When a guest enters a restaurant, whether it is a national chain or a locally owned and operated establishment, they have two expectations: great food and great service. Keep the customer happy and serve them great food and they’ll go away raving about their experience. Most of the time, this is very easy to do. People normally don’t want to cause too much of a fuss, so they’ll order straight from the menu. Sure there are times, when they may ask a general question about an item or ask for no onions or extra cheese (that would be me). There are occasions, however, when there are guest challenges that managers and owners must face. One such challenge is that of guests with allergies. This might not seem like much of a challenge, initially, but when these guests actually have questions and requests, those in charge must be ready with accurate answers and flawless execution of company policies.
In the U.S. there are 8 recognized major allergens (commonly called The Big 8): fish, crustacean, egg, soy, milk, peanut, tree nuts, and gluten. These should not be confused with food sensitivities, such as lactose intolerance. The number of people with one or more of these allergies seems to be growing every day and since the allergic reactions can sometimes be very severe, this population of guests is very careful in regard to what they put in their bodies. Conversely, with the conversation on food allergies becoming more mainstream this same group is becoming braver about eating in different places they might have avoided in the past. This results in more guests with questions on menu items and restaurant procedures. Questions like: This menu item doesn’t mention peanuts, but ARE there any peanuts in it or is it made near peanuts? Can you make this item without the egg? Do you use any milk in your kitchen at all?
Which brings us to the most important question: Are you ready for these types of questions? The answer can be broken down into two parts – preparation and communication.
Knowing where allergens are present is the first step in readying your business for allergen inquiries. If buying ingredients and menu items from a broad-liner or distribution house one should ask them for allergen declarations for all items. In addition all packaged retail food has to declare what allergens are present and should be readily available, so make sure this information is up-to-date. If you make the menu items in house from scratch, the restaurateur should be aware of what ingredients have allergens. Even then, it is a best practice to vet that information using a third-party. Most accredited food laboratories will offer this service for a nominal fee and this analysis should be done by a food scientist or a dietician. For example, only someone who has the proper training and background would be able to identify that soy sauce contains gluten and fish ingredients which may not be readily evident.
Once you have identified where allergens exist the next step is to evaluate cross-contamination in the kitchen area. When determining the inherent risks, remember to evaluate food storage, kitchen tools, space constraints, traffic patterns, and staff abilities. Here are four options to evaluate for avoiding cross-contamination:
- Pre-prepared meals: these are meals that are prepared and packaged by a non-allergen facility specifically for special populations. These foods are even cooked while the package is still sealed and are only opened by the guest when it is brought to their table.
- Sequestering: this would mean that allergen-free menu items (or at least items that don’t contain that specific allergen for certain guests) during their preparation are prepared completely separate from the other meals in the kitchen in their own area. Staff members working in the sequestered area may need to change aprons or other garments after when transferring from the traditional kitchen area. The sequestered area would also need to have its own utensils and cooking vessels.
- Partial Sequester: This would also involve having a separate area in the kitchen for preparing non-allergen food but may involve shared resources like grills or fryers. If this is an option, sanitizing food preparation and food contact areas (i.e. stainless steel, cutting boards, utensils, etc.) before and after allergen free foods are prepared is a must. Again, validation of your cleaning process is highly recommended - swabbing the areas before and after to ensure your standard cleaning procedures are sufficient for removing the allergens of concern.
- Color Coding: having preparation/cooking areas and utensils restricted for certain usage. An example could be; using red knives and cutting boards for fish products, blue spatulas and cutting boards for shellfish, green areas and utensils for pastry or pasta containing wheat/gluten, etc.).
Crystal clear communication (written and verbal) is vital in any environment, but even more so when a guest’s health is at stake. A restaurant’s first line of defense should be to make sure that all items with allergen ingredients be clearly marked on the menu or additional pamphlet. This will alert the guest right away that this menu should be avoided or altered to suit their needs if necessary.
Next, the restaurant should have a plan of action in the event a guest declares they have a food allergy. Initially, staff members should be able to provide complete and accurate information about ingredients in all menu items. This goes for cashiers at the drive-through or a server at a fine dining establishment. However, when a guest has further questions or if a frontline employee does not have the background to fully answer a question, the inquiry should be transferred to the shift manager. He/She should gather all the information about the guest’s special requests and communicate any suggestions to the chef to assure that allergens are avoided on that particular order. The manager should then go back to the guest to confirm their order again and detail what is being done in the kitchen to address their needs. This should assure the guest that they are being taken care of and their concerns have been addressed.
In the internet age, it should be expected that guests will check out the restaurant’s website before they visit. Giving them the ability to go on-line and modify certain items to remove allergens should be considered. Someone with a peanut allergy may see a pad thai salad on the website menu. This is a salad they really want but they also know that it contains a peanut sauce and crushed peanuts. It would probably make them very happy to be given the option to remove those ingredients. This way they know they can go to that establishment and get what they want to eat while also avoiding those allergens.
You can see how this can be very important to your guests. If you work with your service supplier to identify which ingredients contain allergens at a dish level and break it down to know what potential “culprits” exist in specific dishes and giving the guest the option to remove those ingredients in order to create an allergen-free dining experience.
If you have questions about establishing a cleaning protocol for your kitchen or testing for allergens in your menu items, contact us for a free consultation. Our experts will be more than happy to help you in giving your guests a 5-star experience that will keep them coming back and telling others what you can do for them.