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A one stop food allergy guide for restaurants

Posted by Chloe Papas on May 17, 2017 8:45:00 AM

While more and more people are making conscious choices about the food they eat – whether it’s choosing a specific diet or avoiding certain products – it can be easy to forget that others are dealing with dangerous food allergies.

Some of your guests have to be diligent when it comes to particular ingredients, and it can be daunting or difficult for them to eat food that isn’t prepared at home.  

As a server or manager in a venue that serves food, it’s important that you have an awareness of the allergies your customers might have, so you know how to accommodate their needs, and what to do in case of an emergency.

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What are the most common food allergies?

For some people, an allergic reaction might be an uncomfortable case of hives, and for others it can lead to anaphylactic shock. Most people find out very early on that they have an allergy, but there are certain allergies that are developed later in life. According to the World Health Organization, around 1-3% of adults and 4-6% of children are allergic to one or more food. 

The most common food allergies are:

  • Peanuts
  • Milk or other dairy products
  • Seafood or fish
  • Eggs
  • Sesame seeds
  • Soybeans
  • Nuts (often cashews, almonds or walnuts) 

You may also come across more uncommon food allergies, like red meat, avocados, corn, or even marshmallows. Almost any food can cause an allergic reaction, so remember – no matter how strange it seems that your customer is allergic to cucumbers, it’s best to take them at face value!


How can you accommodate customers’ allergies?  

It would be fantastic if every customer that walked through your doors could happily eat anything on the menu, but that’s not the reality. While the onus is on the customer to let you know if they have a particular allergy, you should do everything you can to give them the opportunity, including asking “do you have any special dietary requirements?” when you first take their order. Once they have informed you, it is your and the venue’s responsibility to accommodate them as best you can.

So how can you make sure that the food you place in front of your customer is safe for them to eat?

First, make sure you know the menu back to front. Excellent knowledge of the food you are serving will go a long way in not only letting a customer know if a dish is safe for them to eat, but also in comforting them that you know your stuff.

QUICK FACT: In a 2006 survey, 24% of restaurants revealed that they believe consuming small amounts of an allergen is safe. It isn’t. Even small quantities can cause a severe allergic reaction. 

If you aren’t sure – and even if you are – it’s often best to check with the chef in charge, and let them know explicitly that a particular dish can’t contain traces of nuts, or milk, or whichever food product is the culprit. 

In most circumstances, accommodating an allergy will involve making a few easy changes to a dish, and being careful when cooking it.

For people who have multiple allergies, your kitchen staff might need to make major adjustments or come up with a new dish – so it’s important to chat to the manager or chef about what is possible, and how far your venue is willing to go when it comes to accommodating allergies. It’s worth noting that restaurants that are happy to make changes are viewed very favorably by customers.



Signs of an allergic reaction

Unfortunately, sometimes no matter how careful you are in preparing a customer’s food, an allergic reaction can still occur. It could be that some residue has ended up in their food, they didn’t inform you of a particular allergy – or they weren’t even aware of the allergy.

It’s important that you have a basic idea of the signs and symptoms that come along with an allergic reaction so that you can take action if needed.

The main visible symptoms include: 

  • Swelling of the face or lips
  • Breaking out in hives or welts
  • Swelling of the tongue or throat
  • Difficulty breathing or talking
  • Wheezing or coughing
  • Loss of consciousness or vomiting

If you notice a customer dealing with any of these symptoms out of the blue, don’t be afraid to approach them and check that they are okay.



So, what should you do? 


In most cases, your customer will already have a plan of action in place if they have a specific allergy. They may have an EpiPen on hand, and be able to quickly fix the situation themselves. Or they might require your assistance to call an ambulance or clear space around them. If the situation merits it, you could put a call out in the venue to see if there is a doctor or nurse around to assist.

Whatever your course of action, you should tell your supervisor as soon as possible. Do your best to make the customer as comfortable as possible, and keep others in the venue calm.


Learn more about how to handle food allergies in our new courses with Jason James. 

>> Browse the course topics


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Topics: Hospitality operations, Health and wellbeing, Hospitality managers, Hospitality staff, Restaurants