How would you react if a customer requested an allergy-free order? Would you know what to do? More importantly, would your employees know what to do? You never know when one of the 32 million Americans with food allergies will walk into your establishment, and it pays to have well-trained staff ready to help them. Don’t just take our word for it; not only do food-allergic customers appreciate proper training, but other food employees can attest to the value of treating allergen-free orders safely. We had the opportunity to talk to Lindsay and Jordan, two former food service employees who have handled allergen-free orders and experienced first-hand the safety concerns related to food allergies.
What kind of allergy or intolerance did your customer have?
Lindsey: I was working as a waitress and was serving a customer who had Celiac disease.
Jordan: While I was a server at a Mexican food restaurant, I had the opportunity to serve customers with various food allergies.
What was challenging about the order?
Lindsey: Most of our products that we served had gluten in them, but we were also not well trained to know which items contained gluten. We did not have a guide to the different allergens present in the foods we were serving. I worked for quite some time as a line cook in the restaurant as well and even the cooks did not have a full list of all of the items containing gluten.
Jordan: The orders were placed electronically through our POS computer systems. We didn’t typically communicate orders directly to the cooks. I would always verify that the order was correct with them before taking it to the customer. If the allergen was in the dish, it was embarrassing to return and ask the cooks to make it again, but I knew that the integrity of the establishment was worth more than the food that may be wasted due to incorrect preparation.
What was rewarding about the order?
Lindsey: The most rewarding part of this experience was the realization that we all needed to be more aware of what we were serving to our customers and we were able to create a quick guide to different common allergens.
Jordan: As a server I found that when I pleased the customer, they pleased me. This often meant that they would leave a better tip or leave me feeling accomplished, which are both crucial to commission-based jobs.
What kinds of training helped you handle food allergens safely?
Lindsey: The restaurant that I worked in was a small family owned business that hadn’t been open long when I started working there. At the time that I began we weren’t really trained on how to handle those types of orders. When I received an order with food allergens, I would make a note of it on the order slip I gave to the kitchen staff. With time I was able to help develop a method to easily and safely serve our customers with food allergies. We started with creating a menu of all things that could be prepared specifically gluten free. The servers were given specific codes to include on all orders given to the kitchen staff, who were in turn properly trained to handle such orders.
Jordan: While training, I was told to always mention possible food concerns as each customer ordered. If they ordered a tostada dish, I might say “That includes black beans, cheese, and chicken. Is that okay?” I was told to always try to be on the safe side.
What advice would you give to a food worker or manager regarding food allergens?
Lindsey: Either make sure that you know what items you are serving contain different potential allergens or have a meeting with your employees to ensure that they are all aware of how to avoid cross-contact. I would suggest even creating a gluten-free menu to offer to customers so they are aware of what options they have, rather than looking at a menu and feeling disappointed that much of the menu is off limits to them.
Jordan: I believe that avoiding food allergens is of paramount importance as a food-service company. I would train employees to know the foods they are preparing and/or serving, and know how to properly handle concerns with food allergies. When customers know that you are aware of their concerns, they will be more willing to trust the establishment.
If you’d like to teach your employees about allergen safety at your workplace, try out our new Food Allergens Essentials course to train your food workers on serving those with food allergies, Celiac disease, and other food intolerances. The course also includes tips specifically for managers about training employees, creating allergen menus, and labeling allergens on food, as well as video interviews with food-allergic customers. Don’t hesitate to implement this potentially life-saving training in your establishment!