Tag Archives: Restaurant

My Surprising Dining Out Experience

Two years ago, I found out I am allergic to soy the hard way. My best friend, who has a peanut allergy, shared a pepperoni pizza with me at a restaurant we have always been comfortable with. Within an hour, I felt like I had been set on fire, my lips started to swell, and I started getting hives. By the time I got to the hospital, I was red from head to toe. My friend, on the other hand, was completely fine. Thankfully, my trusty EpiPen® auto-injector worked the way it was supposed to, and after my short hospital stay I was fine. Through allergy tests we determined that I am allergic to soy – but only to some soy. All three of my anaphylactic reactions have been to extremely high amounts of soy protein, but I am okay after consuming things with soy flour, like certain brands of bread, and things with soybean oil or lecithin.

So when I only react to some soy and restaurant allergy guides label for all soy, my job becomes a little more work. I have to explain to restaurant workers – who often understand that food allergies are severe, but don’t understand the mechanisms behind a reaction – that I only react to some soy and therefore need to see ingredients lists, not just an allergy chart. When I have to do this every time I go to a restaurant, eating out loses its excitement. Prior to my soy allergy, I just told the waitress “I’m allergic to peanuts” and everything proceeded without a problem – peanuts were recognized enough that most restaurants seemed to be comfortable serving me. However, a soy allergy diagnosis completely changed this experience for me. The manager of a large chain accused me of trying to steal recipes when I asked for information about soy ingredients because of my allergy, and refused to serve me. Some places just labelled soy in their ingredients, but not the actual form, which always resulted in me leaving without eating. Others said that they had ingredient lists and I arrived to see an allergen chart
labelling all soy clumped together in one term. I stopped eating out entirely, except at select fast food restaurants where I personally feel safe eating.

Last fall I joined a Facebook group for local people with allergies and noticed one mom posted that her child has a weird soy allergy like mine. I connected with her and she sent me a list of places she feels safe taking her son, reminding me to contact them on my own before going just to be safe. One of those places is right down the street from my apartment, so between classes my friend and I decided to check it out.

I have never had such amazing treatment. To call this a “surprising” experience significantly undermines how I felt. The restaurant is called Famoso® and they have a few locations spread throughout the country. I went to the Toronto location, so I can only speak to their allergy awareness. Their allergy chart* is the most detailed I have ever seen, and breaks down exactly what form of each allergen is present in each dish. The manager spoke to me about how they handle allergies, both on the phone before I arrived and once I arrived. A separate kitchen is dedicated to all allergy-related meals, and is completely cleaned when a new allergy-related meal is prepared. The chef works on the allergy-related meal until it is finished, to reduce cross contamination risks. They go as far as completely cleaning the oven before putting allergy-related food in it. Of course, there is always a risk when eating out. Famoso® does have a few dishes with peanuts and/or soy protein in them, and that alone shows there is a higher risk of causing a reaction compared to places without peanuts and soy protein present. However, I was pleasantly surprised with how safe I felt and the precautions put in place by the restaurant staff.

For me, this broke a trend of not trusting restaurants. I realized it is possible to eat out and feel safe. Prior to this, I felt like restaurants didn’t want to deal with people who have allergies to foods that aren’t frequently seen. I was surprised how educated the Famoso® staff were about all allergies, how they were willing to workDd with allergies outside the Top 10, and how confident they were in their service. Famoso® is now my go-to restaurant, thankfully having a location in Toronto and in my hometown (Kitchener-Waterloo).

– Danielle B.

*Here’s a link to Famoso’s allergy chart -> http://famoso.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Famoso-Allery-Chart-November-14-2016.pdf

My Dream for a Standardized Allergy-Friendly Menu

Cheerful couple with menu in a restaurant making order
Dining out with friends and family is always something I look forward to. Having to worry about my food allergy, however, takes some fun out of it, but it’s something I’ve become accustomed to. I always get a sense of relief when I find a restaurant that is allergy-friendly and has a detailed spreadsheet listing allergen information for their menu items across the board. I often dream about what it would be like if there was a standardized allergy-friendly menu at every restaurant I went to.  Here are a few reasons why a standardized allergy-friendly menu would benefit those of us with food allergies:

It would reduce the anxious feelings that often come with dining out. Having a standardized allergy-friendly menu would eliminate the burden I sometimes feel when discussing and planning a night out with friends. For example, I often find myself saying to them, “sorry, we can’t check out that restaurant because I think there are nuts in many dishes” or “I didn’t feel comfortable there last time.” Also, it would eliminate the constant back-and-forth of asking about ingredient info with the wait and kitchen staff. I would still notify them about my allergies so they know it’s severe, and to be cautious of cross-contamination.

It would make the planning process quicker and easier. Knowing a restaurant has a standardized allergy-friendly menu would eliminate the amount of time I spend researching restaurants before choosing or agreeing to dine there.

menuIt would make me feel more comfortable and safe when dining out. It would show me that the restaurant’s dishes have been dissected to highlight what allergens are within. My hope would be that these recipes would never change, which is another reason why it’s important to still mention your allergies. An allergy-friendly menu doesn’t necessarily mean that the food service staff are completely allergy aware, which is why I would still double check that they have strict kitchen protocols for accommodating allergic diners beyond providing ingredient information.

It would highlight safe options on the menu for my allergies. Having a detailed outline of potential allergens and ingredients for each dish served would not only give me a clear list of safe items, but it would also provide me with options I would have never thought I could have. Knowing I would find a standardized allergy-friendly menu at any restaurant I went to would also allow me to discover restaurants that I never thought I could eat at before.

Fortunately, the restaurant industry in Canada is well aware of the seriousness of food allergies, but there is much room to improve. There are a fair number of food chains that have a standardized menu and provide an allergen information sheet, but it isn’t required across restaurants nation-wide. It would be a dream to be able to check out a new restaurant knowing that when I get there, they would provide me with a menu of safe dining options to leave me worry-free.

– Michelle D.

Checking it Twice: Adventures in Dining

It was a beautiful Saturday in July. The sun was shining, there was a breeze in the air, and Ottawa was looking particularly beautiful.

It had started off as a great day, and when a group of friends and I decided to venture down the street to one of my favourite restaurants in the city, I thought nothing of it. I usually call ahead to most places to ensure its safety, but this particular restaurant was consistently safe, I had even had discussions with the owner about allergens, so I felt confident just showing up on a lazy Saturday to have drinks and appetizers.

Business Celebrate Cheerful Enjoyment Festive ConceptAs we were seated I immediately noticed new menus and the twinge of anxiety chimed in; maybe I should have called ahead. As our server took our drink orders my heart sank and my stomach lunged into my throat. Staring me in the face was a burger compiled of pure nuts, cashews, almonds, and pecans encrusted with sesame seeds. Literally a burger constructed of all my worst, most severe allergens. I almost dropped my drink in shock. This was a safe place, my favourite place to eat in the city, literally down the street from my home! it had always been safe and now without warning it all changed. I had several emotions stirring inside me: Guilt because I choose this place. My friends had just ordered their drinks and barely had a second to enjoy them. Fear because of cross-contamination and the idea that those allergens were lurking around so openly. Anger because a place I trusted and felt confident in had let me down. It took my trust and broke it. And lastly, disappointed, not in the restaurant but in myself. I allowed myself to be lulled into a sense of security and familiarity and let my guard down.

Luckily, I was with people I trusted and who knew my food allergies well and noticed the burger a few seconds after me. I asked the server about the food preparation and she informed me that it wasn’t prepped in a special area and cross-contamination was a very real possibility. My friends asked me what I wanted to do, and we collectively paid our bills and left.

I could have let that experience ruin my attitude towards restaurants and new experiences, letting myself become bitter or scared of new things, or even places I felt safe. Instead, I let it be a very stern reminder that it’s okay to have trust, but you constantly have to be vigilant and aware of your surroundings. Even though I may have eaten there a million times or been there before, you always have to ensure it’s still safe. I now try to always call ahead or check their website before going out. It may be tedious but it’s a small task to do to ensure a safe meal.

– Arianne K.

My Favourite Restaurant: T-Bar NYC

I love to travel to New York – whether it be for business or pleasure, there is a magical and electric element about the city that you cannot experience anywhere else in the world. In the past year, I’ve had to travel to the city, specifically for business. One of the difficulties with travelling to the Big Apple, is the fact that most hotels do not have kitchens. In fact, most native New Yorkers eat-out very frequently. This poses some issues to those of us in the severe food allergy community, where eating-out can be a potentially dangerous experience. Having lived with the risk for an anaphylactic reaction to tree nuts for the past decade, I found myself in this position on one of my most recent trips to the city.

While in Manhattan, I researched “nut-free restaurants in New York” on Google, and stumbled across a restaurant called T-Bar: an upscale, modern restaurant on the Upper-East side. I was very eager to try this new place out, given that nut-free restaurants in Toronto are a definite rarity.

Cheerful couple with menu in a restaurant making order

When I arrived, I was greeted by a team of very friendly staff who assured me that my meal would be completely nut-free. I was ecstatic! So much so, that I ordered the left-side of the menu; everything from fried-artichokes, to fresh breadsticks, to an entire pizza. In short, the food along with the overall ambiance of the place was amazing. The restaurant is quintessentially New York – elegant, classy, modern and buzzing with activity.

Further, my experience at T-Bar was the best I’ve ever had in any restaurant in a very long time. The restaurant has now become a staple during my trips to New York – if you visit the city, definitely give this restaurant a try!

If you’re looking for more options, a college student has created a blog finding allergy-friendly places in New York City. Check it out at https://nutfreenewyork.com/

– Saverio M.

My Backpacking Experience

This spring my best friend and I graduated university, and decided to celebrate by buying oversized backpacks and booking plane tickets to Europe for a month long adventure. It was a whirlwind! We visited 12 towns throughout 6 countries in just 28 days, but it was definitely one of the best experiences I have ever had.

Most of my family was very supportive of my plans to take off and explore, but I did see some hesitation from my dad. Being two young girls travelling on our own, I do get where he was coming from, but it turns out that he was most concerned about my food allergies. Being in such unfamiliar places, with language barriers, made him nervous.

This wasn’t my first trip to Europe, so I was fairly confident in being able to keep myself safe, but there were still a lot of unknowns. I am glad I didn’t let this hold me back! I had an amazing trip and felt safe when I was eating abroad with my food allergies. If you’re planning on backpacking abroad I have a few words of advice on how to keep yourself safe.

Preparing to Take Off
More than any other flight I had been on, I was very selective of the airline I chose for my transatlantic flight. Being a very long flight, I made sure I was going to be comfortable with the food allergy policies of the airline. It is great to see that there are many Canadian airlines that no longer serve peanuts or tree nuts on-board, and are accommodating by creating buffer zones and making cabin announcements about food allergies. I made sure to call ahead and confirm the policies so that I would be comfortable.
Airplane seat and window inside an aircraft

Before leaving I had food allergy cards made by a friend who was able to translate that I have life-threatening food allergies. These really ended up coming in handy in a few situations. I found that free online translation websites were typically not accurate so having a friend who speaks French and Italian was very helpful. There are a few sites online that have pre-made allergy cards that you can order, which is very useful. I would highly recommend doing this.

It is also a good idea to stock up on any medications you might need before you go. This may seem excessive, but I brought five EpiPens® with me. I kept two in my friend’s bag in case my bag was lost, two in my purse, and a spare in my luggage. I would not want to have to deal with replacing lost EpiPens® while abroad, so I over prepared.

Accommodations
For our month long journey, hostels were our places to stay because they are economical and a great way to meet other travellers. Also, to my surprise staying in hostels was quite helpful allergy-wise. The majority of hostels have a full-shared kitchen. With this, we were able to cook a lot of our meals and that way I had control over what I was eating. Being a shared kitchen, I did have to be careful about what was going on around me. I always washed dishes before I used them, since dishes were often not cleaned well and I did not know what they were used for before they were put away. Eating-in was also helpful in keeping to our budget and being able to have healthy meals more often.
Renting apartments or condos can also be a great economical option in Europe. This generally provides you with a kitchen allowing you to cook your own meals.

Eating Out
My trip began by travelling through the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. English is well spoken in these areas so it was nice to start our trip without the language barrier. Before our departure, many people had told me that food allergies are far less common in Europe compared to North America, and that it would be challenging to explain the concept to servers. To my surprise, when we went to order at our first restaurant in London, after mentioning I had allergies, the server returned with a full food allergy guide outlining the presence of allergens in all of their meals. I was amazed to find that this was only the start of finding food allergy menus at every single restaurant I went to in these countries. Many restaurants would even have a coded system at the end of their main menu so I would not even have to ask for a special menu. I was thrilled by how easy this made dining out for me and this lessened my worries. I still took the time to explain my food allergies to servers and ensured that they would relay the message to the kitchen.

Once I arrived in Paris, eating out became a little more challenging. First of all, I faced a language barrier since my French vocabulary is very minimal. At most restaurants servers would speak English but I still used my allergy cards to ensure that we were on the same page. Allergy menus were also far less common here, but the servers were generally able to suggest what my safest options were. The only time I really had difficulties was a night we ate at a true, authentic, off-the-beaten-path French restaurant. Luckily, one of the friends we had made along the way, who was out for dinner with us, was very fluent in French and able to help communicate for me.

finger on a menu

The most shocking experience I had related to my food allergies throughout the trip happened when we arrived in Venice and picked a cute little Italian restaurant to eat at on one of the many canals. I was so excited to have my first true Italian pizza, until I looked at the menu, which did have a coded system, indicating that every single dish contained peanuts. I later learned that it is common in Venice for some restaurants to use peanut oils or peanut-based flours in their pizza and pasta. I had never heard of this before and was worried at that point that I would not be able to find any food that I could eat. Luckily during my time in Italy, there was only one other restaurant I found that did this and all others were safe, but this is something to definitely be on the look out for in your travels.

Overall, I had a great experience backpacking throughout Europe this past spring. Do not let your food allergies hold you back from exploring the world. Do your research, be prepared, and have fun!

– Sara S.

Managing my Food Allergies: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Managing your food allergy can be somewhat of a roller coaster ride. The reality is that some people just “get” or understand severe allergies – understanding its severity and implications – while others just don’t, no matter how much you explain it to them. As frustrating as the negative experiences can be, there are often rewarding learning experiences that emerge out of them.

In this post, I’ll share some of my stories of positive and negative experiences in managing my tree nut (Hazelnut and Walnut) allergy.

The Good:

Finding “that” restaurant

Truth be told, I never usually eat-out. Usually, a bag of chips is as far as I am willing to go in terms of eating food not prepared by myself or my family. It can be very difficult to trust restaurants (specifically, restaurant staff), when your allergy is severe. However, with enough research, you can often find that “diamond in the rough” – a restaurant that is completely free of your allergen and can guarantee it. A few summers ago, I travelled to New York City with my family. I said to myself, “there has to be one restaurant in this massive city that is Nut-Free.” Low and behold, I came across a restaurant in the Upper East Side, called T-Bar, that could guarantee a nut-free meal with little risk of cross-contamination. I was elated – these people got it!

Male chef garnishing his dish, ready to serve

After my New York Experience, I became more active in my research of nut-free restaurants. Usually, many restaurants in the U.S. and Canada do have allergen policies in place. Having said that, always make sure to call each restaurant in advance to get briefed by the manager or chef on the specific policy at each restaurant, even if you are eating at the same chain (different restaurants within a chain may have different policies given the standing franchising agreements). In any case, always call in advance. When you are at the restaurant, get a “feel” for how safe the restaurant is in addition to reminding the restaurant staff of your food allergy. I learned that it is possible to “eat out” but it depends where you eat and the specific allergen policies that dictate how seriously the restaurant takes your allergy.

The Bad and the Ugly:

Friends and Family that just don’t get it:

Throughout the past 12 years living with my food allergy, I’ve come across some friends and family members that just do not understand the severity of my allergy. I have one friend that keeps on insisting that we eat out at different restaurants: “Come on – the food should be safe here…I don’t see any nuts on my dish.” Even after explaining the concept of cross-contamination, it is hard for some people to empathize with the severity of Anaphylactic reactions.

To mitigate these situations, politely remind your friends or family about the severity of your allergy (even if you have to repeat yourself for the 150th time) and be sure to re-explain the concept of cross contamination if necessary. Never feel peer-pressured into doing or eating anything that you do not feel comfortable doing. Your health is always your first priority.

Managing your allergies is achievable! You can travel and you can eat-out with your friends, but always be cautious. Again, your health is your first priority, so always be sure to be vigilant, do your homework, and go with your gut, especially when eating-out at restaurants with your friends or family.

– Saverio M.

Birthdays for Adults with Allergies

Birthday cupcake in front of a chalkboard

Birthdays are often synonymous with fun and excitement. Celebrating, relaxing, and catching-up with old friends are all things that we look forward to when we plan our own birthday parties, or get invited to one by our friends or family members. Food allergies may initially pose some complications to birthday party celebrations, especially if the party takes place over a meal, or at a restaurant.

This is an all too common, and potentially stressful, situation encountered by many adults living with severe food allergies. The initial excitement for the party that you were just invited to is suddenly overshadowed by doubts, and even anxiety, that stem from how to properly manage your food allergies in the given situation. Some of these doubts may come in the form of the following common questions that I ask myself:

  • “Will there be a meal served at the party?”
  • “What restaurant will my friend/cousin/significant other choose for their birthday?”
  • “Should I call the restaurant in advance?”
  • “Should I avoid eating at the party all-together?”
  • “Will I be singled-out if I don’t eat anything? Will I feel awkward?”

This post will attempt to address some of these questions by providing you with some tangible tips that you can use either when planning your own party or if you are invited to a birthday party in the near future.

Scenario 1: Planning your own birthday party

This is the easiest scenario to face since you have complete control over every detail of the party. In this case, you can either:

  • Plan your party around a fun activity (e.g., A karaoke party or informal get-together) that doesn’t involve eating-out at a restaurant.
  • Plan a lunch or dinner party at a “safe” restaurant, which is a restaurant with a strong food allergy policy that you have eaten at before; a restaurant that you generally trust and feel safe eating at.

Reminder: If you do choose to hold your birthday at a restaurant, always call the restaurant in advance of the party day. This is an absolute must, even for restaurants on your “safe list.” Restaurants change their policies and menus all the time, so you should always be extra-cautious and call the restaurant staff in advance. It is also essential that you remind your friends that you have a severe food allergy (name your allergen) and what specific actions they should take in the event that you do have an allergic reaction. Always have your auto-injector with you, especially if you are dining-out. Make sure others know where you keep it.

Beautiful young woman celebrating birthday with friends at nightclub

Scenario 2: You are invited to a birthday party

In this case, you have less control over the details of the party. You can use my steps below as a broad guideline to handling this scenario:

  1. Call the party organizer in advance (your friend, colleague, family member, or significant other that is organizing the party), and confirm the restaurant name and location (note that different restaurant locations may have different food allergy policies, even within the same chain of restaurants).
  2. Call the restaurant well in-advance of the party (as soon as you get the location information) and inquire about their food allergy policy. Ask whether or not they have one, how they have handled food allergies in the past, and whether or not they can accommodate your specific allergies..
  3. Based-on the information you receive from the call, make a personal judgement to determine whether or not you feel comfortable eating at the establishment. Never feel pressured to eat at a restaurant by anyone, no matter what the occasion! Your health is much too important!
  4. If you decide to go ahead and eat-out, make sure you remind the wait staff at the restaurant (and the chef, if possible) that you have a severe food allergy, and that extra precautions should be taken in preparing your meal.
  5. As mentioned before, remind your friends that you have a severe food allergy, and let them know that you are carrying an auto-injector. Show them where you are carrying your auto-injector.

These are the steps that I most often revert to when planning, or when attending, a birthday party. The most important take-away from this post, is that severe allergies should never overshadow the fun and excitement out of birthday parties. By taking the proper precautions, and following some of my advice provided, you can face any birthday party (or special gathering) with confidence and ease.

– Saverio M.