A man walks down a New York City street, considering his lunch options when a poster in a Subway window catches his eye. It advertises a chicken pizziola sub—featuring chicken, American cheese, and pepperoni, covered in marinara sauce. His tastebuds suitably tickled, he ventures in. A mole in the Undercover Service Report, the man mentions a soy allergy to the first crew member in the line. The man scrunches his face, not understanding the question. The guest repeats it. Language appears to be an issue. After the guest asks about the presence of soy a third time, the staffer's face lights up—apparently, he finally understands.
"You want soy sauce!" he says.
Some 11 million Americans suffer from food allergies, and more than 30,000 end up in hospitals each year after coming in contact with certain allergens, whether it's nuts, milk, gluten, soy, or something else. As many as 200 of them die each year. While a good number of the allergy sufferers play it safe by preparing all meals at home, many more still want to enjoy a meal out in a restaurant with friends and loved ones.
Knowing the potential damage of being linked to a serious food allergy incident—whether it's millions of people reading a news story, or a full dining room watching a guest in anaphylactic shock stretchered out of the place—many restaurants have taken precautions. Some have highlighted common allergens such as nuts on their menus, while others have had them removed from the restaurant entirely.
But whether it's a sandwich maker, cashier, or server, it's the front line-workers who are the first line of defense in the food allergy battle. So we sent a dozen scouts out, armed with fictitious food allergies, to find out just how prepared restaurants in all segments are when an allergy is mentioned. While many proved that allergy awareness is very much a part of their training program, others showed that allergic guests might well be playing with their lives by dining there.
First, the good news. A phone call to an Applebee's in Milledgeville, GA, during which the caller asked if certain menu items contained soy, prompted the staffer to make four separate trips to look "on the box" (presumably, shipping containers with lists of ingredients) to make sure the dishes were safe—all the while staying pleasant amidst lunch rush. "I could've mentioned 10 menu items, and I sensed she would've patiently helped with all of them," said the scout.
Several scouts encountered servers that were similarly equipped with some sort of ingredients list or allergy guide. Told of a gluten allergy, a P.F. Chang's staffer in Glen Mills, PA whipped out his gluten-free menu to offer suggestions. At Au Bon Pain in New York, the cashier calmly stepped over to a video monitor to check if the baked potato soup had egg in it. After scrolling through an extensive list of ingredients, she came upon the "Allergen Alert," and gave the soup the OK.
Some scouts sensed that servers had dealt with allergic guests many times in the past. At Outback's casual Bonefish Grill in Sarasota, FL, the server was "patient and very knowledgeable" when presented with questions about a milk allergy, and double-checked with the chef on menu items he was unsure of. At a Big Bowl casual Asian unit in Chicago (part of the Lettuce Entertain You group), the server brought the manager out to the table, where he and the guest pored over the menu to make sure various selections were safe. At a California Pizza Kitchen in San Mateo, CA, a scout remarked on the server's poise after he'd mentioned various allergies.
"He acted like he gets requests like this all the time," said the scout.
Others were not so deft. One scout called trendy O Bar in Los Angeles to make sure a few menu items were "safe" from an egg allergy prior to visiting, prompting the staffer to laugh aloud. "It wasn't a mean laugh," said the scout, "but what was funny?" The scout sensed that the staffer didn't take allergies all that seriously; he said he was "fairly confident" various menu items were free of egg, but admitted he was "not the best person" to answer. He also suggested e-mailing, so the scout did—and received a prompt and courteous note from the executive chef that comprehensively addressed all concerns.
Some restaurants were beyond redemption. Handling a question about a soy allergy, a Quiznos crew member in New York said she'd been on the job a week and had no idea. She consulted with the manager, whose response that nothing on the menu contained soy was greeted with skepticism by the scout. (Quiznos did not return calls.)
It was a similar scene at Hard Rock Café in Vegas, where a phone call mentioning a child's gluten allergy elicited an "I'm not sure what gluten is" from the staffer. She then offered to fax the menu, which never arrived (yes, the fax was working), and suggested a chicken fingers dish for the kid—though the scout had a hunch the meal's breading might contain gluten. (Hard Rock did not return calls.)
"I would've felt better if she'd consulted with the manager," said the scout. "But at least she was pleasant."
Pleasantly uninformed also seemed to describe the Subway guy. After the scout mentioned his soy allergy the fourth time, a three-crew member discussion took place. A staffer emerged from the huddle, and said there was no soy in the sub. (A Subway spokesperson said the staffer should've instructed the guest to contact headquarters or visit the web site.)
"I felt I could've asked if there was chicken in the chicken pizziola sub, and still wouldn't have gotten the right answer," the scout groused.
His concern was well-founded. Several clicks into the Subway web site, a section devoted to food allergies revealed the presence of soy in his sub.