Having a background in the restaurant business gives food allergy mom and social worker Michele Carrick a unique perspective on safe dining with food allergies.
Carrik’s suggestions help create a respectful partnership between food-allergic diners and restaurant personnel, making the experience a positive one for all involved:
- Timing. Restaurant managers, those who understand how an establishment is run, are extremely busy during peak eating times. If you want to talk about food allergies with a manager consider dining at an hour when they are less busy, say weekdays between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m. Another option is dropping by to speak with the manager between lunch and dinner time.
- Specificity. Discussing the possible allergen content of an entire menu can be overwhelming for you and the restaurant manager. It’s more productive, and less stressful, to identify the possible allergy issues of one or two specific menu items or meals.
- Experience Check. Observing the reactions of restaurant personnel to see if they “get” food allergies is somewhat helpful. However, it’s more revealing to ask them about their allergy management experience. This may also be the perfect time to enquire about what procedures they use to prevent cross-contamination.
- Cross Communication. Utilize every available communication avenue. Talk to the restaurant manager, and ask him or her to speak with the chef, or have the chef come and speak with you. After being seated, also let your server know about the allergy. Do not rely on one person, or a “chef card” (laminated cards – for the kitchen staff – that list your allergens) to safeguard your dining experience.
- Ed Opp. If a restaurant is not being cooperative or accommodating, you may wisely choose to leave. However, consider going back to talk with the manager, after a cooling-off period, to discuss your experience. It’s an excellent opportunity for allergy education.
- Power of Appreciation. When you dine at a restaurant that is cooperative and accommodating, be sure to express your gratitude to the manager and chef. Generously tip a helpful server, and mention him or her to the manager. These people will remember your appreciation the next time you come in. Still, you cannot assume that what worked well before will do so again. You might say, “We had a great experience eating here before, but want to make sure you haven’t changed any food ingredients that could affect us.”
Finally, two well-known tips that cannot be mentioned enough: if the restaurant personnel “doesn’t know” about an item, don’t eat it, and only dine out with your epinephrine auto-injector at hand.