Great Wolf Lodge: The “Gold Standard” of Food Allergy Staycations
Years ago, AllergyEats declared Disney World the “gold standard”” of food allergy dining. Today, we are taking the bold step of putting that same elite stamp on Great Wolf Lodge, a family of 12 indoor water park resorts across the U.S. (plus one in Canada). There has been an extremely positive buzz within the food allergy community about Great Wolf Lodge resorts, and food allergy families that are unfamiliar with these staycation destinations are taking note. They are asking questions on the various AllergyEats forums and social media about how well Great Wolf Lodge accommodates food allergies and the response from the community is generally ecstatic. Like many others, my food allergy family was curious about the hype, so we visited our nearest Great Wolf Lodge. Not only was our first experience sensational… but so was our second and third! Like many food allergy families, we’ve now become regular visitors.
AllergyEats decided it was time to reveal the details of Great Wolf Lodge’s greatness in food allergy accommodations, so we sat down to interview Chris Hammond, the Corporate Director of Food and Beverage for the water park chain. Chris has worked at Great Wolf Lodge for eight years. For the first four years, he worked at their Concord, NC property, and for the past four, he’s worked at their Madison, WI, headquarters. Chris is credited with pioneering Great Wolf Lodge’s exemplary food allergy efforts.
AE: Did you start the push to make Great Wolf Lodge more allergy-friendly
CH: Every property started to notice that allergies had become a big issue with our guests and that these guests needed to be accommodated. I’m the one that circled it all around and made it a brand-wide effort.
AE: Great Wolf Lodge has an amazing reputation in the food allergy community. What is your motivation?
CH: The motivation comes from our guests. They’re the ones that need options and somewhere safe to eat. We had a choice. We could decide not to accommodate them and have them go elsewhere, which we didn’t want to do, or we could embrace the fact that we have a lot of families with food allergies coming here. We decided to embrace it. We didn’t want to just satisfy a child here or there – we wanted to make our food allergy protocols broader so we could accommodate all of our guests, regardless of their allergies. By doing so, we provide dining experiences aimed at creating guest meals that will all be fabulous and safe.
AE: How did you create an allergy-friendly culture from scratch?
CH: We began about four years ago. We went to corporate and looked at what each property was doing, then took the best practices and rolled it into one program across all of our properties.
Nut allergies were the most common allergy at our restaurants, so we looked at how many items we had with nuts and decided it was possible to get rid of nuts altogether. We never used peanut oil to begin with, but we did have nuts in some other iems, like pecans on some of our salads. We knew we could change our recipes, and decided that we wouldn’t actively buy or use nuts on any of our properties. Some of the things we buy do come from manufacturers that process nuts, but those are usually in their own packages. We don’t have nuts on premises and we don’t have nuts in our recipes. Getting rid of nuts was a huge step for us. We just found other items to replace them with or we simply went without. Leaving nuts off salads was no big deal.
Look at celiac disease – that was another big one. We do have our own pizza shop, and our kitchens have flour in them. We looked at how we were going to make items like chicken fingers or fried calamari, and knew we could use a different flour – chickpea or rice flour – instead of regular flour or breading. We decided to make all of our fryers naturally gluten free. Now, our calamari is one of our best selling items, and guests can’t believe it’s completely gluten free. Kids love our chicken fingers. We wanted them to be naturally gluten free, not made with products that are altered to be gluten free.
AE: When you went through the process of becoming allergy-friendly, how was the buy-in from your various units?
CH: Everyone has been on board with our allergy procedures, and every property has embraced it.
AE: What type of food allergy protocols and procedures do you have in place in the front and back of the house? How does everyone on staff know about them?
CH: If you go onto the Great Wolf Lodge website, there’s a link where you can send an email to communicate directly to the chef about your food allergies. Or guests can come in and speak to our front desk or restaurant staff. Regardless of the allergy, our protocol will always be that the server must speak to the chef or sous chef about the guest’s allergies personally. Then, the chef or sous chef comes out to speak to the guest directly, asking what they like and what they haven’t been able to eat at other restaurants. If we have a child with food allergies who never gets pizza, we can make them a pizza. That chef or sous chef is the only person that handles the food-allergic guest’s food. They don’t go back to the kitchen and ask someone else to handle it. We don’t put food allergy meals up in the window with the other food, and no one else touches it. That chef owns that meal until they personally bring it back to the guest.
AE: What about equipment in the kitchen?
CH: We have worktops that are specified as allergy-friendly worktops. We use colored cookware for allergy-friendly meals, and use allergy kits with purple spatula, knives, etc. to designate allergy-friendly equipment. If a guest wants a certain allergen-free dish, we have multiple burners and enough space to make their meal away from their allergens. We don’t cook all pizzas in the same oven. And our fryers are dedicated gluten, nut, egg and dairy-free.
AE: How many chefs do you have on duty at one time, who are trained and educated about food allergies?
CH: There’s always a chef or sous chef and culinary manager onsite. At any given time, we have at least 3-4 people – sometimes more – that are capable of handling food allergy meals. Every day, each property has many requests for food allergy meals. Our priority is the safety of these meals. We’re very upfront and guests understand this, and they are more patient knowing their food will be made safe (though our meals are still generally delivered quickly). Since our fryers are naturally gluten, nut, egg and dairy-free, if a child with these allergies asks for fried foods, it doesn’t take any extra time to prepare them. We keep things as clean as possible.
What’s unique about us is that if you have multiple allergies, we can create meals that meet your needs, regardless of whether your allergies are common or uncommon.
AE: So let’s talk about multiple allergies. How do you accommodate multiple and/or obscure allergies?
CH: Because we’ve embraced being allergy-friendly, and with the amount of training that we do, we know that we’re solely responsible for our guests having a safe and great meal. We take our time to accommodate them. If you have 10 allergies, we’ll work with you to create a safe meal. If we know that a food-allergic guest will be here for three days, we’ll plan ahead. While they’re having dinner, we’ll ask what their favorite breakfast is so that we can be prepared come the next morning.
AE: What kind of food allergy training does your staff receive? How often?
CH: In terms of training, Russ, our culinary director, and I spend a great deal of time with our chefs and sous chefs on allergies. We’re always talking to the team about it, and staying proactive. We have an open forum and do a lot of food allergy education with the staff. While we can accommodate any food allergy, we don’t go into the non-Big 8 discussion with the line level staff. We want our staff to be knowledgeable about food allergies, but we don’t want to get to the point where anyone other than the chef and sous chef are handling the food allergy meals. We always get the chef involved. As much as other staff members could handle it, we just want to make sure that our chefs own the food allergy meals. We want the chefs to own the process and ensure that everything has been properly handled so there is no risk. When people are here, we don’t want them to come into contact with their allergens.
AE: Do servers get training beyond knowing to turn over food allergy orders to the chef?
CH: Yes, they go through the same education process as the line level staff. We want them to speak intelligently about food allergies, but we don’t want them to handle the food allergy orders themselves. We want to empower them and make them knowledgeable, but we want the chefs to handle every allergy order personally.
All our training is internal – it’s all Ross and me leading the training. Yet, our food allergy training is constant and ongoing. We travel about 40 weeks a year, visiting all of our properties and training our staff. We’re making sure they have kits in place, that they’re in good shape, and that communication is constant.
AE: Do you carry any packaged products as a back-up for food-allergic guests?
CH: Yes, we always have prepacked foods for our food-allergic guests. We use Enjoy Life allergy-friendly cookies in the rooms – that was our mid-winter and spring partnership. At all properties, we have our standard food, but we do have individually-wrapped allergy-friendly products, such as Udi’s rolls. We have individually packaged cereal, such as Cascadia nut-free prepackaged granola. Allergy-friendly pasta comes in individual packages. We like individual packaging for food-allergic guests because we only open them one time, so there’s no risk of cross-contamination. We need to make sure our guests and their parents are comfortable that the food is safe. We will never go past the parents’ level of comfort. Sometimes they’d prefer knowing that their child is eating a pre-packaged Udi roll.
AE: How many Great Wolf Lodge resorts are there?
CH: We have 13 company-owned locations. Only one location in Niagara Falls, Canada is a franchise. More families are coming to Great Wolf Lodge because of how well we can accommodate food allergies. We love the fact that we can take care of all families that visit. There are so many kids with allergies coming to our properties. Sometimes we ask a dairy-allergic child if they’ve had pizza, and they haven’t had it in 4 or 5 years. We can give them pizza or whatever they want.
We have guests coming in who are allergic to dairy, egg, soy, fish, and many, many other foods. We have areas in the kitchen that are designed for food allergies, and we can accommodate them all. We have allergy-friendly products like egg-free waffles. We have vendors that are extremely allergy friendly, like Divvies, which is dairy and egg free. We always have plenty of allergy-free foods.
AE: Roughly what percentage of your dining parties have allergies or special dietary needs?
CH: It’s never all at one time, but roughly 25% of our guests have food allergies or other special dietary needs. And if someone says they’re allergic to something, we consider it to be a serious allergy. If you say you’re allergic to mayonnaise, we consider it a real allergy, even if it’s really a preference and you just don’t like it. We don’t judge – we take people at their word. If they say they’re allergic, we treat it like an allergy.
For the most part, everything is made from scratch. If you say you’re allergic to garlic, it’s no big deal because we didn’t pre-make the dish, so we can leave the garlic out of your meal. If you have an allergy and we’re serving pancakes or waffles, they’re made from scratch, so we can create these items that are free of your allergens.
AE: Disney World is considered the gold standard, in terms of accommodating the food allergy community. They’ve shared their numbers, and have seen an incredible surge in food-allergic guests. Do you have any statistics on the growth of food-allergic guests at your properties?
CH: I don’t have concrete statistics, but I can tell you it’s grown. Ten years ago, we maybe had a few allergy requests per week. Now, it’s every day. We are getting a lot of guests with food allergies.
We’ve found that the culinary environment as a whole has changed. People cook at home more; people today know what they want to eat. They want to get exactly what they want at restaurants. They ask for substitutions and changes. Many restaurants want to accommodate their guests’ requests, whether it’s for allergies, intolerances or preferences. It’s much more acceptable today to ask for changes in the food. Restaurants need to be accommodating, but not all restaurants have bought into this yet.
For Great Wolf Lodge, we’re great at accommodating food allergies, but it’s more than just allergies. We strip out artificial colors and preservatives from our foods. Our mac and cheese is colored with turmeric, not artificial coloring. We use organic ketchup, organic juice and non-GMO fruit. We are doing what parents are asking for. They’re concerned about what they’re putting into their bodies and their kids’ bodies. Guests today are much more savvy and want to know what’s in the foods they’re eating, now more than ever before. We apply it in areas that make the most sense. We use non-GMO fryer oil, non-GMO potatoes, and organic ketchup to make our French fries. We’re not on a health crusade – we’re just offering a way for people to make choices that they feel is right for their families.
AE: We’ve talked about Disney World being the gold standard for accommodating food allergies. When looking at Great Wolf Lodge compared to Disney, where are there major similarities and differences?
CH: There are definitely commonalities between our properties and Disney’s. We both have an opportunity to increase the experience for food-allergic families. In terms of tending to the allergy and the expert handling of the food, there’s no difference between Disney and us. Neither Disney nor Great Wolf Lodge staff ever miss an opportunity to enhance guests’ experiences. The main difference is that there’s a shorter average stay at Great Wolf Lodge of 1.4 days on property. It’s more of a staycation option. People typically stay longer at Disney.
When you look at other theme parks, many of them, such as Six Flags, are seasonal. They have a lot of young, seasonal employees and food vendors scattered throughout the park. Food allergies are more difficult to accommodate in that environment, and allergens are harder to contain. At Great Wolf Lodge, we have a scalable magnitude and a controlled environment.
AE: What advice would you give to other restaurants who want to become more allergy-friendly?
CH: I think the advice is either do it or don’t. If you’re going to do it, embrace it beyond belief. You have people’s lives at stake. When you are allergy-friendly, you’ll get families that are now loyal to you because you took care of them. You can’t just “kind of commit”. Once you commit to becoming more allergy-friendly, there are publications, websites, groups, and so much information out there. Be careful where you get your information, though. Some sites say oats are gluten free, which isn’t true, so you can’t accept everything as gospel. Do careful research. And you can’t take it lightly. If you do commit, and you treat food-allergic families well, you’ll have loyal customers for life.
AE: Anything else to share with the food allergy community?
CH: The most important thing that we can all do here is communicate. If there’s something that you need, let us know. The more you tell us, the more we can do for you.
AE: And we recognize that it’s a two way street. It’s our responsibility to tell you about our food allergies. We have to be vigilant, inspect the food, and carry our epinephrine. As a food-allergic guest, we have certain responsibilities, such as communicating our allergies clearly to your staff.
CH: Right. As a guest, you can’t be afraid to give us the full story. We want our guests to be honest. We want to know about your food allergies, and we take it very seriously.
We recently had a family come in, and they had two kids with two different food allergies, and both kids ordered the same thing – cheeseburgers. When the chef delivered the food allergy meals personally, the father questioned how the chef could be certain these are the right cheeseburgers to accommodate each child’s specific allergy, and how do we know the right child is getting the right meal? We have rubber stamps saying “this meal is prepared specially for” with a space to fill in the guest’s name. We serve kids’ meals on paper, so the chef was able to stamp the paper, and write which cheeseburger was prepared for Samantha with the egg allergy, and which was prepared for John with celiac disease. It’s just one more checkpoint to make the guests more comfortable, and is a great tool if there are multiple allergies at the same table.
By the way, if a guest isn’t comfortable, there’s no shame in saying so. We’ll never argue with someone. If they think this roll doesn’t look right, they should speak up, and we’ll change it until they’re comfortable. Guests have to be comfortable with what they’re eating.
AE: Thanks so much, Chris, for sharing this information with us. We’re always happy to share information about allergy-friendly destinations, and we want the entire AllergyEats community to know about how wonderfully accommodating you are at Great Wolf Lodge.
I truly believe that Great Wolf Lodge has become the “gold standard” of food-allergy dining at staycation resorts and may soon be held with as much respect as Disney World is today. And that’s saying a lot!
So what do YOU think? Have you been to a Great Wolf Lodge? Do you have a glowing experience to share? Or do you disagree with my “gold standard” label for them? Are you more likely to take your kids to Great Wolf Lodge now? We want to read YOUR thoughts. Please share them below.