Friday, May 9, 2014

Serving guests with food allergies safely can grow your business

Food allergy training has never been more important. More and more Americans are plagued with food allergies—15 million and growing every year. While there have been no reported deaths linked to food allergies in Louisiana restaurants according to research by the Louisiana Dept. of Health and Hospitals (DHH), the need for more front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house staff to have the proper training will only become more necessary in the coming years.

Increasingly restaurants are becoming more aware of the potential for gaining new diners by offering gluten free menu options. Some even take the extra step of asking if any guests have food allergies when taking reservations or the server will ask the question when greeting a table of guests for a meal. But there is still room for improvement in communications between the front-of-the-house and the back-of-the-house to ensure that a guest actually is served a meal free of gluten or other foods a guest may have shared they are allergic to during the ordering process.

“Having taken ServSafe Allergens, I’m much more educated and aware of the challenges facing those with food allergies, especially one of my co-workers,” said Wendy Waren, VP of Communications, Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA). “In one case, my co-worker actually had to send back her entree because the garnish was flash fried. It’s something as small as the garnish that could have made her sick.”

That’s why the National Restaurant Association launched ServSafe Allergens. In partnership with the Food Allergy Research and Education Institute (FARE), the NRA’s ServSafe Allergens product is an online, interactive, 90-minute training course to assist restaurateurs and foodservice personnel in understanding and communicating the risks associated with serving guests with food allergies. The course is available in English and Spanish and is just $22 and can be accessed here

“I’m allergic to gluten and dairy,” said Olivia Watkins, Communications Director, DHH. “While dining at a restaurant recently, the server was able to answer my questions regarding menu items that did not contain gluten; however, she missed the mark on the dairy. The first bite of my dish tasted way too good and as my throat began to tighten, I knew that it had been made with butter.”

Recognizing the importance of serving guests with food allergies safely, the DHH included ServSafe Allergens as criteria for a restaurant to be designated a Well Spot as part of the Well-Ahead Louisiana campaign. Well-Ahead is a voluntary program promoting voluntary changes without imposing new taxes and creating new rules. Well-Ahead promotes and recognizes smart choices in the spaces and places we live and work every day, and dining out in restaurants play a significant role in how we enjoy our lives here in Louisiana.

“There are a number of restaurants that I can dine out at that can accommodate my gluten allergy,” said Sandy Riddle, EVP of Expositions, LRA. “I do have to really pay attention though to what is actually served. Thankfully, my husband and friends keep a close eye on my plate too.”

Riddle recently visited a chain restaurant that promotes that they cater to diners with celiac disease. However, during the ordering process, the server was unfamiliar with the gluten-free menu, as was her co-worker. Her and husband decided to pass on the restaurant as she felt it wasn’t worth the risk. There are huge online networks of people with celiac disease and other food allergies that commonly share information about those restaurants able to successfully accommodate these special needs. In Riddle’s experience, if the staff had been properly trained to handle her request, they would have gained her repeat business.

In a recent email to the LRA, a woman wrote that she was on vacation in New Orleans for the Jazz and Heritage Festival and unfortunately had to cut her trip two days short. Why? She has celiac disease and dined at a New Orleans restaurant, where the server assured her the meal she was being served was free of gluten. Unfortunately it wasn’t and she got sick as a result.

ServSafe Allergens is voluntary in the state of Louisiana; however, in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, allergens training is required for individuals in foodservice. The LRA strongly encourages restaurants to take advantage of ServSafe Allergens, not only to serve their guests safely, but gain new and repeat business.

The LRA exists to help its members—the cornerstone of their communities—build customer loyalty, rewarding careers and financial success. By accommodating guests with food allergies, this is just one way restaurants can build customer loyalty. 

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