Eating out in a restaurant can be a stressful and, in some cases, risky experience for the rising number of people suffering from food allergies and intolerances.
The World Allergy Organization estimates that as many as 250 million people have food allergies worldwide. In the US, that equates to one in ten of the adult population – and the rate is growing significantly. Food intolerances are even more common, and although they are generally less serious than allergies, they can still make someone feel ill, and push people off the idea of eating out.
For people who are allergic to certain foods, eating even the smallest trace element of that food can be enough to trigger a reaction, which can go from itching, to swelling, to a far more severe and potentially fatal reaction called anaphylaxis, where the body goes into shock and the airways close. While these might seem like extreme cases, data shows that anaphylaxis cases are on the rise. In the UK, the NHS recorded a 72% increase in cases of children hospitalized with severe allergic reactions between 2013 and 2019. There has been a 34% rise in adult admissions over the same period.
For allergies and intolerances, there is no cure. Avoiding the food to which you are allergic or intolerant is the only way to prevent a reaction. Restaurants, then, have an important role to play in making the dining experience as reassuring and safe for their guests as possible.
Here are six points restaurants should keep in mind to reduce risk and keep diners with allergies and intolerances safe.
1. Be transparent about the ingredients you use
The first step to preventing allergic reactions in your restaurant is to know exactly what goes into your food. You need to ensure traceability every step of the way, and full declaration is key. This doesn’t mean that you should give away your secret recipes – but you need to be completely transparent about the ingredients you are using. Guests need to know if your crispy chicken burger contains buttermilk or eggs, or whether there are any traces of nuts in your chocolate pudding.
Technology can help you manage all this information easily in your entire restaurant chain. With a unified restaurant management system like LS Central and LS First, you can easily track recipes and ingredient changes, and ensure that menus used in the back office, website, POS, self-ordering devices and so forth, are always consistent and up to date. If a recipe changes, it can be centrally updated, so both your guests and employees can easily find the ingredient information they need.
2. Clearly display allergen information on menus
In many countries, food providers including restaurants and cafés must tell customers if their recipes contain specific allergens as an ingredient.
In Europe, these allergens are 14: celery, cereals containing gluten (such as barley and oats), crustaceans (such as prawns, crabs and lobsters), eggs, fish, lupin, milk, mollusks (such as mussels and oysters), mustard, peanuts, sesame, soybeans, sulfur dioxide and sulfites over a specific concentration, and tree nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, pecans, or pistachios.
Pre-packed food must show an ingredients list and all allergy details, while for non pre-packed food, such as that sold in a restaurant, every item that contains any of the 14 allergens must be clearly flagged.
Even if there is no legal obligation in your area, it’s good practice for restaurants to help diners make the right choice by highlighting the most common allergens in dishes on their menus. If you are using a digital menu, you can make the experience even more convenient by letting customers filter out dishes according to their allergies or dietary needs. With digital menus now a popular choice not just for online ordering, but also for dining in – they can be visualized on tablets at the table, or accessed on the customers’ mobile scanning a QR code – restaurants have a big opportunity to make guests feel safe and in control.
3. Equip staff with the right information
Employees should be appraised of any menu updates and changes so they can quickly and easily answer their guests’ queries and play a key role in prevention.
Mobile POS devices are a great way of doing this. Equipped with a tablet, waiters can take orders at the table, answer queries on the spot as they have all menu information right in front of them and input any special dietary requirements there and then. The best mobile POS also offer a direct connection to the kitchen, with orders sent straight to displays or printers in the kitchen, As a result, there is no risk of miscommunication with kitchen staff. They can see all requests, notice which items are flagged for allergic diners, and produce food that is safe and to specification.
4. Train employees on the importance of allergen safety
Misunderstandings around allergies and intolerances can cause confusion on the restaurant floor. While a lactose intolerant customer might be able to have some grated parmesan without falling ill, for someone else the smallest trace of dairy may be extremely dangerous. Education is vital to ensure that mistakes don’t happen, and that requests aren’t overlooked or ignored.
Appropriate training and continuous sharing of information can ensure front of house and kitchen staff understand all potential food allergies, how dangerous they can be, and how to deal with allergen information requests. Not only will it help prevent allergen/hygiene related incidents from occurring; it will also instill your staff with the confidence and knowledge they need to make customers feel at ease.
5. Avoid contamination in the kitchen
In the UK, Welsh chocolate company Kinnerton is known for going to “extraordinary lengths” to ensure its produce is safe for nut-allergy sufferers. One such measure involves having separate factories, one for nut produce, the other for nut-free produce. Workers wear different colored uniforms to ensure visible segregation and all equipment is washed and maintained in separate units to ensure no cross contamination.
Restaurant kitchens often lack sufficient space to accommodate separate storage and preparation areas, which makes allergen management challenging. Shared equipment, improper food labeling, inadequate ventilation, contaminated aprons, shared cooking oils/fryers, and poor sanitation can all easily lead to cross contact.
But even the smallest kitchens can take basic steps to drastically reduce the risk of allergens getting into the wrong dishes. The most important action is keeping allergen-free products separate from allergen-filled ones. Other good practices include regular hand washing, cleaning surfaces and equipment between each task, and using separate utensils and tools for different food types. Where possible, you should also use different counters and cooking equipment to prepare allergen-free dishes. If this is not possible, you must make customers aware of this.
6. Ensure guest requests are clearly flagged to the chef
To build trust with guests, restaurants need to set up programs with clear steps on how to deal with allergens and dietary requests. In an ideal process, once a customer has chosen a dish from a clearly labelled menu, the waiter enters the order at the POS and flags it as an ‘allergy order’ specifying the ingredients to pay attention to. Chefs can clearly see this note next to the relevant dishes, either on the kitchen displays or on the paper. They then prepare the flagged dish in a separate area of the kitchen, using separate knives and chopping boards to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. When the meal is ready, the chef clearly marks the dish, so it arrives to the right customer with the clear message that their dietary needs have been acknowledged and catered for.
To find out more about how technology can help you track allergens, ensure that kitchen staff is aware of special request, and keep your recipes and menus up to date, contact us.