For those of us who are sensitive or allergic to certain foods, eating out can sometimes feel more like a trek through a minefield than a relaxing dining experience.
Thankfully, certain restaurant chains with local presence are taking steps to make dining out safer for those with food allergies, which is a step in the right direction considering the myriad of potential pitfalls for contamination and the very grave consequences for falling into one.
If you're one of the 12 million people in the United States with a food allergy, you know what we're talking about. It's not just worrying about ordering a safe dish -- it's also stressing over things like: Did the cook use the same gloves and tools to prepare all the meals, putting you at risk for cross-contamination? Was this salad made from scratch, or did someone just pick the nuts off of an already assembled salad? Does the kitchen staff understand that even a spec of an allergen can make you really sick?
Ingesting allergens can have serious, even deadly consequences. Each year, some 30,000 people in the U.S. end up in emergency rooms after having an allergic reaction to something they ate. And at least 200 deaths per year are blamed on food allergies.
You might have thought most restaurants would have a system in place to help allergic guests, but that's not the case. All too often, the only recourse customers have is to tell the waitperson about their allergy, then hope for the best. Since you can't hover over the chef in the kitchen, there's no way of knowing for sure how your meal was prepared.
But two restaurant chains have come up with strategies to make eating out a better experience for guests with allergies or food sensitivities. At Hugo's, with locations in West Hollywood, Studio City and Agoura Hills, there's a unique system in place to help allergic customers. For starters, the entire menu is broken down online with the most common allergens identified. And people with peanut allergies can relax, knowing that no peanut products are used in the kitchen.
Inside the restaurants, menus are coded with symbols showing potentially problematic ingredients, such as nuts, soy, eggs, gluten, or dairy. The anti-allergy system springs into action when customers tell the waitperson about their problem foods. Immediately, a red coaster is placed on the table, letting the restaurant staff know that a guest has a food allergy. Next, an allergy alert is entered into the computer when the order is placed, sending a signal to the kitchen. The chefs and cooks use separate tools to prepare the food, and they place a special sandwich pick in the dish, to make sure it is not handled inappropriately. The food runner has to make sure the pick is in the dish before delivering it to the customer.
Maggiano's, with Los Angeles locations at the Farmers Market, Woodland Hills and South Coast Plaza, also has a companywide system to help out guests with dietary concerns.
When a guest tells the waitstaff about an allergy or other special food need, a chef is summoned to the table to take the order. The chef will help guide the diner through the menu to make a safe choice. In the kitchen, that meal is prepared on a separate, sanitized table, away from potential allergens. (And no peanut products are used in any dishes.)
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In recent years, Maggiano's has begun to offer gluten-free and allergen-free banquets, which have become very popular with customers planning special events.
"It's become part of our culture, doing these kinds of meals," says Keith Brunell, the chain's senior culinary director.
Brunell says chefs are big supporters of the system: "Our chefs really take all this to heart. It's making a difference in their guests' lives."
Of course, even in the most conscientious restaurants, mistakes can happen. So if you have a food allergy, it's a good idea to talk with your doctor. You may need to carry a life-saving EpiPen (epinephrine injection), especially if you've ever had a serious reaction like throat-swelling or anaphylactic shock. Hopefully you'll never have to use it, but it's good to have, just in case.