The food allergy community recognizes there's a huge discrepancy between restaurants, universities and other dining institutions that understand how to accommodate food-allergic guests and those that don't. The best restaurants and universities are well-educated and well-trained on food allergies, with strong procedures and protocols in place to avoid potentially dangerous mistakes. The staff understands how to avoid cross-contact, knows every ingredient in every dish (or where to find them), uses allergy-friendly products/vendors and keeps track of food-allergic diners' meals from preparation through presentation. The most accommodating locations also communicate effectively with their food-allergic guests to make the dining experience as comfortable as possible.
As the founder & cEO of AllergyEats and the father of three food-allergic children, I’ve been to restaurants on both ends of the spectrum. On one hand, I've experienced servers who didn’t know that cheese and butter are dairy, or where managers didn’t know the ingredients in their food. On the flip side, I’ve seen a large (and growing) number of restaurants, universities, ballparks and others who absolutely excel at accommodating food-allergic diners' needs. These allergy-friendly locations are the ones that my family frequents often and recommends to others through word-of-mouth and via online channels like AllergyEats.
A few places that excel at accommodating those with special dietary needs include:
• Northeastern University (Boston): Food-allergic students, prospective students and their families are pleased with the food allergy protocols in place at Northeastern University. The food served in the university’s Zone 7 (in the International Village resident dining hall, one of the three dining halls on campus) is free of seven of the eight major food allergens. (Fin fish is the only of the "Big 8" allergens that's served there). Zone 7 serves food to everyone—not just food-allergic guests—with many delicious choices for each meal, not just one or two bland offerings. In fact, many students without food allergies opt to eat Zone 7 food because it simply tastes so good. In Zone 7, all food is prepared at a separate station (not in the common kitchen) and in the open so students can watch the process. Staff members in Zone 7 are all dual trained in proper food allergy protocols. In the university's other dining hall areas, the staff is required to get a (trained) manager if a guest says they have food allergies to ensure proper food handling techniques. Only a small handful of students need greater accommodations, due to their multiple or less common food allergies.
• Blue Ginger (Wellesley, Mass.) & Blue Dragon (Boston): Chef Ming Tsai, whose son was born with food allergies, was a pioneer in implementing comprehensive food allergy protocols, including extensive staff training. His "Food Bible"—a comprehensive book listing every component of every meal— helps his staff immediately address diners' food allergy questions and determine what needs to be modified to make a dish safe for each guest. Additionally, Ming’s strict protocols for food-allergic diners' meals include specific checkpoints from the time the order is placed until the allergy-friendly meal is successfully served. Ming has also been a tremendous advocate for the food allergy community within the restaurant industry. For four years, Ming worked with the Massachusetts Legislature to help write Bill S. 2701, which was signed into law in 2009. This groundbreaking legislation, the first of its kind in the US, requires local restaurants to comply with simple food allergy awareness guidelines. He has seen firsthand that when restaurants provide delicious foods and great service, while expertly handling food allergies, they can experience tremendous business benefits.
• Red Robin Gourmet Burgers: The Red Robin restaurant chain proactively offers information about the top allergens in all of their U.S and Canadian restaurants. All Red Robin locations are peanut-free, and they can create meals without gluten or other food allergens. As part of their standard protocol, the kitchen staff utilizes allergen kits—separate knives, utensils, gloves, etc.—to prepare food-allergic guests' orders and uses purple frill picks to visually identify allergy-friendly meals, as purple is universally associated with food allergy awareness. Red Robin is also committed to continuous, comprehensive food allergy staff training, in person and through reminder documents, onsite posters, etc. In addition, Red Robin has embraced technology as part of their food allergy protocols, offering interactive allergen menus where guests can indicate their allergens and get a customized menu of items that are appropriate for them.
With increased awareness, training and education, I expect a continuously increasing number of restaurants, colleges and other institutions will become more allergy-friendly. As that occurs, the benefits to the food allergy community—and those that accommodate them—will be strong and mutual.