Eating out when you have food allergies is an adventure akin to playing Russian roulette.
It’s not Russian roulette because restaurants don’t try to accommodate you — they do – but because the staff in restaurants have a varying understanding of what food allergies mean. Just for fun, I’ve gathered three examples from recent experiences at restaurants to illustrate my point. If you are a restaurant owner, chef, or server, feel free to use these as educational materials for your colleagues.
Know the Ingredients of the Food
I don’t eat out often, but when I do, I tend to go to one of a few restaurants in my neighborhood where I’ve found a dish or two that I can eat. One of these dishes is some very yummy calamari that is normally served with a small container of hot sauce and a similar container of garlic mayonnaise.
When I order food, I always tell the server that I’m allergic to eggs and nuts and they let the kitchen know. Despite this, 95% of the time, my order of calamari comes plated with both hot sauce and mayonnaise.
You’d think people working in the food industry would know that mayonnaise contains eggs…
Be Aware of the Nature of Food Allergies
Last month, I had a meeting held in a fairly fancy location. How fancy? It has a dress code of business casual. It is perhaps a sign that I have worked from home for a very long time that I wasn’t sure what that meant and had a hard time finding an outfit that qualified.
The meeting included a dinner from a neighboring equally fancy restaurant. As is usually the case with events that include food, I ate from home. It’s a lot easier and less risky. Upon hearing of my food allergies, the very nice hosts of the meeting spoke to the restaurant staff about accommodating me. A lovely woman came to talk to me and we got into a detailed discussion of my allergies to make sure they could accommodate them. There were no nuts listed on the menu, so that was a good sign. I asked about peanuts, as well — I’m not sure I’m allergic to them, but better safe than sorry.
“There are no peanuts in the kitchen,” the lovely woman said, which was greatly encouraging.
“What about the satay sauce?” I asked, having checked on my phone and learned that it is a peanut sauce.
“Oh,” she said, “it’s on the side.”
Apparently she didn’t know about cross contamination and that some people are so allergic they can’t be near certain allergens without risking an anaphylactic reaction.
Controlling Liability? Think outside the Box
I recently attended a conference that included meals. The staff at the location bent over backwards to accommodate me so I could enjoy the food and be safe. Partly because they were very good at customer service and partly because the location had rules prohibiting outside food to control issues of liability.
We discussed bread and pastries (baked on the premises) and they specified that although they would be very, very careful, they couldn’t guarantee that the bread was safe. No worries, said I, I’ll just bring a couple of slices of bread that I know is safe. This was when I was acquainted with the abovementioned rules.
This was also when I suggested that the risks (and therefore liability) inherent in me eating the bread they made, the safety of which they couldn’t guarantee, was perhaps higher than me bringing in a slice of bread that I knew was safe.
Lene writes the award-winning blog The Seated View. She’s the author of Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain.