A Big Apple surprise – restaurateur shows concern for food allergies

July 1, 2011 | by Paul Mcginnis

I jumped out of the cab and just stood there taking it all in – the smell of roasted peanuts, the constant honking of taxis and the bright lights of hundreds of billboards. Was this small town boy afraid . . . not really! A better way to describe it would be excited, yet out of place. I had only been to the Big Apple once before in my life and definitely remember the overwhelming feeling when I gazed at Times Square for the first time.

Not seconds after exiting the cab, I was asked to attend a Comedy Central show as part of the live audience. Then, I was handed a tour bus schedule from a man wearing a foam Statue of Liberty hat. Next, I nearly stepped on a man sitting on the sidewalk doing magic tricks for two onlookers. Dodging him made me step off the curb, abruptly, which triggered a loud honk from a taxi driver barreling across the intersection, not even concerned that he almost took my life. As I was waiting to cross the street, a man standing uncomfortably close to me whispered in my ear "Do you want a cheap Rolex watch?"

Auughh!!! Just minutes into the hustle and bustle of the New York City, and I was already stressed. I took the first left I came to, just trying to get away from the commotion of Times Square and quickly found myself standing in the doorway of a quaint little restaurant.

The place was small but welcoming and decorated with all kinds of American décor. I couldn't tell if this was the usual look and feel of this restaurant or if it was just for July 4th weekend. Either way, it was quiet and looked like an interesting place to eat.

The host greeted me and asked if it was just me for lunch today. I nodded my head and then she said something that completely caught me off guard, "Do you have any allergies I need to tell our chef about?" I could not believe me ears. Never once, in all my eating out experiences, had I been asked this question. With my food safety background, I couldn't just answer "no" and leave it at that, so I probed the hostess further as she guided me to my table.

She told me her daughter was diagnosed with Celiac Disease nine months ago. Since then, not only had their diet changed significantly but she had learned to ask a lot of questions when she and her daughter were eating away from home. I then asked what the typical restaurant's response was to her inquiries.

"Unfortunately," she said. "Most wait staff don't know anything about ingredients and have to ask the manager or the chef. Shockingly, many times they don't fully know either, so we leave. I can't risk the health of my daughter."

She went on to say that she recently worked with the chef at her establishment to identify all ingredients in their food, so they could provide that information to any guests having allergies. As you can imagine, I was intrigued by her passion and determination to make this one restaurant better for those who suffer from food allergies.

I'd like to know of all restaurateurs the following: Do you have an allergen plan? What do you think your wait staff tells customers who ask about ingredients? What do you do to ensure food is prepared in an allergen-friendly way?

Just as I felt when I stepped out of the cab – excited but out of place – I felt the same way in this little restaurant. I was excited by this one woman's fortitude but unfortunately felt out of place knowing this question may never be asked of me again.

Topics: Food Safety , Operations Management

Paul Mcginnis / Paul McGinnis is the VP of Marketing for Ecolab's Food Safety Specialties division (formerly Daydots). He is an author and a speaker, and currently serves as editor-in-chief of Food Safety Solutions magazine.

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