The Wei Forward: Pei Wei’s Bold Initiatives for the Gluten-Free and Food Allergy Communities
Chinese food – one of the “scarier” cuisine choices for food-allergic diners due to the frequent presence of soy, sesame, and peanuts, among other allergens. However, as we often say (and as AllergyEats user reviews show), it IS possible to get a safe, Asian-inspired meal if prepared by a restaurant that truly understands, and commits itself to, food allergies. Such is the case, we believe, with Pei Wei Asian Kitchen, a fast casual chain with 169 restaurants in 21 states across the U.S., plus 5 international locations.
Pei Wei came out with a press release last Tuesday, addressing new gluten-free menu options and reiterating a commitment to their clean label initiative “The Wei Forward” and their “Made For You” program, which is designed for guests with all kinds of special diets (including food allergies). [*As part of this release, Pei Wei announced a partnership with AllergyEats. More details at the end of this blog post.]
Not entirely aware of Pei Wei’s efforts to accommodate the food allergy and gluten free community, we called senior management to learn more.
I confess to being blown away.
The First Step Towards Making Things “Wei” Better
It all starts with The Wei Forward, Pei Wei’s “guiding principle on how we think food should be,” (not just at Pei Wei, but across the restaurant industry). Their Wei Forward website has great detail and I recommend you click the link to visit it. However, let me share their summary:
“We believe that for food to deliver world-class flavor, it should begin with simple, fresh ingredients that are minimally processed and free of artificial color and preservatives. We believe consumers have a right to know what’s in their food, so they’ll be able to make informed choices without being misled by crafty marketing. At Pei Wei, we take pride in preparing our fresh whole food in-house and make our dishes to order. And with The Wei Forward, we make it easy for you to eat the food you love, with less of the stuff you don’t.”
As part of this commitment, Pei Wei lists EVERY ingredient in 3 of their popular dishes (including their most popular dish, Wei Better Orange Chicken) on the website, with a goal of having the full ingredient list of EVERY dish available and published over the months ahead! That transparency is obviously great for food-allergic diners! In addition, the fact that the food is prepared in-house, made-to-order, and customizable (to the extent possible) is also a huge benefit. For those who are gluten-free or allergic to wheat, Pei Wei is continuing to expand their gluten-free offerings too, with the addition of 4 new gluten-free dishes, including their very popular Kung Pao and Mongolian. Roughly half of Pei Wei’s rice bowls are now available gluten-free, and we expect to see even more in the future.
Allergy Accommodations Are About More Than Ingredients
More important than just introducing new gluten-free dishes however, and relevant to the food allergy community as well, Pei Wei understands the difference between a meal simply having gluten-free ingredients versus creating a meal free of gluten, including cross-contact prevention, and safe for those with Celiac disease or a wheat allergy (this applies to other allergies too) – “Our goal is not to be ‘gluten-friendly.’ Our goal is to be able to deliver a fantastic, fresh-made Asian dish to someone that is completely gluten free.” The key to doing this is out of the customer’s sight, in the kitchen. So, what happens in the kitchen?
Pei Wei has a separate celiac workstation in their kitchen, sterilized woks and utensils for preparing allergy meals (with red handles to indicate their designation for allergy meals only), allergy buttons on their point-of-sale systems for communication from those taking the orders to the kitchen, and different colored bowls for food allergy meals (white, instead of red) as an indication that the food allergy was acknowledged and the meal prepared appropriately. This entire process was recently enhanced, so hopefully Pei Wei “regulars” will notice the positive changes.
Per Pei Wei’s Chief Marketing Officer, “It’s really important that every single customer at every single Pei Wei, every single day, if they have a special dietary need, is going to be safe, so we take it very, very seriously. We want to be able to serve all of the members of our community, not just those whom it’s easy for us to serve.”
But is this commitment shared across senior management? Well, when the CEO’s family is impacted by Celiac disease and a number of Board members have food allergies, everybody understands the importance of proper procedures and protocols. This is the difference between Pei Wei (along with other restaurants and chains that “get it”) and the many restaurants where food allergy accommodations are lacking. Commitment from the top is key!
Of course, none of this commitment nor any set of procedures & protocols are going to make a difference without appropriate staff training. Again, Pei Wei is impressive. Food allergy training occurs for every worker on every shift.
Pei Wei Done Your “Wei”
Given Pei Wei’s commitment to transparency, we asked them some of the tougher questions we know you want (and deserve) to have answered.
- Are there peanuts or tree nuts on the premises? Peanuts are in the Pad Thai, but are kept in a sealed container in the kitchen. Staff is trained to avoid cross-contact.
- Are any allergies especially challenging to accommodate? Soy and corn are particularly challenging allergens for Pei Wei; otherwise “we feel very good about our ability to handle just about any allergen.” [We were impressed, during our conversation, that management often referred to accommodating non-Big 8 allergens, such as garlic.]
- Egg is listed as an ingredient in a lot of dishes. Can you still accommodate an egg allergy? While egg is traditionally in some dishes, like Pad Thai and fried rice, they can be made without it upon request. In other dishes that feature an egg-battered chicken, for example, the guest can modify the dish to include tofu and/or vegetables as the protein selection.
- How about sesame? Pei Wei does have sesame seeds and use sesame oil in some dishes, but there are options for an individual with a sesame allergy.
- The online allergen chart shows a lot of “X’s” – dishes that contain a certain allergy. That suggests that there are a lot of dishes food-allergic individuals can’t have. As mentioned, Pei Wei can customize many of its dishes to remove certain allergens/ingredients upon request. The online allergen chart is currently being renovated to better reflect the available options for diners with food allergies.
Part of what makes food allergy accommodations a little easier for Pei Wei, alongside the fact that food is prepped in-house and is made-to-order, is that the process is relatively simple in choosing a protein, vegetables, and a sauce. Much of what we, as a community, would need to avoid would be in the sauces, which can obviously be substituted. We still do have to ask about the proteins, as some may have been battered or have a marinade that includes our allergen, but those are obviously substitutable as well.
For those with other specific questions or recommendations, Pei Wei acknowledges that “we’re active listeners on social media and we have a guest contact hotline, and we review those to see what folks are asking for” regarding the next steps in the continually evolving and improving Wei Forward initiative.
Walking the “Wok”: A Call for Change in the Restaurant Industry
Lastly, as a tremendous sign of commitment to the food allergy community, Pei Wei started an FDA petition in late September in order to insist that all restaurants label all ingredients in every dish for customers to see. “I called for regulation of our industry, mostly because the industry is doing a terrible job of regulating itself in this area.” So far, the National Restaurant Association is not supporting this petition, nor do I think they ever will. Their constituency will not only (understandably, to a degree) balk at the additional costs they will bare, but they’ll be afraid of their secret recipes being “stolen.” Pei Wei believes this fear is unfounded. Knowing a meal’s ingredients and knowing how to prepare that meal are two separate things. “There is nothing that somebody would have to disclose in an ingredient statement that would compromise their secrecy or recipes. We’re not asking for the secret formula to Coke; and by the way, Coca Cola is required to put on their packaging exactly what we’re asking – a nutrition facts panel and an ingredient statement.”
There has been a lot of interest from the food allergy community for this very type of labeling requirement in restaurants for years. It’s nice to see a large restaurant chain on board.
Pei Wei isn’t just talking the talk; they’re walking the walk. From their Wei Forward web page:
“Our beliefs center around the need to demand transparency and allow consumers to make informed dining decisions. Allowing guests to know the ingredients in their food not only calls attention to its nutritional value, it also makes it easier for dietary preferences to be carefully accommodated. We hope to affect more than your health with this information about your food, we want to empower you with a healthy peace of mind about it.”
As previously mentioned, Pei Wei has committed to have all ingredients of all their dishes online by the end of 2020, combined with their clean label initiative to eliminate artificial colors, preservatives, and additives.
Pei Wei has collected over 2,000 signatures for their FDA petition so far, but we, as food allergy individuals and advocates, have the opportunity to dramatically increase that number. We encourage you to visit their change.org page, support their petition, and share it broadly within our community.
That’s the current status of The Wei Forward. But again, The Wei Forward is not a static program. This is an evolutionary process by Pei Wei to “clean up” their food, increase transparency, improve the options for those with Celiac disease, and accommodate as many special dining needs, including food allergies, as possible.
Personally, I’m looking forward to my first visit the week before Christmas near St. Louis. I’ll have 3 food-allergic kids (tree nut, dairy, egg, and sesame) to really put them to the test!
If you’ve dined at a Pei Wei recently – or anywhere, of course – we encourage you to rate your experiences on the AllergyEats website or app. Each new review you provide makes AllergyEats a more valuable resource for the entire food allergy community. We are all in this together!
[*AllergyEats Partnership Program is designed to provide those restaurants that want to communicate with our community a platform to highlight their food allergy accommodations. This program naturally attracts those who are comfortable that they can provide an excellent guest experience for food-allergic diners. As part of the program, AllergyEats creates “enhanced listings” of these partners’ restaurants within AllergyEats’ search results by including additional information provided by the restaurant, such as interactive allergen menus (for those who have them), links to relevant pages on their websites, an “Allergen Commitment Statement” that we ask every partner to write, and more. CRITICAL to note is that AllergyEats does not, and will never, compromise the integrity of either our user reviews or our published information. The responsibility for us to maintain high ethical standards is paramount given the potential devastating effects of any “foul play” – and as parents of food-allergic children ourselves, as well as long-time advocates for this community, we hope you know we get it! User ratings are never removed or altered. The associated reviews are also never removed or altered, except in the rare case when the commentary is not related to food allergies. Further, the publishing of blog posts such as this are not a part of our partnership program; however, where we see relevant, important, or interesting information – from a partner or non-partner – we want to present that to you. If you have any questions about our partnership program, please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Like Pei Wei, we value transparency – in our practices as well as others’.]