Helpful Hints For Communicating Your Food Allergies

Researchers concluded in a recent study of food allergies that in the U.S. the number of adults who think they have a food allergy is double the amount that really do. The study determined that 19% of adults think they have a food allergy yet only 10% of the population actually have one. Though some might find these results eye-opening, they come as no surprise to anyone who works in restaurants. In fact, the study confirms what most of us have known all along: that a significant portion of the dining public, whether intentionally or not, misrepresent their dietary restrictions.

Twenty years ago, restaurant menus were written with very little concern for food intolerances. You had the occasional nut allergy, or nut job, and maybe a few scattered lactose-intolerant teenagers. Once in awhile, someone on Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig might ask you to prepare their food without butter or an elderly person with high blood pressure might ask you to go easy on the salt. Life was a lot simpler back then. 

Today, chefs have little choice but to plan their menus around the dizzying number of food trends—gluten-free, dairy-free, Vegan, Paleo, Keto, low-carb, raw foods. Menu items are designed to be retro-fitted to the nuances of endless dietary preferences. Our guests’ rapidly changing eating habits create many challenges for front and back of house. Interacting with guests who have special dietary needs has become a much more complex conversation. To make this interaction go a little more smoothly, here are EIGHT ways to better engage waitstaff when communicating food allergies in restaurants:

Don’t apologize – Food allergies are common these days so you have no reason to feel that calling attention to yours is an imposition. There are occasions when it’s challenging for servers to deal with the subleties of your diet, so show a little patience. As long as you aren’t embellishing, though, you have no reason to be asking anyone’s forgiveness. Profusely apologizing never feels genuine to servers and you risk coming across like you say the same thing every time you dine out. Servers are very busy, so cut to the chase. The more direct you are about your allergies, the easier it is for them to understand what information they should be conveying to the kitchen.

Never expect restaurants to know more about your food allergies than you do – Restaurants go to great lengths to educate their staff about the menu, but we are not medical professionals or nutritionists. Chefs often use ingredients they buy from third parties and it’s unrealistic to expect them to know if every one of these products is safe for you to eat. If we don’t make these things in our kitchen, we cannot be certain of what’s in them. When you are unfamiliar with an ingredient, it’s fine to ask “What is farro?” but don’t expect servers to authoritatively answer when you ask “Is farro safe if I can’t have gluten?” You should educate yourself about these ingredients rather than relying on servers and chefs who may not have the same expertise about certain allergens. If anything feels like a risk, order something else. 

Never conflate dietary preferences with serious food allergies – Your deciding to go Vegan for the first two weeks in February shouldn’t bring a busy kitchen to a grinding halt while your sever interrupts the chef to have a ten minute conversation about the contents of every dish you ordered. Too often, when guests overstate their dietary preferences, it leads to a much more exhaustive inquiry than is necessary. It’s maddening to waiters when they jump through hoops to protect people from an ingredient like butter, ask the chef to make all of their food without it, then if one dish can’t be made without butter, they say “Oh, a little butter is fine.”

Don’t use phony allergies to manipulate changes to the menu – The script is always the same: A guest asks for something to be changed initially and then—when the answer is no—claims to be allergic to an ingredient in the dish they don’t like. This is usually followed by a tantrum about how unfair it is that the restaurant won’t accommodate people’s food allergies. Credibility is important if you want people serving you to take your dietary restrictions seriously. We don’t take food allergies lightly so don’t play games. You might get what you want but not without branding yourself a troublemaker.

Notify your server of your allergies before you order – Food is routinely sent back when diners assume that because an ingredient wasn’t printed on the menu that the dish must not contain it. It’s ultimately your responsibility to tell your server when you place the order so that he can confirm your safety with the kitchen. Even better, when you make a reservation include dietary restrictions on your guest notes (either when you book online or by phone). Do not think you’re being difficult. Returning food in the middle of your meaI is far more difficult than having a brief conversation about your allergies with your server when you first sit down. 

Be clear about the severity of your allergic reaction – Not all food allergies are created equally. Garlic giving you gas is not the same as someone going into anaphylactic shock from eating peanuts. A guest recently put an Epi-pen on the table to make sure his server understood the seriousness of his shellfish allergy. It was a little melodramatic, but he definitely got his point across. Servers can become complacent as people frequently exaggerate their dietary restrictions. Making the severity of your allergy clear in the language that you use (“It’s life-threatening” or “I can get very sick from cross-contamination” ) will hopefully circumvent any risk of complacency. Your server may be annoyed, but they definitely don’t want someone dying at their table.

Don’t expect that every dish on the menu can be made to accommodate your diet – Many ingredients on the menu are prepared in advance. If mushrooms have already been sautéed in butter beforehand and you are intolerant of dairy, do not expect the kitchen to stop what they are doing to slice and sauté a separate batch of raw mushrooms in olive oil for you. The server will politely offer to remove the mushrooms and you should be agreeable or, if that’s not what you want, consult with the server and order something else.

Restaurants don’t owe you anything just because you have an allergy – You should never expect a restaurant kitchen to behave like your home kitchen. Try cooking for a hundred different people in your home and see how much time you have to tailor the food you make to everyone’s unique dietary needs. Most chefs do the best they can to accommodate dietary restrictions within the confines of a commercial kitchen. Respect that.

Why Abusive Restaurant Culture Will Never Go Away

2018 was a momentous year in the restaurant world. It will go down in history as a precipice—when the world finally learned how fucked up we are. The shameful skeletons amassed in our closets had outgrown our ability to hide them and finally burst into the public eye. The restaurant industry has been dysfunctional for as long as chefs have worn hats—so the revelations come as little surprise to those of us employed by it, who have become accustomed to the misogyny, abuse and bullying. We may never go back to the way things were, but it feels premature to declare the era of “Men Behaving Badly” in restaurants over. Anyone who thinks that is ignoring how poorly—prior to these public scandals—we’ve policed ourselves. How do you think we got here in the first place?

If not for the persistence of journalists exposing what the restaurant business couldn’t expose itself, these abuses would have continued unfettered. Now that we’re under a microscope, the industry is more attuned to these problems, but real reform requires real accountability not just excommunication of the worst offenders. In hospitality, we’ve always been conditioned that looking the other way makes everyone less suspicious. How can we expect victims to speak up about inappropriate behavior if the only people who can effect real change are the perpetrators? Sadly, it’s easy to imagine a world where restaurants slide back into their bad habits.

Cultural issues in the workplace typically start from the top and get passed down the chain of command. Restaurants owned by aggressive people tend to rely on aggression and fear-mongering as tools to increase productivity. Since they can’t be omnipresent, some restaurateurs train management to be aggressive by proxy. No matter how competent a restaurant’s HR Department is, it rarely has the authority to discipline the owners when the owners are the problem. This is why malpractice among CEO’s is tolerated more than offenses by middle management (See: Weinstein, Moonves, Kalanick). Subordinates who are victims don’t challenge executives because they worry their complaints will be construed as treasonous. 

Aggression is used in restaurants to test loyalty. The competition in elite establishments is cutthroat, which creates a cult-like atmosphere that coerces employees into accepting mistreatment. Management often subjects new hires to unofficial “hazing” to weed out prospects with weak constitutions. There are still many chefs and managers who believe that fear is the most effective tactic for ensuring the proper level of motivation and complicity. 

restaurant culture

Adrenaline fuels our business. Though it can be relentless, chefs thrive on the frenetic pace and the rush they get from powering through a busy night. But often, the endorphins of a chaotic service cause tempers to flare and egos to clash. Harassment and aggression in the restaurant world may be more violent than in corporate environments because we aren’t confined to offices and cubicles. We have a tendency to behave like uncaged animals, abusing each other to survive. Tomorrow, all may be forgotten but the psychic baggage we carry around with us is burdensome and usually bubbles to the surface in deviant ways. 

Misconduct by owners and upper management happens everyday in the restaurant business and most subordinates know that there is very little they can do to stop it. Complaints aren’t taken seriously and individuals aren’t willing to jeopardize their standing within the organization to call attention to the guilty parties. The dynamic is remarkably similar to abuses that have transpired among priests within the Catholic Church. Victim’s voices can’t be heard if the organization is only concerned with its own sanctity.

The most public restaurant harassment scandals—Batali, Friedman, Besh, Hallowell—have one very obvious element in common (aside from their all having been perpetrated by men): They were all the owners. It’s unfathomable to think that aggressive male owners will properly design safety mechanisms to protect employees from aggression when many of these male owners consider their aggressive tendencies to be the key to their success. Being a tyrant requires a lack of concern for the feelings of the people in your kingdom. Dictators ignore societal mores because they believe they know what’s best for their constituency. Restaurant owners who exhibit tyrannical tendencies rarely face criticism from their lieutenants, who must choose loyalty over ethics if they want to keep their jobs. 

In the meantime, while we wait for the next chef-shaming exposé, we move forward without having drawn a road map for accountability. It’s hard to imagine—since moral compasses have long since betrayed us—that without a map we wont end up driving off the same cliff again. 

Please Wait To Be Seated

restaurant-reservations

No matter how much people love dining out, they never like waiting for their table. Seating guests promptly is consistently one the most stressful parts of working in a restaurant. Hosts and maitre’ds around the world are routinely subjected to childlike tantrums and fits of hyperbolic outrage when guests are made to wait. Unfortunately, what most people don’t understand is that the process of booking restaurant reservations is an imperfect science.

Filling a restaurant is like a game of Tetris. At the beginning, the pace is slow and the puzzle pieces fit together easily. As the night progresses, the shapes become more complicated and the pace of the game accelerates. Sometimes the pieces don’t fit as well as we thought and the puzzle gets messy.

To impose order, most restaurants create a flexible template for managing bookings that staggers the seating arrangement throughout the night. The template assigns a time frame to each different party size that is considered ample for guests to enjoy their experience. In fine dining, that may be up to two hours for parties of two (we call them “deuces”) or between two and three hours for larger parties. More casual restaurants may be less generous with projected turn times. They need more volume to make up for lower menu prices. No matter how the reservation system is designed, there is rarely room for error. 

Predicting when each table will be ready is a tightrope act that can easily be thrown out of balance when unpredictable variables arise. If your party is incomplete or late for a reservation, this is why the maitre’d likely tells you he or she needs the table back at a particular time. You might find it inhospitable to be constrained in this way but so will the party after you forced to wait longer because you were late. The plan for filling the dining room rarely plays out the way it’s been scripted. 

On any given night, the reservation book ebbs and flows—people cancel and last-minute reservations are added. There are no-shows or people arrive with a larger or smaller party size than they originally booked. The way the tables are plotted changes in real time based on the pacing of each individual party.

The truth is—no matter how much data you have, it’s impossible to predict the amount of time it will take each individual table to complete their meal, pay their check and leave. There are never guarantees that just because a table has paid their check on time that they will also relinquish their table. In other words, when we give you a reservation time, in many cases, we are approximating when you’ll be seated based on the tendencies of the average guest.

This is why everyone who makes a reservation in a restaurant should understand that a reservation isn’t a contract. It’s understandable to be upset if you’re seated past your allotted time, but you shouldn’t feel cheated. 

Agreeing to a particular reservation time does not guarantee you’ll be seated at that time. A reservation is an attempt, in good faith, to accurately predict the time your table will be ready. It guarantees that you will have a table, but it does not guarantee that you’ll be seated at that table punctually. As a guest, you should always grant the restaurant a reasonable grace period. After thirty minutes, management should offer some kind of reclamation—like a round of drinks or complimentary dishes. They usually do. But even in these instances—though it perfectly fair to voice your displeasure—you should not feel entitled to anything. 

Restaurants create reservation templates to help seat you on time

It’s curious that most people are willingly accept the same approximations with doctor’s appointments, trips to the hair salon, airline departures and cable service calls. They’ll compassionately forgive long delays in office waiting rooms or airport gates without anywhere near the same sense of entitlement. Would anyone dream of standing at the front desk in a doctor’s office and demanding to be seen immediately a half an hour after their appointment? So why do we get so much more upset when we’re seated late for our restaurant reservations? Many people look down on the vocational work of restaurant professionals compared to more white-collar service industries. We feel more entitled to bully a hostess for a table than an dentist for a root canal.

The reasons for the delay in each of the above scenarios are exactly the same: The amount of time it takes to care for certain individuals varies and is hard to predict. For whatever reason, when we dine out, we assume if we’re seated late that it must be incompetence. It often isn’t. In most cases, late seating is due to extenuating circumstances—traffic, bad weather, a visit from the Health Department, or just people “camping.” Asking a table who is lingering to leave is a last resort and restaurants only do so in isolated cases. As an impatient guest, it isn’t fair to support evicting someone who’s overstayed their welcome for you to be seated unless you are willing to accept the same treatment when you linger. Most people aren’t.

More often than not, the staff of the restaurant will be remorseful it’s behind schedule and will do what it can to make amends. Showing grace in these moments may be difficult but it demonstrates that you don’t put your needs above others. Your calm will be repaid in attentive service. Ask anyone who works in restaurants, selfless guests are the most treasured ones.