The need for proper food allergy training for all foodservice staff

The need for proper food allergy training for all foodservice staff

Restaurant Staff. Photo: Thinkstock
Photo: Thinkstock

When food-allergic guests speak to their servers at Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, a casual dining chain, they’re likely to feel reassured that the restaurant’s staff can successfully accommodate their food allergies. Red Robin has made “allergy friendliness” part of its corporate culture across all locations. The company’s willingness and ability to accommodate special dietary restrictions is evident during conversations with its staff, who have been well-trained on food allergies in general, as well as Red Robin’s specific food allergy protocols.

As the prevalence of food allergies in children and adults unfortunately continues to rise, it’s become even more critical for foodservice industry professionals to be properly trained on how to accommodate food-allergic guests. Approximately 5 percent of the US population has one or more food allergies or celiac disease, and reactions can range from mild (discomfort, rash) to severe (life-threatening anaphylaxis). A simple, innocent mistake in the kitchen could result in a customer’s illness or even death, which could lead to huge liability issues and a ruined reputation—not to mention guilt!

Thankfully, many foodservice establishments are now considering or engaging in food allergy training programs. However, many training programs in the marketplace today aren’t comprehensive enough and may even offer employees, management and customers a false sense of security.

Some restaurants, universities, hotels and other establishments are opting to have one staff member (or a handful of employees) watch a basic 30-to-60-minute food safety video administered due to state laws or as part of a cursory level program. These videos, while certainly valuable in creating a base level of knowledge among those who watch them, should not be considered a step toward true food allergy friendliness. They lack sufficiently detailed information about food allergies, how to properly prepare allergy-friendly meals, how to prevent cross-contact, best practices in communications, etc.

To do it right, there needs to be a commitment from the owner, CEO or GM that prioritizes appropriate, comprehensive training for ALL employees—servers, chefs, managers, etc.—not just one person.  

Proper food allergy training includes more than just basic level awareness. Instead, it provides customized information catered to the particular establishment, emphasizing its specific food allergy protocols and procedures—e.g., how they communicate food allergy orders between the front and back of the house, procedures to prevent cross-contact in the kitchen, various individual staff responsibilities, allergy-friendly equipment and ingredients to use for food-allergic diners. Note that this kind of comprehensive training doesn’t need to be expensive, but it does require commitment and continuous education.

Food-allergic diners will know the difference between foodservice employees that have been appropriately trained versus those that haven’t. Facilities where a few staff members have only watched a short video won’t have the detailed knowledge to confidently serve food-allergic guests. For a much higher level of safety and accommodations, and to attract a loyal, vocal customer base, a restaurant or other facility must implement a more complete food allergy program.

Red Robin, for example, continuously educates all staff about food allergies. In addition to continuous onsite training, employees attend food allergy conferences and other educational opportunities. The company ensures that their employees—in the front and back of the house—are familiar with their specific food allergy protocols, including communication best practices, allergen kits (separate utensils, equipment, gloves, etc.) to prepare meals for food-allergic guests, and a color coding system to visually identify allergy-friendly meals.

Similarly, Del Posto, a four-star restaurant in Manhattan, believes that food allergy training is key to a successful guest experience, and the restaurant provides rigorous, ongoing training for all staff. Its food allergy protocol begins when people call for reservations, as the reservationists proactively ask about food allergies in the party. The staff is comprehensively trained on the company food allergy protocols—including designated, allergy-friendly fryers, special color-coding system to identify food-allergic guests’ orders and meals, separate pasta, meat, fish and pastry lines to prevent cross-contamination, and the allergy-friendly ingredients (including gluten-free pasta) that are stocked in the kitchen.

Whether an establishment implements its own customized, comprehensive in-house training program or one developed by an independent training company, it’s a positive step toward creating a safer, more comfortable environment for food-allergic guests. Those guests will pay reputational and financial dividends over time with their loyalty and praise in the food allergy community, both online and off.

Realize, however, that food allergy training is not a one-time thing—there needs to be an environment of ongoing training. Staff needs to be continuously educated, especially as new employees are hired, to understand food allergies, the specific protocols for accommodating food-allergic guests and each staff member’s role in the process.

When leadership emphasizes the importance of allergy-friendliness and training, staff are more likely to create an accommodating culture. Properly train your staff and your allergy-friendly establishment will enjoy increased safety, customers, loyalty and profits.

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