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.
Consumers with food allergies are a loyal group. If you strive to improve your restaurant’s allergy awareness, you might take note of some of the restaurant brands around the country that consumers have recognized for their allergy safety practices. AllergyEats, which bills itself as a destination where people who have food allergies or intolerances can find restaurants to accommodate them, recently compiled a list of the top-10 allergy-friendly restaurant chains based on consumer rankings. The list included such large chains as Maggiano’s, Chipotle, Longhorn Steakhouse, In-N-Out Burger and Bertucci’s, as well as smaller chains including Burtons Grill, Flatbread Company, Clyde’s Restaurant Group, 110 Grill and Weber Grill.
You stick to strict cleaning procedures and take steps to avoid the cross-contamination of foods, but how much do you know about the quality of the air in your facility? You may have excess dust accumulating in the air that can contaminate food, or moisture from ovens that can generate condensation and lead to mold. Further, the simple act of cooking can make indoor air as dangerous to breathe as smog, according to new research from HomeChem. Asthma or other respiratory ailments on your kitchen team can signal you have a problem, but you can improve air quality going forward by maintaining appliances and ventilation units routinely, having your air tested for chemical or biological pollutants, replacing old cookware with models that are less likely to contaminate the air, and using natural building materials and decorative elements in your restaurant.
When a London restaurant was informed in advance about a guest with a severe nut allergy coming to dine recently, the restaurant said the guest could either bring his own food and have the restaurant heat it (at a cost of $22), or eat food from the kitchen and sign a waiver acknowledging risk of cross-contamination. While this was a public relations mistake for sure, it demonstrates the pressure restaurants feel to lower the risk of preparing food for guests with allergies. How do your risk management practices measure up? Public health consultants EHA Group advise foodservice operators to assess a food’s path from warehouse to plate, which requires careful communication with your suppliers, distributors and staff. Use a production matrix that labels, tracks and dictates how to handle allergens so you can feel confident about managing them. Isolate allergens in storage and preparation areas, cook allergen-free foods first, change utensils after each item, wash hands thoroughly after handling allergens, change aprons or uniforms when there is a contamination risk, and clean preparation areas and equipment well after handling allergens.
Looking for a loyal guest who will drive miles out of his way to eat at your restaurant? Boost your operation’s allergy awareness and communication. People with food allergies are a vocal and close-knit group, notes Francine Shaw of Savvy Food Safety, and they won’t hesitate to share their experiences in restaurants with others. Shaw told Modern Restaurant Management that communication is paramount: Your staff should ask each party if there are allergies in the group, and if so, there should be constant communication between the manager, chef and server throughout the preparation, plating and serving of the meal. When guests have questions, direct them to the chef, who should have up-to-date information on allergens and allergen aliases. All employees need to be part of the effort, so have regular training sessions and refreshers on how to manage allergies in various scenarios.