Food Allergy Food Manager

Food Allergy Friendly Kitchens: Combining Delight and Food Safety

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Trust20 Contributors • 6 minute read

Food allergies are on the rise–and one in three people with food allergies and/or intolerances report having reactions in restaurants.1 This type of statistic makes dining stressful for customers with food allergies, but it also creates an opportunity for restaurants to do the work to create a safe and welcoming environment for them. 

Here’s how you can transform your kitchen from one that’s merely “allergen aware” to a place where people with food allergies actively want to eat. 

Understanding food allergies

Food allergies are a serious matter; reactions “vary in severity from mild symptoms involving hives and lip swelling to severe, life-threatening symptoms, often called anaphylaxis, that may involve fatal respiratory problems and shock,” according to the FDA.2

It can be helpful to understand the differences between food allergies, intolerances, and dietary preferences, while still erring on the side of caution. Intolerances are not life-threatening but can cause severe discomfort. Preferences are exactly that; someone’s preferred way of eating that doesn’t have a direct impact on their physical health.

No matter what, you want to take every guest’s dietary requests seriously. It’s better to treat a request for a preference or an intolerance like a serious food allergy than to underestimate the severity of a guest’s potential allergic reaction to a specific dish. 

The consequences of food allergies 

For those with food allergies, dining out can be a stressful experience. It takes advanced planning to figure out if a specific restaurant can accommodate your allergy and if you trust that the kitchen is taking safety precautions seriously. It’s difficult to relax and enjoy a meal if you’re worried the entire time that a simple miscommunication from the server to the kitchen staff or vice versa could end in a serious allergic reaction.

Even if a customer with a severe food allergy is carrying an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen) to counter an unexpected reaction, they still have to seek immediate medical care to be sure they don’t require further treatment.3 This can even include an overnight stay in the emergency room–an expensive and fraught event.

There are also consequences for establishments if customers have an allergic reaction on the premises–everything from possible legal action to negative publicity and potential loss of revenue. All staff should be trained in how to discuss allergies with customers, prepare food safely, and react immediately and thoroughly in the case of a reaction. 

An allergen-aware kitchen: the basics 

Every kitchen should have the basics of allergen awareness covered, starting with knowing the nine major food allergens identified by law in the United States: milk, eggs, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soybeans, and sesame.

These food items should always be clearly labeled as well as stored and prepared separately from other foods. Cross-contact of major allergens with other foods should be avoided at all costs. Similar to cross-contamination, cross-contact can occur because of food-to-food, equipment-to-food, and people-to-food contact.

  • Food-to-food contact: Even with extensive labeling, be sure staff knows to double-check labels before using any ingredients on orders for guests with food allergies. It’s easy during lunch or dinner rush to miss that a sauce label says it contains peanut oil. 
  • Equipment-to-food contact: If at all possible, use separate equipment to process foods containing allergens and other foods. The oil, dust, and other residue from foods are often invisible to the eye, and equipment is difficult to completely sanitize between uses with foods that have allergens. 
  • People-to-food contact: Similarly, particles of allergenic foods can linger invisibly on a person’s clothes or body. In the same way, personal hygiene best practices protect people from foodborne illnesses caused by invisible pathogens, they also protect people from allergic reactions brought on by trace amounts of trigger foods.

Regularly check in with staff to make sure they’re not only aware of these guidelines but actively adhering to them–and holding everyone else in the kitchen accountable, especially as new hires are brought on board. 

Transitioning your kitchen to destination dining 

Once your establishment has the basics down, you can work to transform it into a safe haven for those with food allergies. Not just a place they can eat, but a place they look forward to dining, where they can simply relax and enjoy a meal. 

Equip your staff with allergy-specific training 

Start by coaching your front-of-house staff on how they can best communicate with guests about allergens, emphasizing the importance of open communication.

Servers and hosts can open conversations by asking, “Are there any allergies, intolerances, or food preferences I should know about?” before they start taking orders. Once they pick up orders, they can confirm with the kitchen by asking, “Is this the correct order for my table with the [insert allergy] allergy?”

Finally, confirm with the table by saying, “I confirmed with the kitchen that this was prepared away from [insert allergy]. Does everything look and taste right to you?” Even with these precautions, accidents or cross-contact can still happen. Staff should also be ready to immediately assist in the case of an allergic reaction happening onsite.

Consider offering allergen awareness training so everyone feels confident and prepared in the face of an emergency. At the very least, the manager should know how to handle allergic reactions according to the FDA Food Code.

Get creative in and out of the kitchen

Designing a food allergy-friendly menu doesn’t mean everything has to be bland and unexciting.

The first step is to clearly label which dishes include any of the major allergens–milk, eggs, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soybeans, and sesame–and whether or not they can be safely modified. The kitchen might be able to leave the cheese off of a dish, for example, but they can’t take the cream out of a pre-prepared bisque. 

Consider going further and offering specific allergy-friendly menus, like a dairy-free menu or a gluten-free menu that patrons can choose to order from instead. Special menus are a great first step to making patrons with food allergies feel that the establishment takes their allergies seriously and is equipped to prepare their food safely.

You can also consider adding language to the menu or signage around the restaurant highlighting the food allergy training that your staff has undergone.

Finally, explore which dishes at your restaurant could be made allergen-free. Consider simple but effective swaps like using gluten-free almond cookies for a cheesecake crust instead of regular cookies. 

Final thoughts

With empathy and creativity, you can take your kitchen from one that’s just “allergen-aware” to one that’s a dining destination of choice for those with food allergies. 

It’s the ultimate recipe for customer loyalty! 

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  1. CDC: Restaurants Can Reduce the Risk of Food Allergy Reactions
  2. FDA: Food Allergies
  3. EpiPen: EpiPen Labeling
  4. Learn The Consequences Of Allergic Reactions And How To Prevent Them
  5. Know the Difference: Food Allergy, Intolerance, & Preference
  6. The Importance of Food Allergy Education and Training
  7. Memorize These Scripts to Help Safely Serve People with Food Allergies 
  8. Food Allergies [FDA]
  9. Defining Cross Contamination and Cross Contact
  10. Food Allergies and Food Service Establishments