Restaurants devise safeguards to protect allergic diners

April 28th, 2017  |  Published in Today's Special, Uncategorized

A brown rice bowl at Friedman's, made gluten-free and designated as such. Photo: Nina Friend

A brown rice bowl at Friedman’s, made gluten-free and designated as such. Photo: Nina Friend.

By Nina Friend

Riley Lassin hadn’t had fried chicken in five years. When her server at Friedman’s restaurant in Morningside Heights in Manhattan told her that their version of the classic Southern comfort food was gluten-free, she couldn’t believe it, despite the menu note that read, “Friedman’s specializes in gluten-free dining, please notify us when placing your order if you require gluten-free.” New to the city, with wispy brown hair and a cheery lilt that makes it sound like she’s always smiling, twenty-three-year-old Lassin breathed a sigh of relief once her plate arrived and she saw a little flag wedged into her chicken that said “gluten-free.”

Lassin has celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects at least 3 million Americans, and she lives with the same type of gluten-free diet as someone who is allergic to wheat. While the number of Americans with celiac disease has stayed about the same since 2009, the number who embrace a gluten-free diet by choice, not because they have to, has more than tripled, from about 0.5 percent to 1.7 percent, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. About one in six people in the United States embrace a gluten-free diet, and websites like Yelp and OpenTable offer gluten-free filters.  The word “gluten-free” appeared on 24 percent of U.S. menus in 2016, according to DataSsential Menu Trends, superseding “organic” by three percent.

After Lassin was diagnosed with celiac disease at 18, she had to cut gluten out of her diet in order to avoid vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain. The aspiring actress and recent college graduate was so relieved by her experience at Friedman’s that she approached the manager about a job. Luckily for Lassin, the restaurant was hiring.

Friedman’s is one of many New York City restaurants that accommodate food allergies and limited diets. Since 2009, all food service establishments in the city are required to display multilingual food allergy awareness posters designed by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. These posters are intended to protect the 15 million Americans who have food allergies as well as to educate restaurant workers, 10 percent of whom – according to a study conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2016 – incorrectly think that people can safely eat small quantities of foods they’re allergic to.

Some larger chains, like McDonalds and P.F. Chang’s, have their own food allergy training programs. But, according to Jen Jobrack, the National Director of Advocacy for Food Allergy Research and Education, “It’s the mom and pops and it’s the small chains where we really have a lot of work to do.” Jobrack thinks that restaurants need more servers like Lassin. “I’ve actually had servers laugh at us,” Jobrack said, of meals with a friend who is allergic to peanuts. discussing meals out with her peanut-allergic friend. “I’ve had servers make jokes about the peanut butter pie that they’re going to serve instead of the cake.”

At Friedman’s, dietary restrictions aren’t something to laugh about. The manager of the Morningside Heights location, a Cameroonian named Valencia Kwin, said that if a diner were ever to have an allergic reaction or get sick after eating at the restaurant, “I could get fired. Everyone here could get fired.”

Kwin, who worked as a server at the Friedman’s in Chelsea Market before being promoted to manager uptown, said that the policy is the same at all four Friedman’s locations (the other two are in Herald Square and Hell’s Kitchen). Servers use seating order – a longtime restaurant practice of assigning each seat a number, to ensure that the diner at position two gets the meal she ordered – to identify customers who have allergies. Once the server marks down which diners have allergies or restrictions, she enters the information in the restaurant’s point-of-sale system.  After submitting the order, the server goes into the kitchen to notify the chef and lets the manager know, too. Once the ticket comes in, the chef has to clean up. This means washing hands, but it also means changing clothes. Kwin estimated that the chef at the Morningside Heights restaurant changes every five to ten minutes. “We have thousands of kitchen jackets and hats and aprons,” Kwin said. They get new shipments at least twice a week and never run out.

Many restaurants in New York City color-code equipment or have different types of utensils to ensure food safety. Friedman’s uses the toothpick flag that Lassin received in her chicken, as well as a yellow knife for gluten-free dishes and a red one for items with wheat flour. An Upper East Side Chinese restaurant called Lilli and Loo uses square plates for allergen-free dishes and round plates for regular ones. Some places store sauces in squeeze bottles to limit cross-contamination. Others have eliminated certain condiments altogether. After one too many incidents, Lilli and Loo serves only gluten-free soy sauce.

While Jobrack said that there has been “dramatic improvement in the level of awareness about the severity and prevalence of food allergies” some restaurants still struggle. Jobrack has been at a restaurant that says it’s peanut free, and asked to see the bag of chocolate chips used for chocolate chip cookies because she is wary of certain brands. If it’s from a company that Jobrack knows to have a high rate of cross-contamination, she does not consider the food to be peanut-safe.

Jobrack and the rest of the Food Allergy Research and Education team are working to help servers and chefs understand these types of nuances with a program called ServSafe Allergens, which they developed with the National Restaurant Association. According to ServSafe Director William Weichelt, the program has enabled restaurant workers to feel “more comfortable having a conversation” with allergic customers.

Once or twice a week, Lassin gets a table at Friedman’s with a little kid who has a food allergy or some other diet-related intolerance. The parents explain the situation and Lassin smiles, share her own dietary restriction, and assures the parents that they have nothing to worry about – just like Lassin’s server told her. By this point, the kid usually sinks into the seat out of relief – a feeling that Lassin knows well.

“Having someone that gets it,” Lassin said, puts diners at ease. “They’re paying to eat here, they should be able to relax, not get nervous.”

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