Tag Archives: Restaurant

One Restaurant, Two Different Dining Experiences

I travel once a month for work to a small town where I stay for 3 nights. The town has limited restaurant options but enough to give me a variety of foods from which to choose. For this blog post, I want to highlight my experiences at a Tex Mex chain restaurant in particular. I’ve visited countless times and my overall experience has been great! That being said, I want to share two stories of how you can sometimes have completely different experiences at the same restaurant.

Situation #1: The First-Timer

The first time I travelled for work, I chose to eat here because I looked at the menu online and trusted the overall “vibe” I was getting in terms of allergen (peanut/tree nut) safety. What I mean by this is that I saw no peanuts on the menu and the only tree nuts were located in the salad section of the menu, which seems to be very normal these days. They also have a little blurb on the menu outlining their caution with food allergies and their ability to accommodate those living with food allergies. When I got to the restaurant, I let my server know about the severity of my food allergy. She assured me that the restaurant staff are very careful with food preparation in the back and that she would let everyone who handles the food know about my allergy. A few minutes later, the manager approached my table to inform me of their protocols. A specific chef was assigned to the preparation of my meal, sterilized utensils and pots/pans were to be used and they would do everything to ensure there was no risk of cross-contamination in the back. This sounded awesome! I was blown away by the awareness and the careful preparation that their restaurant protocol followed. I was served my meal and the wait staff followed up with me twice to ensure everything was going well, and I have to say, it definitely went well. I walked away feeling quite impressed with my new experience!

Situation #2: The Weird Vibe

The next month when I went back to this restaurant, I asked for the same menu item (steak fajitas-they are SO good!) and the restaurant staff followed the same protocol, with the manager approaching me before meal preparation. Where it got weird was when the manager followed up with my meal after I had taken a few bites. After asking how I was enjoying my meal, she said, “well, we haven’t killed you yet, so that’s a good sign!”

I’m a very easygoing person but for some reason this line irked me. It just didn’t sound right! It could be that the manager was feeling awkward about approaching me as the only person sitting at a table (I’ve noticed wait staff can be very awkward when I go to a restaurant alone, but what else can I do? I’m working!) It could also be that the manager just thought she needed to say something and didn’t filter herself before speaking. Whatever the case, I don’t think a line that includes “not killing” someone should ever be used, especially at a venue that serves food to someone with a life-threatening food allergy.

I’m not overreacting. I’m not even truly upset. I just wanted to share these stories to demonstrate how experiences can sometimes be amazing or weird at the same place for the same person. Weird vibes happen, but what I learned from these two visits is that as a person with food allergies, I should try to not let my guard down or become complacent just because I’ve had a good experience somewhere in the past. Diligence is my number one protector and as long as I am thorough in minimizing my risk, I can feel safe eating out and experiencing the wide world of eating while on the road!

– Dylan B.

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Honesty is the Best Policy with Food Allergies.

Has this situation ever happened to you? You are out at a restaurant dining with friends and family, and after you’ve told the server about your allergens (and stressed the importance of proper food preparation), someone else at your table tells a little white lie claiming that they have an allergy too. They casually drop the information, with you knowing their allergy isn’t true. To them, it’s an innocent piece of fiction – maybe they don’t like the taste, or the texture bothers them or they could even be on a new diet. But to you, who has a legitimate diagnosed food allergy, it’s a big problem as you are both suddenly cast in the same light. The server may even flag that the meal your friend is ordering contains their supposed allergen.  To which your dinner date may brush it off or say they can have a “cheat day” or that “a little dab won’t hurt.”

Your eyes dart from your dinner companion to the server, silently begging them to understand you’re not like that, that your allergies are important and very real. Has your jaw ever hit the table in disbelief during a situation like this, or caused you to shrink into your chair frozen with anxiety that your allergy’s severity was just seemingly “watered down”? I’ve struggled with how to treat situations like this. I treat my food allergies seriously, I make sure everyone around me knows my allergens, how serious they are and how to identify and respond to a reaction. My allergens are very real and serious. Being put into a situation like the one above isn’t fair.

What do you do? Do you express loudly that your allergen is serious, reaffirming your allergies with the restaurant wait staff? Do you sit quietly and hope the server takes all of the food restrictions seriously regardless of the situation? Do you interrupt your friend and say “stop misleading everyone” and potentially embarrass them in public? It’s tough, it’s awkward for everyone and let’s face it, it can be downright annoying. When this happens to me, I feel like I’ve been put in a position where I need to defend my allergies to everyone around me.

Situations like these can be much more common than you’d think. It’s why it’s time we get honest about our food allergies with ourselves, and with others about the misconceptions surrounding them. It may seem easier to say that you have an allergy when you just don’t enjoy a food. What’s the harm, you think? Personally, I’ve fought for every inch of respect and safety in my life when it comes to my food allergies. Before I found my voice, my mom spent hours on phones calling companies, making food, and generally keeping me safe and bringing normalcy to an otherwise challenging life with food allergies.

It took me a long time to find my confidence. My food allergies are a part of me and a big part of what makes me, me. That’s not to say there isn’t still a struggle between my introvert and extrovert self when it comes to telling people about my food allergies, especially in tense situations like the one above. Dining out with food allergies can be stressful, especially when someone casually stretches the truth about their own dietary issues. It’s important for those with true food allergies to help others understand the importance and seriousness of food allergies. Ask additional questions about food preparation and cross-contamination to prove that you are quite serious about the safety of your food. I still spend a lot of time calling restaurants and companies, trying to find safe food and places to go.  When others fabricate a food allergy to avoid foods they don’t like to eat, it can feel like it diminishes all the time and energy we as a food allergy community have put into staying safe and aware with our food allergies.

Let’s face it, there is always going to be a dish or food that you don’t like (for me it’s cauliflower). We can avoid that food and tell others we don’t like the taste or texture, but we should never deceive others or misrepresent these dislikes as an allergen. Although it may seem like a harmless and victimless statement, it can hurt those around you who do have a food allergy.

For those of us with a food allergy, instead of getting angry or upset when people evade foods with false allergy statements, we can instead teach them about the seriousness of a food allergy and the affect that a little lie could have on your requests, so we can all feel safe and satisfied when dining out.

  • Arianne K.

University/College Top 3 Tips Series: Eating on Campus

Regardless of whether you are living on campus or off campus while away at university or college, a lot of your time will be spent on campus. Whether its picking up a snack between classes or grabbing dinner with friends, it is important to know where you are safe to eat on campus.

  1. Navigate the cafeterias

Something to spend your first couple of weeks doing is to get to know what your different food options are on campus. Most schools will have a few main cafeterias along with maybe a restaurant, snack areas or chain food suppliers. Spend some of your time getting to know where your food options are and what each of them serve. This will help you to determine where you can eat safely and what places have the types of food you like.

  1. Talk to the staff

The hospitality staff at your school will be the best people to help you eat safely on campus. They are the ones who know all about how food allergens are managed on campus and how you can best go about eating safely. Talk to the people who actually work in the cafeterias – usually the chefs and food preparation staff will have no problem talking to you and discussing what foods are safe for you to eat. If ingredients are not posted, the staff should be able to show you ingredient lists so you can know exactly what you are eating.

  1. Be adventurous

I found that growing up with food allergies led to me being a very plain eater. I rarely tried foods that were outside of my comfort zone as I had been so used to eating a restricted diet. When going away to school, I decided it was a good time to try some new foods – as long as I knew they were safe. After speaking to the hospitality staff and chefs at the cafeterias, I found that there were lots of new things that I could try that they could ensure me were allergen safe. This was a great way to try new foods in a safe environment. Just always make sure you have talked to staff, double checked ingredients, have an auto-injector nearby (just in case), and have informed those eating with you that you are trying something new.

Eating on campus will become a staple while you are away at school so it is important to know your options and know how to eat safely! If you have any other tips when eating on campus, I’d love to hear about it in a comment below!

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.