Sesame is the ninth major allergen in the U.S. – and it’s everywhere. Menu items as varied as breads, hummus and stir fries may all contain it. But what makes sesame challenging to manage in a restaurant kitchen is that there are more than a dozen food names that imply they contain it. Benne, halvah and tahini are just a few of them, and sesame is often hiding in the spice blends or “natural flavors” mentioned on ingredient labels, according to the National Restaurant Association. As you plan menus and dish variations, be alert to the aliases of the ingredients you’re using – particularly those known to trigger serious food allergies.
Human error generates great expense in the restaurant industry. A recent report from FoodDocs indicates that on average, human error costs the service industry around $30 per order. One widespread mistake is incorrect order taking, which can trigger anything from a negative review to a severe allergy. It’s also preventable if you reinforce some manual and tech-driven checks. Advise staff to confirm verbal orders when they are placed (and also when they are served). If you’re using a tech-based system to take orders, make sure the final screen lists the items clearly, along with any substitutions.
For consumers with food allergies, eating out can be a minefield. But restaurants that earn the trust of these guests stand to win customers for life. To send the clear message that you take food allergies and sensitivities seriously, get out in front with your messaging. Online, ensure your website includes ingredient lists and identifies common allergens – that information can easily help an allergic guest decide in advance to eat with you. In your restaurant, post a QR code that guests can scan for allergen-specific information – and ensure it’s in plain sight on menus and in the locations where guests place orders.
Approximately 32 million Americans, including 5.6 million children under age 18, have food allergies, according to Food Allergy Research & Education. That amounts to two children in every classroom. Those numbers put pressure on restaurants to manage food allergies effectively – but on the flip side, they also present an opportunity for restaurants to generate an especially loyal and valuable following: McKinsey research found that consumers looking to avoid certain allergens are especially loyal to brands and also willing to spend more money in an effort to avoid an allergen. The quality of your communication plays a major role in your success. When your staff is informed of a food allergy by a customer, they should repeat it clearly to confirm it, then involve a minimum of team members to carry out an order to avoid a game of telephone in which details are misconstrued. That may mean passing all orders for allergic guests on to one manager, who oversees the order from the preparation stage through delivery to the customer
Restaurant kitchens are used to having to maintain high standards for health and safety. Still, concern about COVID-19 and resulting strains on labor and resources may make it more likely for standards to fall through the cracks in other areas – like allergen safety. Take care to make sure allergen-free foods and the equipment used in their preparation are properly labelled; that these foods are sealed tightly in containers used only for those foods and stored in an area used just for those foods; that you’re using separate equipment, prep stations and utensils; and that your kitchen preparation areas are well-ventilated and cleaned. Granted, the current challenges of social distancing and limiting staff in the kitchen may make this more difficult. US Foods suggests planning ahead carefully to accommodate allergies if your training, resources and space are limited: That could mean committing to preparing allergen-free food only on set times and days, and with allergen-free equipment.
If, before the pandemic, your restaurant generated most of its business through dining room sales as opposed to through off-premise sales, your staff may be used to communicating far differently about your menu. If your team was near-perfect when it came to suggesting substitutes and communicating about allergens during conversations at a guest’s table, have you found a new system for replicating those communications as effectively either electronically or during the shorter in-person interactions that are common now? As the National Restaurant Association reports, the increase in off-premise sales and the decline in on-premise sales mean your servers don’t have as direct of an opportunity to discuss food allergies and sensitivities. So it’s important (and, in some locations, required) to update your allergen profiles as your recipes change – and to make sure that information is readily accessible in written form – on your website, app, or at your restaurant for those who order food in person. That’s especially true to remember as you update your menu for a new season or substitute new ingredients due to shortages.
At a time when your kitchen staff is making the extra effort to protect guests and themselves from coronavirus infection, it can be easy to overlook other critical safety precautions. For example, as you revamp menus and adjust your service model to accommodate supply chain challenges and social distancing, keep allergens in mind. Identify major allergens on your menus and communicate any substitutions you are currently using in longstanding dishes. Ensure that any digital platforms you’re using to process orders allow customers to alert you to their allergies as easily as they did previously. #foodsafety
How confident are you in your restaurant’s food allergy management? According to a recent study of 500 hospitality workers by the software provider Fourth, one in six respondents claimed they had not received regular training or updates with regard to managing guest allergies, Big Hospitality reports. Further, among 1,000 consumers also polled as part of the survey, 36 percent of respondents said their last restaurant meals contained ingredients not listed on the menu. The survey was conducted as a prelude to the 2021 implementation of Natasha’s Law, which will require packaged foods sold on-site at restaurants in the UK to be labeled with a full list of the ingredients they contain. (It was passed after Natasha Ednan-Laperouse died after eating a Pret a Manger sandwich that didn’t list an allergen it contained.) While the law will initially apply only to businesses in England, it offers some lessons on how businesses everywhere must change following a food allergy incident: Pret a Manger has overhauled its food allergy program and renovated its facilities in the wake of Ednan-Laperouse’s death.
As food allergies have become more prevalent, so has the use of the term “cross contact.” While it’s often confused with cross contamination, the terms mean different things, have different consequences and require different preparation procedures. As Francine Shaw, president of Savvy Food Safety, told Modern Restaurant Management recently, cross contact is dangerous only to those with food allergies. It occurs when care wasn’t taken during food preparation to prevent an ingredient from coming into contact with a food that is then accidentally eaten by a guest with a food allergy. Cross contamination, particularly when it involves food contact with raw poultry, eggs or meat, has more universal implications because it can make anyone ill, allergic or not.
It may take a crisis to make a restaurant enhance its food safety practices ― but other operators can learn from the outcomes whether they experienced it or not. Case in point: A year after the death of a woman who ate a mislabeled baguette from the quick-service brand Pret-a-Manger, the brand developed a five-point allergy plan. The plan has involved revamping Pret-a-Manger’s labels using new technology to detail all ingredients, launching additional training for 9,000 staff, providing menu tablets in every store that detail product ingredients, removing allergens from products and publishing a quarterly food safety incident report. The plan has required making physical modifications to store preparation areas as well.