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Taking care of customers with food allergies

Before you begin developing a food allergy prevention plan to better serve your customers, remember a few basics. Take all food allergies seriously. Treat all guests with food allergies with respect and understanding. And remember, there are no safe shortcuts when accommodating a guest with food allergies. If someone is allergic to eggs, the food you prepare must not contain even traces of egg or be in contact with utensils or surfaces that have made contact with eggs.

The first step in dealing with food allergies is listening to the customer. That may sound easy, but listening means more than just registering what a guest says. It also means respecting them and responding in such a way that customers know they can trust you. That, in turn, requires a fail-safe line of communication from customer to kitchen and back to the customer.

Take special requests seriously. When a customer announces that he or she has a food allergy, the information should be noted immediately on the ticket. It should then be conveyed directly to the manager. Many people with food allergies call ahead to confirm that a restaurant can accommodate them. The written reservation should include a note about the food allergy.

Put one person in charge. Ideally, the manager should be the point person. When appropriate, an experienced server can also fill that role. At the table, he or she should provide information about ingredients and communicate special instructions to the kitchen staff. The same person should confirm with the kitchen that the meal has been prepared according to instructions and then bring the dish to the customer. The same person should check back to make sure that the dish is satisfactory.

Be honest. If you don’t know what’s in a particular dish, say so. If you need to check with the chef, do so. If after consulting with the chef you have any doubts about whether a dish is safe, be honest. Suggest another dish that you know is safe. In some cases, you may not be able to accommodate a guest with multiple food allergies, especially if they arrive during peak hours. Acknowledge that in an honest and open way.

Make everyone part of the team. Every staff member should be taught the restaurant’s policy on handling food allergies. Training is essential. If you have a high turnover rate, your new employee orientation program should include training in how to accommodate guests with food allergies. Put your plan in writing. Review it on a regular basis with serving staff and kitchen staff. Write out a flow chart to make the lines of communication clear.

Communicate your plan in language everyone can understand. In many restaurants, English is not the first language of some of the kitchen staff. Make sure your food allergy plan is communicated in the language your staff understands.

Learn from your mistakes. Mistakes happen even in restaurants that place a high priority on serving customers with food allergies. “The point is to learn from your mistakes,” said one restaurant operator. “If something goes wrong, investigate to find out how and why it happened. Then make changes to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Three dangerous myths
In a 2006 survey of 100 dining establishments, researchers at the Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine identified a list of commonly held misconceptions among restaurant operators. Among them:

  1. 24 percent believed that consuming small amounts of an allergen is safe. It isn’t. Even minute quantities can cause a reaction in sensitive individuals.
  2. 35 percent believed that fryer heat destroys allergens. It doesn’t. Allergy-provoking substances can remain behind in fryer oil to contaminate foods, for example.
  3. 25 percent believed it was safe to remove an allergen such as shellfish or nuts from a finished meal. It’s not. Trace amounts left behind when food or plates have made contact with allergens can cause trouble.

For more information on dealing with food-allergies, visit www.prochef.com.

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