The Food Allergy Facts About Red Robin’s French Fries & Other Menu Items
Recently, there has been a lot of chatter in the food allergy community about perceived changes at Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Brews affecting the food allergy safety of French fries and other items on their menu.
As online discussions have heated up, many food-allergic individuals shared information that didn’t fit with what we’ve learned about Red Robin over the years, so we went straight to the top of Red Robin’s management team to get the most up-to-date information for you. Within minutes, senior management from the food safety and allergy information teams made themselves available to answer our questions. The following is not a verbatim Q&A, but the questions we asked and their responses in our words (simply put, we didn’t transcribe the call).
One recurring issue that is again being asked in the food community is whether or not Red Robin has recently made changes to its French fries that have altered some aspect of their allergy profile. To be direct, have there been any such changes over the past few months?
The simple answer here is ‘no.’
While many individuals in our social media forums have spoken of changes to Red Robin’s interactive allergen menu showing that French Fries are not safe for those with dairy allergies, where previously they had been, that change to the allergen menu actually occurred in April 2013. A few managers reportedly told guests recently about changes to the French fries, but those changes have nothing to do with the ingredients; rather, they are simply a change in the cooking time of the fries. So, the ingredients of the French fries have not recently changed, nor has anything in the cooking process that would create any increased food allergy risk.
Regarding French fries and dairy, the interactive allergen menu says that people with dairy allergies should not eat the fries. As mentioned above, this is a change from the past. So the questions are:
Do the French fries contain dairy as an ingredient?
Does the French fry seasoning contain dairy as an ingredient? (Some diners have been told to order the fries “without seasoning”.)
No. The seasoning does not contain dairy. The seasoning was changed back in 2013 to remove gluten and unnatural flavorings and is has since been completely Top 8 free, all-natural and gluten-free.
Are the French fries listed as unsafe for those with dairy allergies due solely to cross-contact risk and, if so, what is the nature of that risk?
Yes. French fries are not listed as safe for those with dairy allergies solely due to cross-contact risk. That risk is primarily due to a common fryer oil cleaning system. Red Robin also cites the risk of splatter between fryers and the tools used in those fryers as potential for cross-contact even though they employ a system of using color-coded cooking utensils for each fryer and have individual fryers dedicated to specific items.
I can’t help but see an unfortunate irony here. The real fact of the matter is that MOST restaurants create allergen menus purely on the basis of each item’s ingredients. With almost all restaurants, cross-contact is an entirely separate risk. Thus, in being extra cautious for their guests, Red Robin’s disclosures have actually created greater concern instead of the appreciation I believe they deserve for their transparency and food allergy awareness. (That’s not to advocate ignoring Red Robin’s warning against those with dairy [and some other] allergies avoiding their French fries, but merely acknowledging that they’ve gone above and beyond what other chains generally do to offer us full disclosure and greater protection.)
Many people with dairy allergies have eaten Red Robin French fries safely before when they were not listed as unsafe, according to the interactive allergen guide. What changed and why?
In late 2012, the food safety & food quality team at Red Robin was expanded. After attending AllergyEats’ Food Allergy Conference for Restaurateurs, they met Betsy Craig, CEO of MenuTrinfo. MenuTrinfo helps restaurants, schools, and others evaluate their food allergy practices and make changes to become more food allergy-friendly. Armed with new allergen knowledge, the team ultimately decided, in April of 2013, to go above and beyond with respect to precautions affecting their food allergy guests and decided to consider the fryer cleaning system as a cross-contact risk for those with dairy allergies, thus taking fries OFF the “safe list” despite having no changes in the actual ingredients and despite maintaining a “dedicated fryer.” (see next question) The logic was that they couldn’t guarantee 0ppm (parts per million) of potential dairy in the fries. Again, I credit Red Robin for going above and beyond to provide us with all the information to make an informed decision and I can say with high certainty that many other chains will have cross contact risk not identified on allergen menus (which, by the way, is yet another reminder why our food allergy community has to ALWAYS disclose our allergies to restaurant staff, even when an allergen menu exists). I would also note that it is almost unreasonable to ask for a 0ppm threshold. Those with Celiac disease and gluten intolerance know that the FDA set a very reasonable limit at 20ppm whereby a company can declare a food product “gluten free” (though it is true that some Celiacs cannot tolerate even that little).
Does every Red Robin restaurant have a dedicated fryer for French fries? What else goes in that fryer and which allergens is it free from?
Yes, every Red Robin location has a fryer dedicated to French fries, sweet potato fries, tortilla chips, and Yukon chips. This fryer is free of the Top 8 allergens and gluten.
Are all these answers applicable to every Red Robin restaurant?
Besides French fries, is it true that other fried products are not safe for those with dairy allergies? Which other major allergens are present in those fryers?
All Red Robin locations have 4 individual fryers: one for the French fries and other items cited above, one for gluten-free items, one for fish/shellfish items, and one for other breaded items. The fryer with breaded items includes products that contain wheat (and thus gluten), egg, soy, and dairy. So, while individuals who are allergic to fish and shellfish can avoid their allergens by ordering foods cooked in the other 3 fryers, and while individuals allergic to eggs, wheat, dairy or soy could order products from the “French fry fryer”, Red Robin’s interactive allergen guide still lists most of these items as not safe for those allergies due to an overabundance of caution regarding cross-contamination. While each food-allergic diner will make their own decision as to their comfort level ordering products from the dedicated fryers, I once again tip my hat to Red Robin’s caution for our safety.
Many people have asked whether any peanut products go into those fryers?
Red Robin does not have peanuts or peanut products on the premises of their restaurants at all. Tree nuts are present in some menu items; however, none of those items go into a fryer.
Does any Red Robin restaurant now, or in the planned future, use peanut oil in any fryers?
No. Red Robin uses a fully-refined soybean oil – an item which is NOT considered a Big 8 allergen by the FDA.
Some food-allergic diners have claimed that Red Robin has switched from sourcing “plain” chicken to one that is marinated, therefore introducing a change in ingredients that is cause for concern in our community. That said, there doesn’t seem to be any new allergy warnings for menu items containing chicken on the interactive allergen menu. Has anything, in fact, been changed about the chicken and would any such changes affect those with food allergies?
Red Robin did change the ingredients of the chicken they purchase last year as part of their efforts to “clean up” the ingredients in their menu items and make them even MORE natural and allergy-friendly. The previous chicken was marinated, but the marinade did not contain any visible seasonings, therefore diners presumed it was “plain.” The NEW chicken includes some seasoning that is visible, which brought about these types of questions/concerns. With respect to allergies, however, the previous chicken marinade contained soy whereas their currently-sourced chicken is now all-natural and completely free of the Top 8 allergens.
Can an individual trust the corporate interactive allergen menu in every Red Robin restaurant or is there local purchasing by individual restaurants that could add allergen risk?
The interactive allergen menu should be “the” most trusted resource for everyone in a Red Robin restaurant. The recipes are standard throughout the chain. In the rare instance where an individual unit needs to serve something other than the standard ingredient, corporate must approve that product and be sure it won’t alter the allergy profile of the meals served to individuals at that location.
It seems to us that many Red Robin restaurant managers are sharing information with food-allergic guests that doesn’t always match what other managers are telling their customers nor the answers corporate provides to the food allergy community. How is an individual to know who/what to trust? Where should they find their answers?
Again, and this is consistent with what senior management told me a year ago in another conversation, everyone in a Red Robin restaurant should use the interactive allergen menu as “the” primary resource. Using this is the most effective way for corporate management to be sure that all restaurants and all guests have accurate and up-to-date information. In fact, corporate directs managers and staff in the restaurants to defer all food allergy questions to the interactive allergen guide, dissuading them from answering questions directly. (As an aside, I have advised management that this scares some food-allergic guests, who want assurances from actual individuals – a point that they have acknowledged as valid and will consider for the future.)
There’s a lot to take in here and some goes against what I’ve been told directly from restaurant managers. How do I find the answers to any further questions I have or to follow up on anything that doesn’t seem right in this post?
Questions should be sent directly to Red Robin’s guest relations team at (877) 733-6543 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Considering all the questions, comments, consternation, and confusion that I’ve seen online lately – and periodically over the past few years – about Red Robin, I hope we’ve served you well in getting the answers to your more frequently asked questions. We’ve had a strong relationship with Red Robin and I can say that the information shared above has remained consistent over the years and through various members of senior management.
I know that the answers related to French fries and dairy, in particular, may still cause confusion for many dairy-allergic diners who have been eating them for years. My only response is that all of the information to understand this issue is presented here. Red Robin’s official position is that they do not recommend dairy-allergic individuals consume their French fries due to cross contact risk. Be cognizant of that. From there, the decision rests on your own level of comfort. We, at AllergyEats, always recommend an abundance of caution.
I want to thank Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Brews for immediately making a team available to answer our questions and also for always making the accommodation of food-allergic guests a priority in their restaurants. (These efforts have put them on AllergyEats’ List of Top 10 Allergy-Friendly Chains in America, as determined by YOUR ratings on AllergyEats, since we began publishing it 5 years ago.)
Please comment below to share your thoughts on this blog. As always, I also respectfully request that you rate all of your dining out experiences (good, bad, or otherwise) on the AllergyEats app and/or website. Each new rating makes AllergyEats a more valuable resource for the entire food allergy community!
Given some concerns still expressed in the comments on this blog and on social media, Red Robin reached out to us to add even further transparency for our food allergy community. Here’s what they added:
There is no added MSG to any of Red Robin products.
Red Robin seasoning used to contain autolyzed yeast. In 2013, we reformulated the Red Robin seasoning. It now contains: SALT, DRIED CANE SYRUP, SEA SALT, SPICES (INCLUDING BLACK PEPPER, CELERY SEED, CUMIN, OREGANO, SAGE), DRIED VEGETABLES (GARLIC, ONION, TOMATOES), PAPRIKA, YEAST EXTRACT, NATURAL SMOKE FLAVOR.
All natural seasoning.