Dining out with an allergy: a guest's perspective
In the United States, more than 15 million people have food allergies, with that number steadily increasing. Despite this, only a handful of states—Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Virginia, Illinois, and Michigan—have allergy legislation designed to make eating in restaurants safer for those managing food allergies. Restaurants throughout the rest of the country vary in their ability to accommodate guests with allergies, and in the amount of allergen information they have available to potential diners.
So what is it like to dine out with a nut allergy, and how it impact the guest experience? We interviewed Mark Kember, who has a severe nut allergy, to find out.
Thanks for sharing your experiences, Mark. Can you start by describing your allergy?
I have a known allergy to a number of nuts, including pistachios, walnuts, cashews and pine nuts, as well as peanuts. My allergy involves a severe form of reaction called Anaphylaxis, which is fatal if untreated, and is not directly proportionate to the level of exposure to the allergen. This means that even touching a nut that I am allergic to could cause the same reaction as ingesting one.
If this happens I need to immediately take an antihistamine and call an ambulance. In the time waiting, the area of contact must be thoroughly washed to remove as much of the allergen as possible. If the reaction progresses to the point where my throat starts to close, I need to administer an EpiPen, which injects a pre-measured dose of adrenaline to reverse the effects. I then still need to attend hospital for further treatment to prevent and monitor for a delayed or secondary reaction.
How does the allergy affect eating out?
Every time I eat out, there’s a risk of being exposed to traces of nuts, and therefore a risk of fatal reaction. I avoid cuisines like Indian or Thai which widely uses nuts in their recipes, and so has a high risk of cross-contamination. It therefore restricts where I can eat which can be a pain for me and others when organizing eating out.
It also presents an often uncomfortable conversation with the server. In the vast majority of cases, when asking if particular dishes contain nuts the server is unable to confidently provide an answer. I then need to press for more information or add clarification so they understand I need accurate food allergen information to be sure that I can eat there. On a few occasions, I’ve needed to leave a restaurant as I simply couldn’t trust the information given.
What’s the worst experience you’ve had when eating out?
I’ve had many that are the worst in their own way. For example, when asking if a dish contained nuts I had one server reply, “I don’t know. I’m not a food scientist.” I’ve also been to places where neither the servers nor the chefs were able to confirm whether their dishes contained nuts. Probably the worst, though, is where I’ve made it clear I have a fatal allergy and then the food I’ve been served contained nuts. Sometimes I’ve spotted them before eating, but on other occasions they weren’t visible and I only find out because a reaction has started.
What’s the best experience you’ve had?
In one restaurant, the waitress said they had a full list of which dishes contained nuts, and asked if I would like her to bring the list to me so I could check myself, or if I’d like her to check any particular dishes. This was comforting not only for the availability of definitive food-allergen information, but also for being given the choice for how I wanted the information. In fact, the server then also requested that my food was prepared in a separate area of the kitchen to ensure there was no cross-contamination.
When you ask about food allergen information, how often do you find the server knows or can easily check?
In my experience, it’s incredibly rare that the server knows the information right away – probably less than 1%. Many will have access to the information, but it’s often in a large, dirty folder that’s difficult to navigate and interpret. It also draws attention which makes it an unpleasant experience for me and for those I’m dining with. Otherwise, the server generally has to go back and forth to the kitchen to check.
What could restaurants, hotels, etc. do to make life easier?
I have to have this conversation 5 to 10 times a week and when the server is unsure of what to do or say, then it takes away from the experience overall. Businesses need to support their staff with training to improve confidence around the issue, and by having the food-allergen information easily accessible—either with a separate menu, a more manageable ingredient list, or ideally, with a hand-held device so they can filter out the dishes that do or don’t include the allergen.
I’d instantly be drawn to brands that could consistently give me accurate information in a quick and unobtrusive way. Ideally the server would be able to give me a definitive yes or no at the point where I’m ordering—but without any guesswork, relying on memory or referring to a large, attention-drawing binder. Having the information published on the website would also be really useful, so I can check the menu before I arrive.
Do you know of any places that do this already?
I do see it in some quick service places that publish ingredients and allergen information online, so I can check on my smartphone before I go in. It means I use them a lot as it’s quicker and less troublesome than enduring the long and embarrassing experience of asking someone. I think it shows they are competent in what they do and confident in what they serve—reassuring for anyone intending to eat the food they’re preparing, whether they have an allergy or not!
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