[The following AllergyEats Blog post was written by Adrienne Walkowiak]
The staff at P.F. Chang’s China Bistro understands that food allergies and intolerances are becoming increasingly prevalent. In fact, they serve an average of 3,000 food allergic and gluten intolerant guests daily in their nationwide chain of restaurants.
“We know that food allergies are becoming more common, and we’re leading the charge to serve these guests,” said Chef Gregg Piazzi, of P.F. Chang’s China Bistro.
The popular Asian-style restaurant chain launched their gluten-free menu in 2001, and was one of the industry’s early adopters in accommodating gluten-free diners. Now, each of their 200 restaurants serves approximately 20 gluten-free meals daily.
“The leadership in our company is just so compassionate. They really get the challenges that people with food allergies and gluten intolerance face, and they believe it’s our responsibility to accommodate their needs,” Piazzi continued. “The Celiac and food allergy community has really embraced us for our efforts.”
P.F. Chang’s food allergy protocols start with their “incredible supply chain,” Piazzi explained. P.F. Chang’s serves 400 food items in their restaurants, and they always use the same vendors for their chili sauce, soy sauce and other ingredients. And they consistently work with the same two suppliers for all of their chicken, knowing that the product is fresh, and not injected or marinated.
Additionally, P.F. Chang’s has a nutritionist on staff, who analyzes every menu item for traces of food allergens.
The restaurant chain has implemented an innovative computer program that tracks diners’ allergies and determines which menu items are free of these ingredients. Staff members can input 15 different food allergens and the program sorts menu options that do not contain those allergy triggers. If a guest is allergic to shellfish, nuts and dairy, a staff member enters those multiple allergens into the computer and receives a printable list of menu options that the diner can comfortably eat. The staff member then prints out the modified menu and brings it directly to the food-allergic guest so they can select their meal.
P.F. Chang’s strives to proactively ask all guests if they have food allergies. If so, the server immediately informs the manager and kitchen staff about the food-allergic guest. The kitchen staff immediately pulls out clean utensils and cookware, as well as all new sauces, oils, aromatics and proteins to ensure there’s no cross-contamination with the food allergy trigger or triggers.
Since many Asian dishes typically contain peanuts and cashews, P.F. Chang’s has special policies in place for handling nuts and tree nuts. Though they buy nuts in 30 pound bulk boxes, the staff divides them into individual containers with tight-fitting plastic lids. These secure containers prevent peanuts from “floating around” and possibly falling into any other bins or containers. Additionally, the chain uses soybean oil – not peanut oil – for cooking.
“We take precautions to eliminate chances for cross contamination,” Piazzi continued. “We run drills all the time to ensure that our staff is used to – and familiar with – the procedures.”
“We make sure our servers are knowledgeable about food allergy issues. They need to be confident and sound confident to make our guests feel comfortable about dining here,” he added.
The restaurants place heavy emphasis on food-allergy training, making sure their entire staff is familiar with their food allergy procedures. Each restaurant regularly conducts “food allergy fire drills” that allow staff to practice their food allergy procedures. Because they serve so many food allergic customers – an average of 30 per day at each restaurant – they’re well-versed on the protocols, yet they’re constantly reinforcing the importance of this issue. They’re also careful to ensure consistent food allergy policies across all of their 200 restaurants.
Piazzi is proud to work for a company that’s so pro-active and conscientious about serving food allergic guests, and he encourages other restaurants to become more food-allergy friendly, as well.
His advice for other restaurants: use reliable food purchasing sources with clear, consistent labeling so you’re confident about every ingredient you serve. Don’t try to save a few dollars with a less expensive supplier – it’s worth the extra expense to be sure about your ingredients. He also believes that having a nutritionist on staff is hugely beneficial, in terms of analyzing dishes for allergen triggers.
Piazzi also emphasizes the importance of staff training. The entire restaurant staff needs to be knowledgeable about food allergies, familiar with internal systems and confident when speaking with guests.
Piazzi recognizes that working for a large, national chain like P.F. Chang’s has significant benefits, such as the budget to accommodate a staff nutritionist. Smaller, independent restaurants may have to overcome more challenges to becoming more food-allergy friendly, he explained. For instance, they don’t have the same buying power and volume as the big chains, and may not have the same relationships with reliable food suppliers. He does encourage restaurants of all sizes to implement food-allergy trainings, education and protocols to accommodate food allergic and gluten-intolerant guests.
“We’re in the business to please people,” Piazzi explained. “We all know people who are gluten-intolerant or have food allergies. “It’s our responsibility to push this movement along.”
Wow! Are you as impressed as I am? (Most of you must be – you’ve given P.F. Chang’s China Bistro a 4.4 out of 5.0 AllergyEats allergy-friendliness rating!)
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