Independents don’t understand food allergies? Jake’s Seafood leads with great practices
[This AllergyEats Blog post was written by Adrienne Walkowiak]
As food-allergic diners know all too well, finding restaurants that accommodate their allergies is often a hit-or-miss proposition. Some restaurants have elaborate food allergy protocols in place – avoiding cross-contamination, carefully checking ingredient lists, training their staff about food allergies – while others demonstrate little or no concern.
Jake’s Seafood (http://www.jakesseafoods.com/), in Hull, MA, is an independent restaurant that is extremely food-allergy friendly, with a deep care and understanding of food allergy issues.
Jake’s has detailed food allergy policies and procedures in place that could be used as a model for peers.
We’re spotlighting Jake’s on this blog for several reasons. First of all, we believe it benefits the food allergy community to know about this establishment’s exceptional commitment to accommodating food-allergic diners. Additionally, we hope that other independent restaurant owners (as well as chains/corporations) are so inspired by Jake’s motivation and success that they consider implementing similar procedures in their own establishments.
Jim O’Brien, owner of Jake’s Seafood, is dedicated to providing top quality customer service for his guests. He strongly believes that food allergies are an important issue – his nephew has serious food allergies to nuts, white fish, eggs, milk and gluten, and Jim has seen how that impacts the entire family. So Jim insists that his entire staff be educated and aware of this issue.
Jim, who has led Jake’s through 25 seasons of service, is one of the few independent restaurateurs on the Massachusetts Restaurant Association Board of Directors. He uses this organization’s training materials about food allergies and leverages information and materials from the National Restaurant Association’s food allergy training programs as well.
Jim uses a variety of training methodologies, including video tapes, role playing, and exams for new staff members, and ensures that everyone on his staff – including chefs, managers, servers, hosts and bus people – are well educated about food allergies and Jake’s specific protocols. Jake’s allergy training is comprehensive because, as Jim states, “one small breakdown in the communication chain could cause a potentially life-threatening situation.”
Jake’s Seafood provides training at two levels. All staff members get the fundamental training as a foundation, using materials and guidelines provided by national and statewide restaurant associations. Then Jim goes a step further, tailoring his training specifically to Jake’s Seafood.
“Communication is the basic premise – I want my staff to over-communicate,“ Jim explains.
The process starts when the customer informs the server of a food allergy. The server takes ownership of this guest’s meal, collecting detailed information from the customer about his or her allergies. Then, the server alerts the manager to the allergy and flags the order in the kitchen, using a color coded system. The head chef pulls the flagged order and takes responsibility for reviewing the allergy information and preparing the meal without any of the diner’s “trigger foods.” They also announce in the kitchen that there is a food allergic diner to ensure that everyone on the team is aware.
Before bringing the allergen-free meal into the dining room, the server again communicates with the chef in the kitchen, confirming that they have the correct meal for their food allergic customer. The chef and server discuss the meal preparation – “this trout is completely nut-free” – and the server (or the manager) serves the specially-prepared meal to the food allergic guest.
“We take food allergies very seriously,” Jim continues. “We may encounter six to ten allergies in a single night, and we implement the same protocol for each one.”
The staff at Jake’s encourages customers to ask as many questions as they want about meals’ ingredients and preparation. The server also asks detailed questions about each guest’s food allergy or allergies, gathering as much information as possible to share with the chef.
Additionally, the staff designates certain pans as “clean pans,” and uses these pans exclusively to prepare meals for food-allergic guests.
“Ironically, some of our guests are allergic to seafood, so we can use these clean pans to cook chicken, for example, and serve it over a salad,” Jim says. “We wouldn’t cook the food directly on the grill where we prepare seafood, so we use these special pans to avoid cross-contamination.”
“We require that our servers ask the customer a lot of questions, and we reiterate what a huge responsibility this is. We consider food allergies to be a far more important issue than anything else. We know that a tiny bite of a food could severely hurt someone,” Jim adds.
Jim and his staff also ask their vendors many detailed questions about their ingredients. If there’s a question about an offsite vendor’s products or ingredients, or even a minimal possibility that it may contain a food-allergic customer’s “trigger food”, Jake’s staff works with the guest to select a different option from the menu.
As part of their “always evolving” food allergy process, Jim may eliminate certain food allergens, such as nuts, from the menu. Currently, they only use nuts in a few items – such as their brownies, a trout dish and a few others – but they’re considering becoming completely nut-free in the future.
In the seasonal restaurant’s downtime this winter, Jim will consider adding new food-allergy initiatives. For instance, he wants to expand Jake’s menu to include more choices for food-allergic guests, particularly for children. Because Jake’s accommodates food-allergic diners so well, many become repeat customers. Jim wants to ensure that they have more options than “just” plain fish or chicken, and is working to expand the menu accordingly.
As a restaurant owner, Board member and parent, he has seen first-hand a huge variance between restaurants’ food allergy procedures. He explains that some places do an excellent job and some don’t, and he can imagine how frustrating this “hit or miss” approach is for families with food allergies.
He encourages diners to ask a lot of questions about ingredients and food preparation. He also suggests watching for “signs” that could indicate a restaurants’ commitment to quality service. For instance, he says it’s a good sign if managers are out on the floor talking to customers.
Jim understands that the food-allergy issue is ever-evolving for the restaurant industry, and he encourages other restaurant owners, managers and vendors to take it seriously, educating and training their staff and implementing strict food allergy protocols.
Jake’s Seafood is open seasonally from April 1 through November 30. The restaurant hosts some private parties in December and its retail market is open on Christmas Eve selling pre-ordered seafood. For more information, visit http://www.jakesseafoods.com/.
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