32 million Americans have food allergies. And 200,000 people every year need emergency medical care after a bad food allergy reaction.
So what happens when people with deadly food allergies go out to eat? Well, they predominantly rely on you, their server, to make sure they don’t get food that will kill them.
So you need to know how to be a good server when people with food allergies come into your restaurant. Remember, they’re putting their lives in your hands.
There are over 170 different foods that people can have an allergic reaction to. But most people are allergic to one of these 8. Milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, and crustacean shellfish. However, sesame allergies are becoming more frequent.
Start paying attention to packaging. Read labels both in your daily eating habits, and the packaging food comes in at restaurants.
You’ll start to notice allergens at the bottom of the ingredient lists on the packaging. It will say something like: “CONTAINS WHEAT, COCONUT, MILK, SOY, AND PEANUT INGREDIENTS”
(This particular list came from the Coconut Dreams Cookies the writer had in arms reach.)
So what’s surprising about that list? The cookies have milk that could trigger a deadly milk allergy.
The point is, you need to get in the habit of noticing what foods contain potential allergies. That way, you’ll be better at recommending safe foods for your customers.
Here’s another weird one. A customer has a severe fish allergy. Your restaurant serves salmon, and they fry fish sticks as part of a kid’s meal. So you can’t use the grill or the fryer.
That’s fine, your customer can have a salad. So you get them a Caesar salad.
Wrong. Caesar dressing has anchovies in it.
So with these eight common allergens, find out where they are in your restaurant. It’s important to learn where they shouldn’t be too. This way you don’t accidentally cross-contaminate a clean surface.
Learn how your kitchen prepares food. Then follow strict procedures to avoid any cross-contamination.
Look out for deli meat, since the same slicer is often used for both meat and cheese. This can cross-contaminate your meat.
Also, keep an eye out for anything cooked with or in butter. Sometimes steaks are topped in butter to make them juicier. Shellfish often comes in a butter base.
Chocolate, especially milk chocolate, can be another allergy trigger for a milk allergy.
Eggs are usually used in any breaded foods, like mozzarella sticks or chicken tenders. Ice cream can be another no-go for an egg allergy.
Look out for eggs in the soups your kitchen prepares, fried rice, and meatballs. Many store-bought hard candies have an egg wash to give them a shine. Even this can trigger an egg allergy reaction.
If you’re allergic to one, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re allergic to the other. But very often a person will be allergic to both, so it’s best to be careful.
Look out for nut sauces and gravies. Pesto notoriously is made with nuts, but it is possible to make a nut-free pesto. Make sure you know what your kitchen makes.
Check salad dressings and salad toppings.
Always check grain bread, veggie burgers, and baked goods.
If you’re in a restaurant that serves Chinese or Thai food, you’ll likely work with a lot of nuts. So keep your eyes open for cross-contamination.
A person with a wheat allergy is usually allergic to gluten. But some surprising foods could trigger a wheat allergy. These include crackers, couscous, soy sauce, and even some meat products like hot dogs or cold cuts.
Breaded foods – like mozzarella sticks or fried chicken – can trigger a wheat allergy too. Some sauces, like Alfredo sauce, aren’t necessarily gluten-free either.
If a customer has a gluten allergy, make sure their foods are gluten-free.
A soy allergy makes it hard to be vegan. Foods like tofu, tempeh, and edamame all contain soy.
But soy is also in the mysteriously labeled “artificial and/or natural flavoring.”
That’s why it’s important to look for the allergy warning at the bottom of the ingredients list. It’s usually easier to understand. Who wants to try to remember that things like mono diglyceride can trigger a soy allergy?
We covered that Caesar dressing can trigger a fish allergy. But that’s not the only weird place fish hide in our food.
Fish are in Worcestershire sauce, and bbq sauces made with Worcestershire sauce.
Some beers and wines are crafted with something called isinglass. These are fish swim bladders. It’s used to keep the beer from becoming hazy. But depending on the severity of the fish allergy, it can cause a reaction.
Its use also makes these beers not vegan-friendly.
Crustacean shellfish is about the only one that’s straightforward. If it comes from the sea and in a shell, it’ll trigger the allergy. But octopus, calamari, and squid can trigger it too.
What do you picture when you imagine an allergic food reaction? It probably looks like chocking. You imagine the swelling face, difficulty breathing, and redness. But not every allergic reaction looks like that.
But that’s not necessarily accurate. A lot of the symptoms may not even be visible. A person may feel itchy, but not show a rash. Their stomach may hurt. They could get headaches, feel light-headed, or even faint.
Some people’s allergies are more extreme than others. Some people only get an itch, and other people could go into anaphylactic shock and die.
For some people, cross-contamination won’t hurt them. Other people can start to get tingly just with food odors, like peanut butter, present in the area.
If you’re lucky enough to work for a high quality, healthy restaurant, you’re in good hands. Most likely they’ll have a company allergy policy, and they’ll make sure everyone knows it.
Most restaurants with 10 or more employees have an allergy policy. They’ll teach it to their employees or have it posted in the building. If you don’t know the allergy policy, ask.
In some restaurants, a manager will oversee the entire production of a person’s meal. They’ll watch every step to ensure it doesn’t become cross-contaminated.
Other restaurants have meals with food allergies written or printed on colored tickets. Some simply have !!!ALLERGY!!! printed on the customer’s ticket.
You must know your restaurant’s policy, and you need to follow it precisely. If you don’t know, let your manager know whenever a customer tells you they have a food allergy. They can oversee food preparation and customer service accordingly.
As a server, you should get to know each dish. You should know the flavor profile, textures, and most importantly, ingredients.
Now that you know the most common allergens, look out for them. Make a special note whenever you encounter a new dish with a common allergen.
Some of them, like Caesar dressing as we discussed earlier, will surprise you.
When you’re learning about a dish’s ingredients, learn how it’s cooked as well. Most restaurants already have practices in place to prevent cross-contamination.
But you need to know what other dishes are cooked in the same fry oil as the fish, or if fish and steaks share the same grill.
When you let your kitchen know a customer has a food allergy, they’ll make sure the food is prepared safely. But you can do your part by knowing what foods are easy to safely prepare. Encourage your customers to get those instead.
As a server, you may be held liable in a lawsuit. If you’re told about their food allergy, but they still get a dish that triggers a reaction, you’re on the hook.
The restaurant will be on the hook too, but so will you. Other people who were a part of preparing the customer’s food could be held liable too.
That’s why it’s important to be thorough when you’re serving a customer with a food allergy. That and you don’t want to make a person sick.
Look at it from your customer’s perspective. A lot of people with food allergies are self-conscious about their allergy. No one wants to interrupt a happy conversation by announcing their life-threatening allergy.
Plus think of the last time you had to send your food back. It makes you anxious and uncomfortable, and you don’t want to have to deal with it.
So if a customer tells you about their allergy, take it seriously. Know they’re looking out for their health. Do what you can to let them know you’ll make sure their meal is completely safe.
When you’re working in a restaurant, you must know how to be a good server. And that means you know how to take care of your customers.
So to protect customers with food allergies, make sure you know the ingredients in every dish.
It’s also important you know how food is prepared. You should know where cross-contamination could potentially occur. And when in doubt, follow your company’s allergy policy.
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