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Handling guest allergies and returned dishes

Question:

Recently I have been getting plates coming back to the kitchen because guests with allergies don’t disclose them when they order. Should I bear the cost of them not disclosing their allergies? What should I do?

– Abby Singh, Owner-Manager, Canteen 900, Forty Fort, PA

Answer:

Clearly there’s a lack of communication happening here. Guests do not know what potential allergens the menu items contain from the description, servers are not asking guests about their allergies or do not know the allergens that each menu item contains, and/or guests are being irresponsible in not letting the servers know about their allergies.

At this point, I think you have to absorb the cost of these returned items. Charging guests for food they do not eat, even if they should not have ordered it, will create a public relations mess for you, especially with the speed and prevalence of social media.

Given that returned food items due to allergies is an unexpected and frustrating expense, let’s work on clearing up the communication breakdown to minimize these problems in the future:

  • Post prominently on the menu, at the host station, or wherever you can, the message, “Please notify your server of any allergies when you order.” Some guests may simply need the reminder or will assume that a menu item is free of a particular allergen so will not bother inquiring.
  • Train servers on which menu items contain common allergens: peanuts, tree nuts, milk, fish, shellfish, eggs, and soy. Simple pre-shift quizzes like, “Which soups are dairy-free?” will help.
  • Be sure menu titles and descriptions include the main ingredients, especially if there are “hidden” allergens such as anchovies in a salad dressing, dried shrimp in a packaged curry paste, or cream in a vegetable puree.
  • Teach servers to inquire. While it is invasive and impractical to ask most guests about their dietary restrictions, a guest that has a number of questions about ingredients may be fishing for allergens. Train your servers to ask those guests, “Do you have any food allergies or dietary restrictions that we should know about?”
  • If this is a widespread problem, make an allergen menu available upon request as multi-unit operations do.

To be sure, guests have a responsibility to take ownership of their dietary needs and communicate them to the staff. A friend allergic to soy gives cards to restaurant staff printed in English, Spanish, and Chinese explaining his allergy and its seriousness. Frustratingly, not all guests communicate their needs so clearly, so it becomes incumbent upon you to get the conversation started.

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