Accommodating customers with food allergies is no small task. More than 250 food allergens have been identified, and 15 million Americans diagnosed with food allergies look to dine where they feel safe. This large market needs to feel confident in your restaurant’s food safety protocol. When you go the extra mile to meet guests’ needs, strong customer loyalty and repeat business result.

During an educational session at the 2015 National Restaurant Association Hotel-Motel Show, a panel of food safety experts shared their food allergen acumen with industry owners and operators.  Here are some of the key takeaways:

  • Train your staff how to handle food allergens. A reputable program such as ServSafe Allergens drives home critical information you need to keep your restaurant safe for guests. “Incorporate your employees into your process. They start buying into it and feel more confident in what they’re doing,” says William Weichelt, ServSafe director.
  • Involve a certified manager for the entire duration of your guest’s visit. He or she acts as a knowledge center on behalf of your restaurant and creates an open, honest dialogue with customers. A trained manager should be present during every shift. Training other front-of-house and back-of-house employees is also recommended.
  • Create a back-of-house system for allergen-specific equipment. Consider using color-coded, allergen-specific plateware, prepware and other equipment. If a guest is concerned about cross-contamination, you can offer to show him or her your allergen-specific tools.
  • Make ingredient lists available to guests. They know their allergy better than you do, and thus will likely know the names of ingredients or sub-ingredients that may be red flags for them.
  • Sub-out widely used allergens. If possible, isolate ingredients or recipes that could trigger a common allergy. For example, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro now uses wheat-free soy in lieu of regular soy in all of its marinades.
  • Never guess. If employees are asked a food allergy question that they can’t answer, they should reach out to a manager who can. If your restaurant cannot confidently satisfy a guest’s request, expressly communicate this. As Patrick Yearout, panel moderator and director of training at the Seattle-based Ivar’s Restaurants said, “You’re not going to be the right place for everyone, but try to make [your restaurant] the right place to go for as many people as possible.”
  • Invest in allergy-specific technology. Natalie Krusemeier, director of training for the 7-unit, Chicago-based Colonial Café, says the company’s POS system has an allergen key. When pressed by a front-of-house staffer, the back of the house knows of the allergy, and a manager then becomes involved. According to P.F. Chang’s China Bistro chef Jim McCurley, P.F. Chang’s utilizes an allergen matrix that can scrub the menu for allergens, so staff can present allergen-affected guests with a menu tailored to their needs.

For additional information regarding food allergens, you can reference FARE, Food Allergy and Research and Education group, and CHART, the Council of Hotel and Restaurant Trainers.