Training Your Waitstaff to Better Serve Customers with Food Allergies

When it comes to food allergies, always err on the side of caution
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About 15 million Americans struggle with food allergies so making sure your waitstaff is knowledgable about them is imperative. (Photo: Evan Lorne/Shutterstock)

For the approximately 15 million Americans who suffer from food allergies, dining out can be a highly frustrating — and even dangerous — experience. In fact, many people with severe food allergies avoid restaurants altogether because it poses too much of a risk to their health or is not worth the tiresome questions and explanations required to ensure their meal will be safe.

Even if your restaurant doesn’t cater to guests with food allergies, you’ll no doubt end up with guests asking questions about your menu for health reasons — and for the sake of good customer service, your servers need to be able to give accurate answers.

Related: Customer Service: To Make it Memorable, Make it Surprising

Kathlena Rails, “The Allergy Chef,” is a blogger and baker who personally suffers from more than 200 food allergies and intolerances. As an advocate for the food allergy community in San Francisco, she said making sure your waitstaff is knowledgeable about food allergies can go a long way to build trust with consumers.

Kathlena Rails

Kathleen Rails, blogger and advocate for the food allergy community, suggests making sure waitstaff is educated about food allergies in order to build trust wth customers.

“The waitstaff are the frontline of customer comfort when it comes to allergies. If customers sense that your frontline is weak, they won’t be very trusting of your establishment,” she said. “On the flip side, when servers do understand, it moves you, almost to the point of tears. It’s so rare to have a restaurant that truly understands, and has a plan in place. For people like me, these places are a true treasure. When I find them, I tell as many people that I know so they can all enjoy the safe dining experience.”

Related: Could Your Rankings on Food Allergy Review Sites Be Hurting Your Business?

Make sure your waitstaff is fully prepared to answer food allergy questions from guests with these tips.

Educate on ingredients and processes

“At the end of the day, training on allergies is really training on ingredients,” said Anthony Ferrari, project specialist at RealFood Consulting. “It’s about communication between the servers and the kitchen, and really empowering your servers to feel like they fully understand the menu.”

Educating waitstaff on the ingredients that go in a dish and how it is prepared is good policy for customer service in general, he said. “Not only is it good for answering questions for someone with an allergy, it’s also good for answering the question of a foodie who just wants to know how a sauce is prepared.”

Related: How to Recruit the Best Restaurant Employees

Create a FAQ

“An allergy question shouldn’t throw the dining experience off the rails,” said Ferrari. Make answering these complicated questions easier on your servers by creating an allergen guide or FAQ document and posting it at the waiter’s station, he said.

Anthony Ferrari

Anthony Ferrari, project specialist at RealFood Consulting, recommends creating a FAQ to help servers answer food allergy related questions.

Start by listing the dishes on your menu that are safe (if any are) for the eight most common food allergies: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish. Then create canned answers to your most frequently asked food allergy questions, such as what types of oil are used for frying and if there’s a separate area in the kitchen used to prepare foods for special diets.

If possible, also keep a master list of recipes and ingredients on hand so guests can double-check that the item is safe for them, said Rails. Just make sure the list is kept up to date when a recipe or supplier changes and that sub-ingredients are noted for processed foods like sauces, cured meats and canned vegetables.

Pick an allergy point person

Even if you have trained your servers and provided an allergen guide, it’s also important to have at least one person available who can answer the more difficult allergy questions and help ensure extra care is taken in the kitchen with those meals. Kitchen managers and chefs should lead the charge, because they know the dishes intimately and understand kitchen processes that could lead to cross-contamination.

For waitstaff, said Ferrari, “create a culture inside your restaurant where it’s okay to say, ‘I don’t know. I’ll get you an answer.’” By dotting your i’s and cross your t’s, you’re doing your guests more of a service, and protecting them from a potentially life-threatening situation.

Err on the side of caution

In addition to training your waitstaff regularly, it’s important for restaurants to realize and respect their limits when it comes to food allergies. For example, a small Italian restaurant shouldn’t make a big promise to someone with a wheat and dairy allergy.

“If I think that there’s the slightest possibility that something could be in a dish or in a recipe that could be an allergy, I’m just going to go ahead and tell you to avoid it 100 percent,” said Ferrari.

With food allergies, it’s always best to err on the side of caution, said Rails.“Many restaurants don’t know this, but we are grateful when you are honest and turn us away. It lets us know that you really know your stuff.”

Go above and beyond

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When it comes to food allergies, restaurants should be realistic and respect their own limits. (Photo: B Calkins/Shutterstock)

Finally, make sure your servers take every possible precaution before serving a customer with allergies. Some people are so sensitive to certain foods they can have a reaction just from coming into physical contact with a contaminated object.

Rails recommended having the host offer to re-clean the table and chairs before guests are seated, and making sure servers hands are washed very well each time before serving someone with an allergy to minimize contamination.

Related: 4 Proven Ways Your Servers Can Increase Their Tips

And keep in mind, said Ferrari, if your restaurant chooses to not accommodate any food allergies, that’s okay too. Just make sure that policy is clearly communicated to your guests.

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