Today accommodating customers on special diets is a daily occurrence impossible to ignore.  It is unknown why so many people now have food allergies and intolerances but it is clear that the numbers are growing.  Over the past 50 years the number of people who have celiac disease alone has increased 4 to 5 times.

When it comes to providing for specific dietary requests some customer may only need a small change.  Others may have a severe allergy which could lead to a violent episode if they consume even a crumb of an offending food.  Because needs vary so much from one person to the next it makes it difficult for foodservice workers to understand what to do.  These confusions can lead to staff not taking requests seriously as they should.  Therefore management needs to put protocols into place that ensures all precautions are maintained for every request unless that customer tells you otherwise.

cartoon-for-customers-healthy-dietsIn my work over the past 23 years I have identified the biggest reasons why some food establishments and catering venues succeed and while others are failing.  Failing means mistakes are made with special requests and their customers are the ones who will end up suffering, which will not only lose those customers but consumer confidence as well.  Even places that try their best to take precautions make mistakes especially in small or busy kitchens where it is hard to prevent cross contamination.  Therefore specific precautions are needed to reduce these unfortunate issues.

With the busy lifestyles, meetings at work, conferences, catering, take out and more those with special dietary issues will continue to dine out and look for delicious, safe food.

Below are the biggest problems I have found that need to be addressed.

Biggest Mistakes Made When Accommodating Food Allergies & Intolerances:

  • Not having something on the menu that explains their policy on how they will handle special dietary requests.
  • Thinking that frying foods kills the allergen, allergy safe foods cannot be fried with an offending food.
  • Use of a contaminated toaster to toast gluten-free or other allergy safe bread. Even a crumb can lead to a unfortunate reaction.
  • Thinking if no one calls to complain that there are no problems if their procedures.
  • Not knowing how to read labels and making mistakes on what they tell customers.
  • Not taking customers’ requests seriously.
  • Embarrassing customers that are asking for special requests.
  • Foodservice employees not changing their gloves enough, or wiping their hands on a contaminated side towel.
  • Picking off the croutons or other offending food off of a customer’s plate and then serving it.
  • Not offering appropriate alternatives or sides and providing plain, unseasoned foods with no sides to a customer while charging full price.
  • Using the same tongs or spatula to toss safe and unsafe foods.
  • Cooking safe foods on the same grill or flattop as contaminated foods.
  • Head chef preps all foods and goes home, line chefs unaware of all ingredients.
  • Not wiping down a surface with an allergen safe material before preparing food.

At Service:

  • Inadequate Training of Staff. This is of particular importance at catering events, or when meeting planners have given out a card with someone’s dietary needs noted on it and none of the regular service staff is aware of it.
  • Not having a set protocol or not following the protocol when a customer comes in or calls in with a special dietary request.
  • Staff unaware of ways to handle requests in a seamless way.
  • Making sure that personal health questions are kept to a minimum and done discreetly.
  • Having different people serve the food without assuring the customers at the time of service that the safe choice is what they are being served.
  • Arguing with a customer that there was no way they did something that made the customer ill.
  • Not identifying the food clearly in the service window so servers won’t accidently pick up the wrong plate when delivering the food.
  • Placing safe food next to problem foods on buffet line, which increases the risk of cross contamination. Especially if people are not using the correct utensils.
  • Not labeling foods correctly on the buffet line, this includes dressings, and toppings.
  • Not hiring a specialist to make sure that protocol established is truly safe.
  • Not testing and retraining the staff regularly to make sure they are following training correctly.

Every establishment and event is unique and the plan to provide safe food will differ from location to location.  Only trained experts can ensure that the appropriate steps are taken to keep food safe.  This is the hospitality industry so customers are dining out to be catered too.  Remember always that everyone is entitled to a safe, delicious, enjoyable dining experience.