multiple and unusual allergies.
  • Recognize that many hand lotions contain common allergens such as tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soy; therefore they should not be kept in the kitchen or used by your staff during their shift.
  • Serve allergen-free/gluten-free meals on different-shaped or different-colored plates so they can be easily identified by servers.
  • Make certain all dishware is properly washed, rinsed, and sanitized prior to reuse.
  • Educate your entire staff about allergen "aliases" - for instance, whey and casein are dairy products, and semolina contains gluten.
  • Be willing to modify dishes for food-allergic guests, using different sauces, sides or other components to accommodate their special dietary restrictions.
  • Train your team on food allergy protocols. There are numerous on-line classes, webinars, videos, and live classes that can assist you with this endeavor.

It's vital that everyone on your team knows how to expertly handle orders for guests with food allergies. Food-allergic consumers (and their families) are seeking accommodating restaurants, where they can dine worry free. By becoming more allergy-friendly, these establishments will increase customer loyalty and, ultimately, profits.



Francine ShawFrancine L. Shaw is the President of Food Safety Training Solutions, Inc., which offer a robust roster of services, including food safety training food safety inspections, norovirus policies for employees, norovirus clean-up procedures, curriculum development, responsible alcohol service training, and more. The Food Safety Training Solutions team has more than 100 combined years of industry experience in restaurants, casinos, and convenience stores. The company has helped numerous clients, including Paradies Lagardère, McDonald's, Subway, Marriott, Domino's, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts of America, Dairy Queen, and Omni Hotel and Resorts, prevent foodborne illnesses. Additionally they work with restaurants, schools, medical facilities, convenience stores, hotels and casinos.