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.

The Truth About Restaurant Reservations

Making a reservation at a busy restaurant can be a total clusterfuck. You have your favorite place on speed dial thirty days in advance and when you finally get through they’re already booked solid? But it’s my mother-in-law’s 65th birthday and she loves your restaurant!! You beg and plead on the phone but to no avail. Even with advance notice, why is it so difficult for the average Joe to get the reservations they want? Some reasons are obvious like supply and demand. There just aren’t enough tables to accommodate everyone. But a few hidden truths are a little more eye-opening. Here are five secrets you might not know about restaurant reservations:

Restaurants hold tables for VIP guests and regulars – Cultivating a loyal clientele is critical to any restaurant’s success. We know where our bread is buttered and will reward our prodigal customers with preferred status. This often results in blocking access to certain tables to ensure they’re available for valued guests. Restaurants also benefit from having celebrity clientele whose schedules are often too unpredictable to book ahead of time. If we don’t cater to the needs of our most important regulars, they’ll take their notoriety and loyalty somewhere else. A nifty trick: Call for same day reservations in the early afternoon since they may release those last minute holds and make them available to the public.

Private concierge services monopolize prime reservation times for their clients – You probably didn’t know but there are companies who get paid to reserve tables at exclusive restaurants. Corporate clientele will fork over top dollar for access to popular reservations without the hassle of advance planning. Whether you realize or not, every time you attempt to make a reservation at a busy restaurant you are competing with shadowy gangs of professional concierge services who are paid to beat you to the punch. These relationships are usually mutually beneficial which gives concierges priority status over random suckers.

No tables are available because of your party size – Restaurants only have a finite number of tables that can accommodate specific denominations. If you’re calling for a party of six, you may be told no because the restaurant only has a few tables in the dining room that can comfortably fit six people. For parties of four, on the other hand, they may have significantly more availability. It’s worth asking the reservationist if there are smaller or larger tables available when you’re booking and adjusting your party size accordingly.

Restaurant Reservations Can Be Soul-CrushingYou need a connection to get in – Some restaurants like Rao’s in New York City only open their doors to insiders. You either know someone who has a table there or you’re eating somewhere else. Loyalty is the best way to build these relationships. That’s how they did it back in the day at Rao’s and that’s how they do it now everywhere else. Don’t expect preferred status without earning it. Restaurant relationships are just like relationships you have with significant others. Expecting intimacy without trust leads to rejection. Take time to get to know the staff, tip them well and eventually, if you’re lucky, they’ll be ready to consummate the relationship.

Restaurants have a dossier on you in their reservation system and your record may be worse than you think – Management will never forget that time you took up a table for five hours on a busy Saturday night or when everyone in your party got shit-faced on 1942 tequila shots and someone puked in the bathroom. Most reservationists will ask your name before offering you a booking so they may access any biographical information you have on file. If you’ve dined there before and have a prior record, a restaurant may mark you as “Do Not Accommodate.” Even a spotty history of cancellations or no-shows may cause you to be blackballed. Keep your rap sheet clean, and you should have nothing to worry about.

How To Complain Better In Restaurants

People always say the same thing when they complain in a restaurant: “I never complain in restaurants.” Having problems with food or service has a way of putting customers on the defensive. At this point, most of us are programmed to understand that we don’t want to make enemies of the people serving us, so we usually keep our mouths shut. Complaining is a last resort. Our first thought is usually: Is there something wrong with me? You might ask someone else at the table for a second opinion to be sure. Do you think I should send this back? Do you think we should ask to speak to the manager? You will do just about everything you can to avoid being “that guy.”

Dining in a restaurant is an inherently helpless act. You are required to put your faith and trust in a group of strangers to care for one of your basic primal needs—hunger. Unfortunately, when things can go awry, people get “hangry.” Food arrives overcooked or undercooked, your order was misunderstood or service is abrasive or incompetent. Minor infractions left unchecked can devolve quickly into chaos. A colleague of mine was threatened recently by a guest when a dish with an ingredient someone was allergic to was accidentally served to the table.

It should never come to blows, of course. Thankfully, there are things you can do to mitigate the damage so it shouldn’t be necessary to throw a tantrum to get what you want. It’s important to keep in mind that the staff of a restaurant tends to be inherently skeptical of customer complaints. Because they are bombarded with so many dubious ones, management often assumes there are ulterior motives: fishing for buybacks, expecting items to be comped off the bill or just plain power tripping.

We understand that sometimes it’s necessary to express dissatisfaction. Here are a few strategies that will help you make more effective complaints:

You have a voice, use it – Don’t expect the waitstaff to read your mind. Too many situations end up in volcanic eruptions because customers bottle up their feelings until the last minute before saying something. The moment you feel there is a problem, let someone know what’s bothering you. If it’s a delay in service, the staff may have perceived that you’re comfortable with a more leisurely pace. If you have a problem with your food, don’t wait until the plates are cleared to express your dissatisfaction. Saying something immediately will give the staff an opportunity to offer you something else instead. Don’t leave unhappy if you haven’t given the staff an opportunity to remedy the situation.

Introduce yourself – Ask for the person’s name when you have an issue that needs attention. Tell them yours. Being on a first name basis with that person will make the interaction more human. An impersonal approach is unlikely to yield as positive a result. Restaurant people take their jobs very personally and we appreciate when you acknowledge us as individuals not nameless faces.

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If you send food back, don’t eat it – If something is wrong with your food, you won’t have very much credibility behind your complaint if you eat most of it. To replace a dish, the server will need to bring the unfinished product back to the chef. The chef will usually inspect the dish, sometimes taste it and almost always say you’re wrong. Regardless, if you eat most of it, the staff will assume that you are just looking for handouts. Be clear if you would like the dish to be replaced or if you would prefer to order something else. Approaching it modesty or even apologetically will minimize any backlash.

Stay cool – Relax, it’s just dinner. The old school mentality that you can’t get what you want if you don’t raise your voice is outmoded. It’s also not an effective strategy. Of course, someone might pacify you to shut you up but it will be at the expense of your relationship with the staff. Demonstrating that your goal is to avoid confrontation will help usher in a peaceful resolution. Nobody likes a bully, and restaurants are no exception. If you behave belligerently, you will be branded with a negative stigma. If they see you again, someone will say “that guy/girl was a dick last time.” It isn’t worth injuring your reputation. Some restaurants may blacklist you completely.

Step away from the table – Making a complaint in front of everyone at the table can humiliate the server and breed animosity. Sometimes a private conversation about an issue away from the table is a better approach. But there is a right way to do it. Never corner your waiter or make him feel threatened. Think of it like asking the judge for a sidebar in court when things are getting contentious. “Do you think our main courses will be arriving soon? We’ve been waiting awhile” or “I didn’t want to make a big thing about it at the table but the [whatever dish] was really salty.” Be casual about it and make it look natural—have the conversation on your way to the bathroom or in passing on your way to having a smoke.

Identify the manager – Almost every dining room has a presiding manager. They should be easily to spot—typically they’ll be dressed a little more formally and not in a standardized uniform. There is a reason they are dressed that way, so it’s easier to identify them as ranking officers. If there is a problem with your table, the manager is your best advocate. If the staff is inattentive or your food is taking too long, the manger wants to know about it. They have more authority to address whatever issue expeditiously. Confrontation should always be a last resort. Asking the waiter to speak with a manager can be construed as an act of war. If you feel a problem germinating, try to summon the manager directly and have a friendly conversation about it. A good manager will remedy the situation and work in tandem with your waiter to get things back on track.

restaurant-complaintsWait until tomorrow – Do not—I repeat DO NOT—go straight to Yelp to write up a bad experience. Sometimes it’s healthy to let things ruminate for a day before you make a complaint. In the heat of the moment, your emotions can get the best of you and your message will be lost. Give the restaurant an opportunity to make amends before you broadcast your negative experience to the world. There are so many scenarios where things go wrong that restaurants can learn from and constructive feedback from dissatisfied guests is integral to the process. Waiting a day to have this conversation will ensure that cooler heads will prevail. If management is not responsive to your issues when you call the next day, you have our permission to Yelp away.