Tips for Serving Customers With Food Allergies and Intolerances

By Christie IsonFoodable Industry Expert

The reasons may be up for debate, but the reality is here: Your restaurant will continue to get increasing numbers of diners with food allergies, intolerances, and other food-related illnesses such as celiac disease. These diners are loyal and willing to spend more per person if treated right, so it’s worth your while to do just that.

Training in restaurants once only dealt with the most severe cases, an anaphylactic allergic reaction that can cause dangerous swelling, difficulty breathing, and even death. But in recent years, more customers are experiencing non-allergic reactions to certain foods, or allergies with lesser symptoms. While these are often not immediately life-threatening, they can be quite severe; symptoms can include gastrointestinal issues, chest and throat congestion, rapid heartbeat, flushing, even muscle pain or neurological problems. And frequently, these reactions don’t occur until after the customer has left your establishment. 

Because of the varied nature of food allergies and intolerances, the customer is your best partner in making meals both safe and delicious. Open communication with the diner and with your other team members will help you create an enjoyable experience that will keep your customers coming back for more. 

Here are a few quick tips to help you safely and effectively serve customers with food allergies and intolerance:

Management

  1. Establish a detailed protocol. This should be for both front and back of house—from seating to collecting the check—for handling special food orders. Disney resorts have developed the gold standard for food-sensitive protocol and can be a good resource for examples. Establishing a protocol also includes deciding what is doable and what isn’t. If you can set aside a separate prep area for severe allergies or gluten-free items, great. If not, simply plan ahead and train your staff to clearly communicate what is available.
  2. Train your staff. Support them in making this protocol happen. Educate every staff member on their role in a food allergy situation, and test them occasionally for review. ServSafe Allergens is an inexpensive, quick online tool that should be part of your protocol training. 
  3. Clearly mark allergen-free items on your menu. You can also provide special menus upon request. With a little research, it’s not too difficult to create simple menus for gluten free, dairy free, etc. Just be sure to have servers clarify exact needs, especially when the items listed may be prepared differently than the same item on the regular menu. 
  4. Provide the budget to do the protocol. This may be for special equipment and tools set aside for food-sensitive customers (usually marked with a unique color), printing of special menus, and training for the staff. 
  5. Seek feedback from the community. Once you have established a protocol and possibly some special menu items, invite local members of the Gluten Intolerance Group or a food allergy support group (check with your local hospital or allergy center) to experience your menu. You’ll get valuable feedback and possibly gain new, passionate customers.
  6. Establish one point person per shift. This person should be more highly trained on food allergies and sensitivities. If there is a question during service that the server cannot answer, your point person can help avoid dangerous mistakes or wasted food. 

Front of House 

  1. Learn the basics. Be sure you understand the fundamentals of food allergy and sensitivity along with your establishment’s protocol. Nothing is more unsettling for an allergic or food-sensitive customer than knowing your server doesn’t understand the issue at hand. 
  2. Listen for code words that trigger protocol. Hosts and servers should listen for code words such as “allergy” or “reaction,” as diners almost always mention their needs at seating.
  3. Ask the right questions. Learn what foods cause problems, explain the set back-of-house protocol for those items, and then ask if it meets their needs. If it doesn’t, make any reasonable additional accommodations or politely explain that you cannot safely serve them. 
  4. Reassure the customer. Going out to eat is nerve-wracking for people with allergies and intolerances. Once you’ve taken the order and asked all the right questions, let the customer know you will take care of them. 
  5. Back it up. The health of this customer is in your hands. No matter how busy you are, follow through with every element of your established protocol and double check the work of others.
  6. Details matter. If someone orders a gluten-free pasta, go ahead and nix the croutons or crackers that come with the salad, even if it didn’t come up in ordering. Be the customer’s advocate by thinking ahead. 

Back of House

  1. Thoroughly research all ingredients used. This is especially important for the prepared or packaged items. Keep in mind that suppliers may change ingredients, so check frequently and notify your foodservice suppliers if you would like items that are free of common allergens. 
  2. Expect orders for allergies and intolerances. Many cooks and chefs simply berate these orders, acting surprised and out of sorts when they come through. Making it an expected part of your menu will help ensure safety. 
  3. Walk the orders through. Especially in the case of a life-threatening allergy, it’s a good idea to have the same person walk this order all the way through the kitchen. Every hand-off is an opportunity for dangerous mistakes. 
  4. Use special markers and/or plates. This will help determine which plates are meant for allergy and food-sensitive orders. For example, P.F. Chang uses red plates while other restaurants use picks or other obvious signifiers. Your diners won’t care at all about any lost ambiance. In fact, they will appreciate the extra care taken. 
  5. Get creative. When possible, develop new menu items that are free of the most common allergens. An excellent chef can make these not only safe for food-sensitive diners, but also delicious and beautiful enough to put on the regular menu.
  6. Be willing to remake dishes if necessary. Picking the onions off a mis-plated salad isn’t going to cut it if the residue from those onions can send the customer into anaphylactic shock. 

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