“No Substitutions” policies in restaurants: a disturbing new trend

[this AllergyEats Blog post written by Adrienne Walkowiak]

 

As someone with a lifelong dairy allergy, I’ve learned to scout out restaurants that will accommodate my special dietary needs – and avoid the ones that won’t.  And as someone who appreciates a good meal, I’m always excited to hear about fabulous, new, local restaurants, especially as a DC-transplant (where there were tons of amazing restaurants) now living in a small New Hampshire town (where there are decidedly fewer options).

So when I heard there was a new restaurant opening in my neighborhood, I was excited to try it – until I heard from several friends that the owner has a strict “no substitutions” policy in place- even for guests with food allergies.

I was surprised – and more than a little disappointed.  And that feeling continues as I read stories in the media that spotlight this “no substitutions” trend.

I was reading Bon Appetit the other day, eager to see who made the magazine’s Top 10 Restaurant List, an annual honor that’s bestowed to an elite group of the hottest, most innovative restaurants.  I read with interest about a popular place in my old stomping ground, Little Serow in Washington, DC.   This intimate Thai place, owned by husband-and-wife team Johnny Monis and Anne Marler, offers a set menu – and is unapologetic about their no substitutions policy.

“We wanted to create a specific experience, and we never intended it to be for everyone,” Monis declared in the article, when asked why they won’t substitute ingredients for food-allergic guests.

Elsewhere in the story, he explained their commitment to “old-fashioned hospitality,” which, in my opinion, is an oxymoron.  How can you claim to be hospitable when your staff won’t accommodate me – and the millions of others like me who have food allergies?

This trend was also recently featured in a Bites on Today story on the popular Today Show.  Reporter Danika Fears mentioned NYC diner Shopsin’s, where owner Kenny Shopsin insists that customers play by his rules – or else.  If a guest asks for a substitution, he erupts into a rage and kicks them out of his restaurant.

“Some people tell me that they’re deathly allergic to something and that I have to make sure it’s not in their food. I kick them out,” Shopsin wrote in his book “Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin.” If someone has a food allergy, he recommends they “go eat at a hospital” instead.

This concept was a joke when the infamous “Soup Nazi” forbade customers from making specific requests on the popular sitcom Seinfeld.  But it’s not funny when it’s happening at my new neighborhood restaurant.  And it’s not funny when a well-respected global food magazine applauds a non-accommodating restaurant, awarding it the #7 spot on their Top 10 best restaurants list.

“On one side it’s a production issue,” New York City restaurant consultant Brendan Spiro told TODAY.com. “To go outside of the box could mess with timing. But most chefs believe substitutions could also harm the integrity of the dish itself.”

This leaves me wondering – what’s more important: the integrity of the dish or the health and well-being of a guest?  Will my meal really be compromised significantly if I ask for my salmon to be cooked without butter?  Will the integrity of my salad be diminished if I ask to hold the cheese?

In her story, Fears reports that “some chefs are comfortable losing a few customers who have allergies,” but in fact, millions of people have food allergies, and accommodating their special dietary restrictions will significantly increase restaurants’ bottom line.  Research shows that food-allergic guests typically dine out with others, so by alienating me, for example, a restaurant also loses the revenue from my husband, my kids, our friends and other family members.  AllergyEats has determined that restaurants that accommodate guests with food allergies could literally increase profits by tens of thousands of dollars annually.

Another thing for restaurant owners to consider: social media and sites like AllergyEats have made it easier than ever for people to voice their opinions.  If a chef ever kicked me out because I have a medical condition that prohibits me from eating dairy, you’d better believe I’d be posting scathing reviews of that establishment faster than you can say “Facebook.”

In my work with AllergyEats, I’m constantly encouraged by stories of restaurants that work hard to implement food allergy protocols.  Many have made huge strides: training and educating their staff, implementing careful systems to avoid cross-contamination, knowing their ingredient lists and food preparation techniques, communicating carefully with guests and taking every precaution to serve meals that don’t contain guests’ allergens.  In my opinion, those are the restaurants that should be highlighted in Best Restaurants lists.  Those are the restaurants we should support, visit and recommend to our friends.  And those are the restaurants that we should Tweet about, helping to drive traffic and, ultimately, revenue to help them thrive.

This trend of being un-accommodating is frustrating and disturbing.  One chef in a “no substitutions” restaurant commented that people wouldn’t ask Picasso to change his art, so they shouldn’t ask him to change his meal preparation.  Well, Picasso’s art won’t make me violently sick, but your pasta in cheese sauce will.

I desperately hope that this “no substitutions” trend is short-lived.  And, in the meantime, I’ll be boycotting our new neighborhood “no substitutions” place.

 

Thank you so much for this great post, Adrienne.  I have a feeling this is going to be a controversial post.  On the one hand, you make great points about how it’s really not that difficult for a restaurant to accommodate the majority of simple requests by food-allergic patrons.  Similarly, I think you make an excellent point about an unaccommodating restaurant making it onto a very exclusive Best Restaurants list.  And furthermore, if I were paying Picasso, I’d expect him to be responsive to my request!

On the flip side, I am generally of the strong belief that restaurateurs can operate their restaurants anyway they so choose.  In fact, since all I ask is that they be upfront about whether they are going to be accommodating or not, at least these restaurants aren’t wasting our time.  Of course in Shopsin’s restaurant, if there is no signage warning patrons in advance of no substitutions, then there is absolutely no call for rudeness… but he’s probably just being controversial because it will draw attention to his restaurant.  At the end of the day, a restaurateur can do what he or she likes… and so can we.  As an unfortunately growing community (including many food-allergic children now becoming young adults and adults), our dollars will become more and more valuable to those who wish to accommodate us rather than all those Picasso’s cooking food for others.

 

What do you think?  Share your thoughts on this subject by clicking Comment or Reply below.

 

Also, remember to please rate all your dining experiences on our core AllergyEats site at www.allergyeats.com By taking just a minute to do so, you are adding to our ever-growing body of information helping food-allergic diners find those wonderful accommodating restaurants.

And if you are a restaurateur who wants to become more allergy-friendly, or if you know one who might be interested, check out AllergyEats’ Inaugural Food Allergy Conference for Restaurateurs: What Every Restaurant Should Know About Food Allergies to Ensure Safety & Maximize Customer Engagement, Loyalty, and Revenue at www.allergyeats.com/conference.  The conference is being held October 16 in Boston with 11 absolutely A+ speakers.  Registration is underway, so reserve your place now!

Comments

    Author:
    Faith Miller
    Written:


    I will NOT dine at a restaurant where “no substitutions” are promoted. My health and well being is more important.

    Author:
    Scotty
    Written:


    So what if a substitution affects the “integrity” of a dish? If the diner can EAT it, its still a huge treat to get to dine out safely!! I bet its still better than our usual, average fare! Snotty people like this need to get over themselves. I would never WISH food allergies on anyone, but people like this need to have a child that has real food issues so that they are FORCED to live it and see just how big of a need it really is.

    Author:
    Pauline
    Written:


    Bragging about kicking people out of your restaurant because of their allergies is like bragging about kicking people out because of their race. Mr. Shopsin is nothing but a bigot.

    And give me a break — “the integrity of the dish”??? It’s FOOD, not a philosophical treatise. These cuisine snobs need to get over themselves!

    Author:
    Mrsdocrse
    Written:


    I generally take the position that every restaurant has a right to make any kind of food they want with any ingredients they want. Just tell me what is in it and if you can accommodate my sons allergies. Then I can make a smart choice about whether I am comfortable eating there. However, you can bet that I will never visit Mr Shopsin’s restaurant and I will tell every person I know not to eat there. I too hope it is not a trend and I will tell everyone I know to visit a restaurant that makes the extra effort!

    Author:
    Lulu
    Written:


    I too read the Bon Appetit story with some sadness for my son with food allergies. While I don’t expect that every small restaurant can accommodate his food allergies, I do think that I’ve seen some backlash recently in restaurants not wanting to cater to every trendy food-avoidance, and unfortunately, food allergies get lumped in with self-diagnosed food avoidance.It’s interesting to see some chefs lump all groups together without thinking of the exclusiveness a broad policy against substitutions creates. While everyone certainly has the right to eat whatever food they want, just as these chefs have autonomy in their restaurants, I often feel like people making choices about avoiding certain food categories are not helping the cause of those with true food allergies, who cannot control what foods they need to avoid.

    Author:
    AEPaul
    Written:


    Couldn’t agree more Lulu. One of the first posts I remember making in this blog about 3 years ago was called Don’t Fake a Food Allergy. The surge in individuals making special requests – well, we can’t do much about that, though as you point out it definitely doesn’t help. But those that are saying they have a food allergy just to avoid an ingredient are doing all of us an even bigger disservice, since they are also inadvertantly causing some wait staff to wonder how much of this “food allergy stuff” is real. Convincing a restaurant that you are “true gluten free” and need to avoid cross-contamination must be even harder with all the fad gluten free diners – some of whom might have “just a little [of that gluten free dessert], since it looks so good.”

    Author:
    Beth
    Written:


    I have a son with a peanut allergy and always appreciate being able to take him out to eat. I also read the Bon Appetit article and felt that pang of disappointment in reading about Little Serow and that my son can never go there. However, I also moonlit at night for 6 years at a great Malaysian restaurant in DC. And like Little Serow, the kitchen was very small and ALL of the food was cooked on 2 giant woks. Given the manner in which it was cooked and the fact that more than 30 percent of all menu items contained peanuts/tree nuts, it was completely impossible for them to prepare any safe dishes. As this is the case with most Southeast Asian restaurants, we simply can’t take our son. It’s a huge disappointment, but just not worth the risk and not a matter of inconsideration.

    Author:
    Lisa Murphy
    Written:


    Great people, artists, composers, singers and yes evens chefs, have opportunities to rise to the occasion! A challenge to our creativity can be invigorating, eye opening and even life changing. What great new recipes are the “no substitute” chefs missing out on?

    I was a good cook before I was wheat/gluten and dairy intolerant, but I had become complacent in my culinary ways. My medical maladies led me to culinary challenges that spurred my creativity and rekindled my spirit for cooking. I am no longer a good complacent cook, but a excellent, creative and innovative cook. Sooo much more satisfying! Definitely more tasty!

    Recipe substitution is not only challenging, but also a creative opportunity not to be missed!

    Author:
    Rennee
    Written:


    Wow! I cannot believe in this day and age that a restaurant would actually state the fact that they do not substitute – Ignorance is just not acceptable. I will NOT dine at a restaurant where “no substitutions” are promoted. My Son’s health and well being is more important. Thank you Adrienne for the blog.

    Author:
    MaineMommie
    Written:


    This actually doesn’t bother me. If a restaurant wants to have this policy – good luck to them. We know we can’t eat just anywhere with my DS food allergies. I find that this makes it easier. Just like the sign at Dunkin Donuts – unable/unwilling to accomodate? That’s fine, there are places that will – I’ll give my money to them. Thanks for being upfront.

    Author:
    Linda
    Written:


    As just being diagnosed with Celiac Disease, eating gluten free is a way of life for me. Do I miss it, yes, but as Shopsin wrote ” eat at a hospital”, that the worse place to eat if you have certain allergies. People with this attitude must not have faith in what they prepare because if they accomodate people with food allergies, they would become very creative with their meals.
    We found this out when we went on vacation to Carmel/Monterey area. All the restaurants we went to had gluten-free menus or fixed me something special, now that’s something to brag about and places to patronize. I would certainly avoid restaurants that are not allergy friendly.

    Author:
    Gratefulfoodie
    Written:


    I’ve been in restaurants who said no substitutions and I then said no problem, we’ll eat elsewhere. Then, somehow, when they realize the substitution is to accommodate a health issue, they become motivated. I think it is good they are stating their policy up front, but they do need to be prepared for the exceptions and they should train their staff to deal with those exceptions.

    Author:
    Anna
    Written:


    I completely agree with every word that you have said in this blog. Why should people have food discrimination pointed towards them? Luckily social media allows you to voice your opinions and post your reviews these days, otherwise restaurants will continue to always get away with behaviours like being so strict on no substitution. I would really love to see these owners walk in the shoes of someone with a food allergy even for a week!

    Anna

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