It was a great lesson for my kids. A lesson in both disappointment and maybe a little anger, albeit an important real-life lesson nonetheless. The lesson? Some restaurants just don’t want food-allergic customers like us.
In late August, my Boston softball team was playing a Championship game. Two of my sons came to watch – both of whom have food allergies. Our team won (convincingly, I might add) and decided to go out to a restaurant/pub afterwards to celebrate. It was still summer, so the kids could stay out a little later. What the heck.
We went to “K’s”. [Okay, that's not the real name of the restaurant. I decided to withhold their name for now as I'd like to give them a 2nd chance. It's also not actually relevant to this message. Regardless, the rating I gave them on the core AllergyEats site reflects our experience fully. No pulled punches.]
K’s has an extremely long menu. I’ve found this can be a mixed blessing for our food-allergic children. On the one hand, more items means more potential choices that may not have their allergens. On the other hand, more items may mean more shared equipment and oils, thus a greater chance of cross-contamination. Of course, overriding all of this is whether or not the restaurant cares to “get it right.” If they do, they can.
My younger son – who has allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, non-baked eggs, and dairy (though he can tolerate trace amounts of cooked dairy), as well as eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE) triggered by “more than trace” quantities of dairy – simply wanted a burger with fries. Upon informing our waitress of his allergies and what he wanted to eat, I asked what oil they used in the fryer. Without hesitation she said peanut oil. I mentioned that I was surprised given how many restaurants are moving away from peanut oil given the rise of food allergies. She then told me that they fry many other dairy products in the fryer where the fries would be made anyway. Oh well. Case closed. No fries.
So how about that burger. I asked if she knew if the bun had dairy in it. She went and checked and said that it did. I asked about the gluten-free buns as they often don’t. They did too, she said. I was surprised that she knew that off-the-cuff. How about any other kind of bread whatsoever, I asked. No. Nothing.
We looked at other menu options, but in talking to her I could tell there was going to be a real or perceived problem with each. I told her I was really disappointed that they weren’t allergy-friendly and that my boys and I would unfortunately have to go elsewhere.
What got me about the whole thing was that she seemed to know just what to say to make it uncomfortable for us to eat there. The quick negative answers. The undisputable knowledge of how every food product they had was too risky for my son. The lack of effort (on a quiet night). I had seen this movie before. It was fishy. I knew we weren’t welcomed there and I made it a point to share with the boys (and a few of my teammates) all the cues that told me that – non-verbal as well as verbal. In any case, whether or not to accommodate food-allergic diners is their decision and their right, not mine.
I told the boys to wait with the team for one more minute while I went back to my car. I wanted to pull out a brochure for the AllergyEats Food Allergy Conference for Restaurateurs to give the manager. After all, it would be held within walking distance of the restaurant and maybe they’d welcome the education (and the opportunity to learn how to no longer lose business!). I asked the waitress if I could see the manager and she pointed him out. I introduced myself, told him about AllergyEats and how restaurants are rated on their allergy-friendliness for the world to see, and handed him the brochure.
Well, there must have been magic in the air that night! Suddenly, he proclaimed that he could definitely make a burger and fries safely for my son, though it would be a basic burger [which I later found out meant no lettuce, tomato, pickles, etc. - don't ask - I don't get it either]. But how, I asked. The peanut oil in the fryer means no fries. Well, what do you know, it’s not peanut oil after all – it’s soybean oil! And that cross-contamination with all the other dairy products? The only dairy that goes in there – contrary (again) to what the waitress originally told me - is on the fried calamari (which they don’t they serve much of). And as I mentioned earlier, we’re okay with trace cooked dairy. Amazing! The restaurant changed in a 5 minute period! Ah, but I forgot about the hamburger buns. Well, wouldn’t you know it – they did in fact have dairy free buns! [Actually, they apparently didn't, but made it a point to tell me that they had someone run to the convenience store to pick some up - somehow I wasn't impressed.] At this point, many of you may question why I didn’t walk away. It was a personal, situational choice. After my conversation with the manager, I trusted that he both knew how and would serve my son a safe meal. In addition, it was late and there were very few other patrons, so the risk of a crazy kitchen was also not present. But did I want to reward them after all the misinformation? Generally I wouldn’t, but in this case it was important to me to stay with the team, so we did.
[Overall, it was very interesting to see how quickly the restaurant's tune changed once they realized they were going to be rated on AllergyEats. Keep that in mind, friends!]
A short while later, out came my son’s very plain hamburger and fries. Tasted fine. No reactions. Nothing.
Needless to say, the manager and waitress received some constructive criticism from me. No yelling. No fit of rage. No moral lecture. Just a calm expression of disappointment – and a reminder of how they almost lost 3 customers that night and one full family of 7 for life (well frankly, that latter part is likely true anyway), not to mention that post-softball game food and drinks would also likely be moved elsewhere. Recognize that I don’t believe it is a restaurant’s responsibility to serve food-allergic patrons (and I know there are some who disagree with this). I’m a firm believer that it is each restaurant’s right to choose – so long as they’re upfront and straight about it. But I also realize that business realities are going to force most restaurants over time to become allergy-friendly or risk losing customers – and dollars - to those that are. So why not start now?!
When all was said and done, we walked away with a championship, some okay – but safe – food, and another great learning experience for my sons to take with them as they grow older and begin dining out without mom and dad. Well worth the price of the meals!
Have you had a similar experience? Do you know when a restaurant just doesn’t want to deal with your or your family’s food allergies? Would you have handled this situation differently that I did? Have you ever mentioned AllergyEats to a restaurant that disappointed? Please share your thoughts and comments in the Reply box below.
And please remember to keep those restaurant ratings coming on the core AllergyEats website or free smartphone app! It only takes a minute to rate a restaurant, but each new review makes AllergyEats a more valuable tool for our entire food allergy and intolerance community.