According to the advocacy organization Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), food allergies affect an estimated 32 million Americans, including one out of every 13 children under the age of 18.
While the severity of food allergies can vary greatly from person to person, many food allergy reactions are serious to the point of being life-threatening. Each year in the US, roughly 200,000 people have allergic reactions to food that require emergency medical attention. Furthermore, the majority of these reactions are triggered by food consumed outside the home, which results in a cost to businesses of about $25 million per year (in lawsuits, fines, or business closures).
Given these statistics, it’s hardly surprising to find that food allergies are a major source of concern for the restaurant industry. However, restaurants should be aware that, if handled correctly, food allergies can also represent a smart business opportunity. In other words, when customers find a restaurant that accommodates their allergies safely and respectfully, they will usually reward that establishment with long-term loyalty.
Some of the best practices restaurants can adopt in order to deal more effectively with food allergies include the following:
1. Understand what allergies are all about.
The first step to successfully accommodating customers with food allergies is to understand what allergies are all about. This means that restaurants need to do their homework to separate the facts about allergies from the myths and misconceptions.
For example, many people tend to confuse food allergies with food intolerances, but they are actually quite different. A food allergy is a serious medical condition in which the immune system reacts to something, usually a protein, in a particular food. A food intolerance, on the other hand, tends to involve the digestive system rather than the immune system. Food intolerances can cause pain and discomfort, but they are not immediately life-threatening—food allergies are.
2. Know your allergens.
Eight particular foods (known informally as “The Big Eight”) are responsible for about 90 percent of allergic reactions in the US. These major allergens are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish. However, another important thing to understand about food allergies is that people can be allergic to just about anything, no matter how strange—lettuce and gelatin are just two examples of uncommon foods that can nevertheless trigger a severe reaction.
3. Educate and train staff.
Because restaurant staff members are the ones dealing directly with customers, it’s essential that they receive comprehensive, ongoing education and training on food allergies and how to deal with them. Servers need to understand the importance of taking allergy issues seriously, as well as the potential consequences of not doing so. They also need to feel supported by the other personnel in the restaurant. For example, servers should always feel permitted to double check with the chef about whether or not a dish contains a particular allergen.
When it comes to food allergies, there is no such thing as too much communication. Restaurant staff should take every possible opportunity to check with customers about food allergies, as allergic reactions tend to occur when customers don’t notify servers about their allergies and choose instead to rely on the menu. Proactively encouraging customers to alert restaurant staff about any food allergies can help avoid situations where an allergic reaction occurs because of a last-minute menu substitution or similar change.
5. Create ingredient lists.
Customers with less common food allergies may feel more comfortable seeing a list of ingredients before they order a particular dish, so it’s helpful for restaurants to ensure that this information is easily accessible. Ingredient lists are also a useful reference tool for servers, who may not always be able to remember offhand whether a dish does or doesn’t contain certain allergens.
6. Develop a procedure for special orders.
A set plan should be put in place for situations where a special order needs to be prepared for a customer with a food allergy. For example, a restaurant’s ticket system can be set up to feature warnings that highlight the allergy, which can, in turn, prompt kitchen staff to put on gloves before preparing the order and use freshly sanitized work surfaces. Other options include creating special, alternative menus that can be supplied to customers with particular food allergies, such as nut-free options for those who have nut allergies. This can make it easier for customers to order safely, and it also boosts awareness of the allergy among restaurant and kitchen staff.
7. Have an emergency plan.
Even when food allergy best practices are adopted and implemented correctly, it’s impossible to completely eliminate the possibility that an allergic reaction will occur. It’s therefore vital that restaurants create an emergency plan that can be put into action in the event a customer has a severe reaction on the premises. Whatever steps the plan involves, such as immediately contacting emergency services or using an EpiPen from the restaurant’s medical supply kit, they should be clearly written down and easily accessible. Moreover, they should be addressed during staff allergy training.