“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.
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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!