For celebrity chef Ming Tsai, the birth of his son David propelled his interest in food allergens and accommodating customers with dietary restrictions.
“David is 13 years old,” Tsai told attendees at last month’s AllergyEats conference in Boston. “When he was born, he had allergies to soy, wheat, dairy, shellfish, tree nuts and eggs. I like to say it was an unfunny joke from upstairs that the first son of a chef had food allergies.”
Tsai, owner-operator of Blue Ginger and Blue Dragon, two upscale casual Asian restaurants in the Boston area, had allergen protocols in place two years before his son was born. But since then, he has become even more involved in the movement, ensuring his establishments can successfully cater to the needs of his customers with food allergies.
“Our goal is for the guest to leave delighted,” he said. “In a competitive market, the more concerned you are, the more likely you’ll get your fair share [of business]. I strongly believe it is smart business practice to know what is in the food you serve, period. Repeat business is key. If you can serve delicious food with great service safely, you’ve got them for life.”
Tsai and fellow panelists Kevin Harron, president and CEO of Burtons Grill Restaurants, and Michael Moomjiam, director of quality assurance and food safety for PF Chang’s China Bistro, parent of the PF Chang’s and Pei Wei Asian chains, addressed the issue of food allergies and restaurants during a session called “Restaurants That Get it Right.” The National Restaurant Association served as one of the conference’s sponsors.
When people head out to a restaurant, Tsai says, “The person with the food allergy is going to make the restaurant decision because it doesn’t matter to the others. To them, it’s just food, but for the one with the food allergy, it’s life or death.”
Tsai added that at Blue Ginger on a Saturday night, it is not uncommon for 20 tables to be dealing with food-allergy issues. He said at least 50 percent of them are gluten-related. To avoid mistakes, he has established a food allergy reference book where all recipes featuring wheat, dairy and eggs have been highlighted and listed out by dish, garnish, sauce, protein and marinade.
“It is so important to have a system in place,” he said. “That will greatly reduce human error. With this manual, you can easily know what is in the dish. With this and training, training, training, you can make your restaurant even safer than it is today.”
At PF Chang’s, creating a loyal customer base starts with ensuring guests with allergies will be taken care of, Moomjiam said.
“It starts with the message, ‘We’re truly glad you’re here,’ and we will do everything to make you want to come back,” he said. “Our goal is to have loyal guests know we will take care of them, and taking care of those who have dietary restrictions is part of that.”
The company started its food allergens program in 2001 and had a dedicated gluten-free menu by 2003. The chain’s restaurants currently have 25 gluten-free choices on the menu.
“We’ve gotten a lot of good PR on how we go above and beyond,” he said. “Being allergen-friendly has definitely increased our business. Right now 5 percent of all checks are food-allergen related and 90 percent of those are gluten-free [requests].”
He added that allergen information collected from guests is entered into a database and cross-checked against menu items and ingredients that are updated every two weeks.
“If a guest tells the manager of his or her sensitivities, the manager can go to the back of the house, type in the information and check off the items the guests cannot have. With this, we can create a custom menu for the guest.”
He also said each restaurant has separate woks set aside for allergen dishes that are cleaned and sanitized between each use. The company also audits ingredients as well as random products for gluten levels.
Harron, who’s had celiac disease for 43 years, said dealing with food allergies can be challenging for restaurants, but it is necessary.
“As the leader of your organization, you need to make the decision to raise your baseline performance,” he said. “I think everyone in our organization recognizes there is value to this and it’s the right thing to do.”
The National Restaurant Association offers restaurateurs a ServSafe Allergens Online Course designed to help front- and back-of-the-house employees better accommodate the growing number of guests with food allergies.