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Allergies: On Alert

25 April 2006
Allergies: On Alert

Consumer awareness and increased public policy has operators finding new ways to accommodate allergic diners.

This article first appeared in the 1 March 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website www.foodservice411.com.

By Jamie Popp, Senior Editor

All parents believe there are some foods that aren't good for their children. Ming Tsai knows there are foods that could kill his son, David, who is allergic to soy, dairy products and nuts.

Chef-owner of Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley, Mass., and host of a television cooking show, Tsai is a high-profile and very vocal advocate of understanding and accommodating food allergies that can be life-threatening. At home, a thorough knowledge of what's contained in meals is easily accomplished. In foodservice settings, however, it is far more complicated for guests with food allergies to know exactly what they are eating.

At Blue Ginger, customers can consult a recipe book that cross-indexes ingredients to eight major allergens; restaurant staffers refer to it as "the bible." "With that book in place, we reduce the possibility of something going wrong," Tsai says.

An estimated 11 million Americans have food allergies, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association, and although not all exhibit life-threatening reactions, the incidence appears to be growing. In his role as spokesman for Fairfax, Va.-based Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, Tsai has been instrumental in placing food-allergy awareness posters in restaurants in Massachusetts, where stringent allergy-awareness legislation currently is being drafted.

"The goal is to pass allergy legislation in Massachusetts and then in other states," Tsai says.

Independent restaurant chefs traditionally have been least able to list ingredients on menus that can change daily, according to Keith Mandabach, chef educator at Las Cruces-based New Mexico State University's School of Hotel and Restaurant Management. He notes there are varying allergy communication efforts throughout foodservice. Contrary to the actions of most independent restaurants, he finds chains most readily post nutrition, ingredient and allergy information in units, on menus or online.

While many small independents oppose the proposed Massachusetts legislation, Dave Celuzza, owner of Slattery's Restaurant & Bar in Fitchburg and chairman of the Southborough, Mass.-based Massachusetts Restaurant Association's (MRA) allergy committee, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's food-labeling act only increases restaurant accountability nationwide. California restaurants just now are getting a taste of allergy-awareness legislation, according to MRA's Janine Harrod, who serves as its director of government affairs.

But fear of being found negligent shouldn't be the only impetus for operations to open their recipe books to the public, says Joanne Schlosser, president of Food Allergy Awareness Institute in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"Just by creating one appetizer, dessert and entrée that is allergen-free, a restaurant would meet the needs of the large population without making it hard on the chef," she says. "There is money in that."

Training front-of-the-house staff is as important as instructing cooks how to keep knives clean and prep stations allergen free. According to Phil Lempert, creator of a card with a list of food allergies that patrons can give to waitstaff, servers who can take allergy restrictions and translate them into allergen-free dining experiences will win repeat customers. It also helps guests avoid the negative experience of sending food back when an allergen has been overlooked.

"There's huge waste when a restaurant doesn't get a meal right," he says.

To address the problem, Tsai requires servers at Blue Ginger refer to his menu-item "bible," clear the allergen-free selection with the diner and alert the chef of the allergy concern; only then does Tsai sign off on the special order. A chef delivers the dish to the guest and explains how it was prepared.

Alerting workers of allergens and providing customers with alternative dishes is second nature at New York City's Daniel.

"Every dish on the menu is photographed and posted in the kitchen, with nuts, nut oils and other things that might be an issue," says Georgette Farkas, communications director at the restaurant. Desserts are a top focus, she says, and the menu features nut-free options every night.

Training Tips

Joanne Schlosser, president of Food Allergy Awareness Institute, recommends operators take these steps to address allergy concerns.

  • Make chefs aware of the eight major sources of allergic food reactions: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, wheat, soy, peanut and tree nuts.

  • Disclose potentially allergenic ingredients on the menu.

  • Encourage guests to ask questions about ingredients and preparations.

  • Educate servers about the severity of food-allergy problems and how to serve customers who have food allergies.

  • Train foodservice personnel to call immediate medical assistance in the event of a suspected anaphylactic event.

Customer Assistance

"Let's Eat Out! Your Passport to Living Gluten and Allergy Free" (R&R Publishing, 2005) is a visa of sorts, giving diners with allergies access to a full range of information about major restaurant cuisines, ingredients and preparations.

Building their book around the 10 most-common food allergies, authors Kim Koeller and Robert La France instruct and anticipate, arming diners with a checklist of menu considerations. Trying Thai but have a dietary need to avoid gluten? Then be wary of soy sauce, battered foods, bouillon-based sauces and wheat-based noodles.

Thorough and comprehensive, the book might do well in the hands of operators as well. It gives an important overview of the seriousness of allergies-and how common allergens.

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